Virgin Labfest 2020 makes theater history by streaming on Vimeo, Facebook

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at Jun 09 2020 12:45 PM | Updated as of Jun 09 2020 02:41 PM

Virgin Labfest 2020 makes theater history by streaming on Vimeo, Facebook 1
JK Anicoche, Virgin Labfest 2020 artistic director. Photo courtesy of JK Anicoche

MANILA -- Whether you're in quarantine in New York City or somewhere on New York Street in Cubao, Quezon City, there's no more excuse to miss Virgin Labfest 2020, the annual festival of untried, unstaged and untested plays.

For the past 15 years, the festival has been held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino and Tanghalang Huseng Batute. Now, the plays are made accessible online via the CCP's official Vimeo and Facebook accounts. 

Audience members now have the luxury to drink coffee, milk tea or whisky, depending upon their mood and the effect of a specific play. 

There are 15 new plays, comprised of 10 featured works and five staged readings. There are also the three revisited plays from last year's festival. 

The live performances of all 10 featured plays with talkbacks can be watched from June 10 to 14 and from June 21 to 28. But it's not like watching a movie on Netflix. In the two weeks mentioned, the live staging of a particular play will be made available for 24 hours only. The good news is, they're all free to the public. 

From June 14 to June 28, the recordings of the performances may be accessed anytime on CCP's Vimeo account, for a minimum fee of P100 to P200.

The five staged readings can be watched from the second week to third week. 

Theater being a live experience, the challenges of re-creating this humungous task fall on the shoulders of performance maker-curator-storyteller-educator JK Anicoche. He is the "punong abala" or the newly-crowned artistic director and curator of the festival. 

"Now that the theater is in our homes, as rehearsed in the comforts and discomforts of our kitchen, garage, bedrooms, we need to rethink the ways in which we rehearse and come together online. A lot of the work we do in VLF management team is communications design and community support as super challenging talaga ang online collaborations and conversations," Anicoche told ABS-CBN News in an online interview over the weekend. 

"The issues we can fix over cup of coffee during rehearsal breaks or over beer during 'pagpag' after rehearsals are left to be solved in Zoom meetings and countless chat rooms. We need to remind all artists and staff to take care of their well-being including physical and emotional state and make sure that their processes are considerate and mindful of each other," Anicoche added.

Anicoche is not a "virgin" at the Labfest and the CCP. In the past, he has directed several plays for the Labfest, most notable of which was playwright Dingdong Novenario's "Kafatiran." Staged in 2011 and 2012, it is a historical one-act play about male gay members of the Katipunan, the revolutionary underground movement founded by Andres Bonifacio to topple the Spanish rulers. 

Incidentally, Novenario has a new play titled “Dominador Gonzales - National Artist” directed by Bunny Cadag as part of this year's Staged Reading. Novenario will also have a solo talk titled "How a Science High School Prepared Me for a Life in Theater" as part of the festival's Playwrights Fair. 

Anicoche is also artistic director of Sipat Lawin Ensemble, a theater group that originated from the Philippine High School for the Arts that is now an independent performance company composed of theater artists. Over the years, they've had performances at the CCP and some unconventional venues. 

Contemporary, independent

"I come from the contemporary performance and independent scene developing festivals and platform supporting the voices of next generation of theatermakers and creating platforms for the development of devised work.The past few years I have been working in different communities in the Philippines and abroad. I am used to being on grassroots and also collaborating and performing online," Anicoche said. 

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Anicoche took over from Tuxqs Rutaquio, who handed to him the artistic director's "imaginary crown" last year. On the other hand, Rutaquio started wearing the crown in 2011, as given by founding artistic director Rody Vera. 

"As a theater educator, being invited to lead a 16-year old festival is a big opportunity to expand the possibilities of text-based theater-making, deepen conversations about theater and society and bring in present-day sensibilities. VLF has provided me a platform in my early years as a director (same as my colleagues) to materialize vision from page to stage," Anicoche added. 

