Growing up, I was not exposed to theater. I loved watching films (I’m a diehard Noranian). I joined declamation, singing, and oratorical contests back in my hometown in Borongan, Eastern Samar. But nothing close to a theater production.
When I went to Manila, I met people who were part of theater groups, and I gravitated towards them. I was seduced by theater people because they were unapologetically noisy and adventurous. I wanted to be part of that community. I wanted to be one of them not as an actor but perhaps as a director. I really thought I was going to be a director. But then the Manila Metropolitan Theater called for an audition. They were looking for members of the chorus and I figured it was my way in into the theater.
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I distinctly remember the first time I auditioned. There I met the fabulous Ricky Dalu of the University of the Philippines who was master of the auditions as well as the venerable Tony Mabesa who founded Dulaang UP and who I think should be a National Artist. Tony was artistic director of the Met. I remember the feisty Ricky asking me, “Can you sing?” Yes, I answered him with the confidence of Catriona Gray doing her slow-mo twirl. I sang “Dahil sa Iyo” which I practiced the whole night before the audition. A few lines into the song, Ricky stopped me with a polite but curt “Thank you.”
Then I was made to dance. I think it was Veda Bañez who was the choreographer. We were divided into groups and were given a dance routine. My only dance experience was the Itik-itik which I performed at the Borongan town plaza when I was in Grade 6.
“Can you sing?” Yes, I answered him with the confidence of Catriona Gray doing her slow-mo twirl.
For acting, we were given lines from a script and made to read them either alone or with a partner. I was persistent. I must have been all over the place, convincing everybody that I was born to act. So I got in as a member of the chorus through the art of coercion. Then and there, I discovered life was more fun in the theater.
Pretending to be an actor of consequence
I was mesmerized with the MET theater. Ang ganda-ganda sa loob. It had an Art Deco style, designed by National artist for architecture, Juan Nakpil. I was often possessed by the Amorsolos in the lobby. I was overwhelmed by the presence of great actors like Chinggoy Alonzo, Angie Ferro, Laurice Guillen and many others. The Met was beautiful and magnificent—it was not as big as the Cultural Center of the Philippines but it had a grand story. It had history like its grand dame, Conching Sunico.
It had a ballroom, a music room where the Manila Symphony Orchestra would rehearse, a dance studio, and several offices. It housed a Bösendorfers grand piano that was kept 24 hours in an air-conditioned room. There was a costume room. There were foyers on both sides of the theater. There was a flower garden.
Tita Conching Sunico was the Executive Director and she held office in one of the rooms at the ground floor. There was a Magnolia kiosk where everybody would have merienda while resting from rehearsals. I fell in love with the MET.
I loved the rehearsals where I pretended to be an actor of consequence, and after which, we would eat in the turo-turo at the back of the theater, owned by Ata. It was a versatile kariton and the the iconic Ata would cook one of the best adobos. P’wede ka umutang, bayaran mo lang ‘pag nag-sweldo.
At that time nobody got paid for rehearsals—we were paid per performance so we would rehearse for months, let’s say, three months without pay. I think we were paid P50 per performance as members of the chorus for 10 days, so you would earn P500 for four months. But nobody ever complained. I didn’t. Something big was going to happen. What it was, I didn’t know.
After being a member of the chorus, I became an assistant stage manager. My job was to take care of the costumes and props, to call the actors, to record the blocking of the actors.
This boy could be a salesman
I was busy making friends. I was busy discovering. I started reading books about the theater. I was talking to some of the smartest people in theater like Floy Quintos, Tony Mabesa, Douglas Nierras, etc. And I think it was because I made a lot of friends in the theater that I eventually stumbled upon a career in public relations. My guess was someone recommended me to Tita Conching—perhaps someone told her there was this boy who was not afraid to speak to anyone including the props and costume people, and who could be a salesman.
When Tita Conching invited me to be part of her PR department, I had no training except that I was getting along with people inside the theater. My first-ever encounter with her was when I was told to go to room 1107 of the Manila Hilton, which is now being renovated as the Manila Pavilion. I went there. I knocked. I went inside and then she asked, “You’re Boy Abunda?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I work backstage.”
She asked again, “Would you like to join my PR team?”
Of course, I said, “Yes, Ma’am.”
Then she said something like “start tomorrow.”
So I motioned to leave the room, but then what’s funny is just as I was about to exit, I turned and asked her, “Ma’am, ano po ‘yung PR?” For the first time, she looked at me, a look that was impervious yet loving. She said, “I will teach you.”
Lahat inaral ko
There were unsuspecting participants in my journey. I would watch all of them—the directors and the actors, and how they carried themselves. I would listen to how they talked to each other. Lahat ‘yan inaral ko while I was having fun. But it was really Tita Conching who mentored me into what I couldn’t even imagine I could be. I was so lucky because there was Tita Conching who made me believe I had worth.
She taught me how to deal with the press. She told me once, “You know, PRs are required to make friends with members of the press, but don’t do it as a job. Make friends with them.” And I did—in fact, some of my lifelong friends are members of the media. She taught me to not lose touch of whatever it was I was selling. You cannot sell something you don’t know. So, whenever there was an opera, I would go to rehearsals, to see what was happening. I had to understand Turandot or Hecuba. You need to appreciate what you’re promoting otherwise your PR campaign is contrived. There’s no rhythm.
“Theater started out my career in a very, very special way. The foundation of the many things I do in my life really started in theater.”
What Tita Conching taught me was, in public relations, authenticity is a badge. Go for the long view. When you make friends, you make friends for life. You don’t make friends just until the end of the production.
If I were to connect the dots—from the theater to my life today—theater started out my career in a very, very special way. Ganu’n kahalaga ‘yun. The foundation of the many things I do in my life really started in theater. It was the pivot, without which I wouldn’t have achieved anything. It was also in the theater where I met my partner, Bong.
Now that the Manila Metropolitan Theatre is being restored, I have so much joy in my heart. I’m really happy that the theater that started me out is coming back to life. I’m very emotional about it. I’m hoping that just like what it did to me when I was a bright-eyed, fledgling, trying-hard upstart, the new Met can do again for many young dreamers.
The Met will always be in my heart and mind.
All Abunda photos courtesy of Nomer Son except group photo at facade and colored photo which was sent by Boy Abunda. Special thanks to Isidra Reyes.