"I honor this by committing to providing opportunities and inviting more next generation of theatermakers who are woke and who present so much rigorous in their creative processes. When COVID came, it was like I was preparing all these years for this. On its 16th year, it feels like VLF is pioneering new platform once again. I am just glad to be surrounded by people ready to brave this untried and untested platform," he said. 

In short, Anicoche is a seasoned director when it comes to experimental theater, like in this year's almost D.I.Y. festival setup. 

"We needed to provide assistance to everyone in dealing with new technology. Aside from the really unstable internet connection in the Philippines, we have limited resources because we cannot access the theater and so we are left with very D.I.Y conditions: family members of actors help in lighting the scenes with their cellphones, actors also become their own stage managers, and stage managers also learn how to be online technicians," Anicoche said.

"Resilience and unbelievably long patience what we exchange with each other and this keeps us going," he added. 

Safety first

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"For VLF 2020, safety and well-being are our main concern. Since the start of pandemic, we created protocols and codes. Code Red is when we are left working in our own houses and will never get the chance to be in one place," Anicoche continued. 

"Code Yellow is when we can go to one place and be together. Safety first. We prepared for the worst conditions. We are on code red because of the rising number of COVID cases with no massive testings done yet. Now, we are broadcasting/live-streaming live from more than 200 houses with some participating staff and artists in other parts of the Philippines (Tacloban, Bicol, Rizal, Dipolog, etc) and in other parts of the world (Melbourne, New York, Tokyo, etc.). 

"The main collaboration platform is Zoom although some use Messenger and then we do enhancements for livestream with our virtual tech team via OBS platform. The possibilities are ever expanding! We are excited to share the range of discoveries and explorations in storytelling by our VLF community," he added. 

The digital platform also offers a very affordable viewing fee, from P100 to P200 to access all plays and other events. We asked Anicoche how the decision was made. 

"We are in a very difficult period in our lives and as long as we secured that artists and staff are compensated and supported well by the CCP, it is time to think about our audiences and also rethink ways of engagement in this new platform that we are exploring," said Anicoche.

"The subscription packages are also responding to economic conditions most audiences are experiencing now. We know VLF has a large following and being online expands viewership to more than the usual 350 capacity of the Little Theater. Our audiences come form all walks of life, some students and some might have lost their jobs. 

"It is the VLF 2020’s mission to provide support to the well-being of our audiences by giving them performances that help them understand and reflect with the times -- a reason to hold on and get a grip -- KAPIT! The arts is really is important to our lives as soon as it is valued and made accessible. Now, our audiences old and new may continue to extend support if they have more and are willing to give more by donating to the VLF cause. We have donation button to support the arts and artists," he added. 

The start of Anicoche's artistic-directorial job also saw some fresh names on the list of virgin playwrights. 

As confirmed to ABS-CBN News by Rody Vera, who has the sole honor of reading and screening all entries for the festival since 2004, among the 10 featured works this year, six are from virgin playwrights. 

The are Jobert Grey Landeza with his work "Titser Kit” directed by Adrienne Vergara; Jay Crisostomo IV with his work "Dapithapon" directed by Sigmund Roy Pecho; Mark Norman Boquiren with his "Mayang Bubot sa Tag-araw" directed by Mark Mirando; Floyd Scott Tiogangco with his “Pilot Episode” directed by Giancarlo Abrahan; Daryl Pasion with his “Papaano Turuan ang Babae Humawak ng Baril" directed by Erika Estacio; and Luisito Nario with his "Gin Bilog" directed by James Harvey Estrada.

We asked Vera if Crisostomo is still considered a "virgin" playwright. His one-act play "Without The Drama" was part of 2018's Staged Reading, which had top-notched playwrights Liza Magtoto and Carlo Vergara as actors. 

Vera said the real test of a new work is in the official lineup. 

The four returning "virgins" with their new works that complete the 10 in the featured lineup are Tyron Casumpang with “BlackPink” directed by Jethro Tenorio; Anthony Kim Vergara with “The Boyboy and Friends Channel” directed by Joshua Tayco; Dustin Celestino with “Doggy" directed by Roobak Valle; and Juliene Mendoza with “Multiverse,” directed by Fitz Edward Bitana. 

The revisited plays are “Fangirl” by Herlyn Alegre, directed by Charles Yee; “Anak Ka Ng” by U Z Eliserio, directed by Maynard Manansala; and “Wanted: Male Boarders” by Rick Patriarca, directed by George De Jesus III.

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Besides Novenario's play in the Staged Readings category, all the other four plays are by new playwrights. 

They are “Jenny Li” by Buch Dacanay directed by Nour Hooshmand; “Matira ang Matibay” by Bernice Dacara, directed by Alon Segara; “Bagahe” by Nicko de Guzman, directed by Joel Saracho; and “Mongoloida’s Casa de Pun” by Claro delos Reyes, directed by Guelan Luarca.

Interaction with playwrights, directors

As mentioned above, there is also the section called Playwrights Fair.

To be held starting June 11 to 27 at 8 p.m., the fair is where theater enthusiasts, students and virtual audience members will have a chance to know closely their favorite writers, their thought processes and other topics straight from the source. The fair is a collaboration among CCP's Intertextual Division, the Virgin Labfest team and Writers’ Bloc, the group of playwrights also co-founded by Vera. 

This year, participating in the fair are Allan Lopez, Liza Magtoto, Layeta Bucoy, Maynard Manansala, Chuckberry Pascual, U Z. Eliserio, Dustin Celestino, Eljay Castro Deldoc, Guelan Luarca, Vlad Gonzales, Nicolas Pichay, Novenario, Luna Sicat Cleto, Carlo Vergara and Sari Saysay.

June 13 will have Lopez and his talk "Binyag: Samu’t Saring mga Karanasan"; June 14 with Magtoto's "Mensahe, WoeMensahe, WOMENsahe: Women Playwrights and Their Advocacies"; June 16 with Layeta Bucoy's "Writing and Collaborating for Online Monologues"; and June 17 with Maynard Manansala, Chuckberry Pascual and U Z. Eliserio with the topic "Collaboration in Playwriting."

On June 18, there's Luna Sicat Cleto as panelist for the topic "Pagsulat sa Panahon ng Pandemic at Paggamit ng Bagong Platform"; June 19 with Dustin Celestino's "Adaptation: From the Stage to the Screen"; June 20 with Eljay Castro Deldoc's "Online Collaboration for a Theatrical Rework" featuring "Lumang Tugtugin" from Njel de Mesa's "Old Apologies."

On June 21, there's Guelan Luarca's "Life Games: Playmaking for Playwrights WITH Non-Playwrights"; June 24 with Vlad Gonzales' "Casa Sampaguita: Bahaginan at mga Piling Eksena"; and on June 25 with Nicolas Pichay's "The Category is... GRIT... EXPLORE... WRITE PLAY!’"

On June 26, Sari Saysay will have an online reading of an unstaged play titled "Mula sa mga Bituka ng Lansangan," and finally, on June 27, Vergara will do a solo talk titled "Kung Paano Ako Lumikha ng Dula."

The VLF Playwrights Fair is free and open to public. 

Another set of talks is titled "CoLab Roundtables on Collaborations," which will happen on the second week, from June 18 to 21. This four-day event features VLF alumni directors, designers, stage managers and the festival directors themselves. 

Re-stage live with audience

We asked Anicoche if and when the pandemic is over and everyone can come to the theater, is there a plan to re-stage all the "de-virginized" plays?

"We have committed to staging all the works onstage at the Little Theater in 2021. This now becomes an interesting study of virtual and onground performance-making. I just think that we will document and make filmic our live performances better once we are back to making work onstage. This is because it will be standard practice that we have virtual showings as we have opened our doors to audience around the Philippines and the world," said Anicoche. 

And so as the performances begin on June 10, the Virgin Labfest creates history as the first theater festival in Southeast Asia, or presumably in the whole universe, that champions original works to have its premiere on the digital stage.