MANILA -- As early as grade school, while boys his age were amazed of Superman, Batman, X-Men and other Western superheroes, Fitz Edward Torres Bitana's idol was the pre-Hispanic Ilocano warrior Lam-Ang.
"Sa Abra kasi mas kilala ang Lam-Ang. Tinuturo sa school, isang demigod, makapangyarihan, parang Bernardo Carpio," Bitana told ABS-CBN News.
Though born in Manila, Bitana grew up in Bangued, Abra in the mountainous Cordillera region.
"After my mother gave birth, I was told a few days later when she's able to travel, we moved to Bangued. I stayed there ever since. So wala talaga ako memory ng Manila," he recalled.
Bitana is co-directing "Lam-Ang" with Marco Viaña for Tanghalang Pilipino's 33rd theater season. Topbilled by ABS-CBN prized talents JC Santos (as Lam-Ang) and Anna Luna (as Kannoyan, the lady love of Lam-Ang), it will have a limited 13-performance run for two weekends, from December 6 to 15, at Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino in the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
"Grade 3 pa lang po ako, amazed na po ako kay Lam-Ang. May parallelism din sa buhay ko because I grew up without a father. He died when I was four years old. In Lam-Ang's story, his father goes to a battle without knowing he left his wife pregnant. He never got to see Lam-Ang," Bitana said.
"Lam-Ang searches for him, only to discover his father is killed by head hunters," he added.
Lam-Ang is the main protagonist in what scholars and academicians consider one of the oldest epic poems from Luzon.
"I saw in Lam-Ang my life story, a child looking for a father," Bitana said, choking and a bit teary eyed. Or could it be the nicotime fume from the cigarette stick he's just lit up. We're outside a dimly lit garden at the back entrance of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He's just finished one of the gruelling rehearsals and it's close to midnight.
The original story of "Biag Ni Lam-Ang" has been credited to legendary Ilocano poet Pedro Bukaneg who lived in the 16th century. Bukaneg is considered the Father of Ilocano Literature. Incidentally, the street facing Manila Bay where the audience entrace immediately leading to Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino and Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the CCP is named after Bukaneg.
The original text was said to have been burned by the Spaniards but the story has been preserved over the centuries through oral traditions, which explains the variations in the plot.
It was writer-journalist Isabelo delos Reyes in the late 19th century who has been credited for translating it to Spanish and publishing it as a series in his newspaper, "El Ilocano." Another version was credited to historian-writer Epifanio delos Santos. In recent years, among those who translated "Biag Ni Lam-Ang" into Tagalog were Angel Acacio and Ariel Tabag.
When Bitana was in college taking up Theater Arts at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, one of his life-long dreams was to stage "Biag Ni Lam-Ang."
He asked a fellow Theater major, musician-playwright Jen Darlene Torres, to write the libretto and transpose it into a musical.
"She was from the lower batch and nakita ko 'yung previous works niya as playwright and I can say, she's the right person for my dream play. After that, she had an opportunity to present it as her thesis and it was accepted," he recalled.
Directed by Bitana, the musical adaptation titled "Lam-Ang, Ang Sugo ng Nalbuan” was first staged by UP Dulaang Laboratoryo from December 12 to 14, 2017 at Palma Hall Room 400 in UP Diliman with lead performances by Beryl Nae Ong and Yohani Jumalon.
Some of those who've seen it were actors from Tanghalang Pilipino. Among them was Viaña, a prized talent of TP and one of Bitana's closest friends.
Viaña was Bitana's co-actor in Guelan Luarca's much-awarded one-act play, "Ang Kuneho." From the initial staging for the Virgin Labfest in 2012, it was re-staged as part of the Revisited set in 2013 and the multi-arts festival Imaginarium in 2014.
"So 'yung bonding namin ni Marco, ganun katagal, sunod-sunod na taon. Doon din niya nalaman na nagdi-direk ako," Bitana recalled.
Fernando "Tata Nanding" Josef, artistic director of TP told ABS-CBN News: "The story is that Marco and other TP Actor's Company members saw the Lam-ang thesis production in UP, and in one of our meetings, Marco and the ACs who saw the play were unanimous in saying that they liked the thesis production which for them, inspite of some weaknesses, has great potentials --interesting script, good direction, good music."
"And we decided to borrow and read the script. We met with Fitz, Jen and Karenina Ng who helped produce it in UP. Following the TP production processes, we discussed the possibility of including it in the CCP season," Josef added.
Bitana and Ng are the people behind Mayheim Productions, the theater company that staged "Lam-Ang" for Torres's thesis.
Viaña said: "Isa mga goal ng TP ay magbigay ng opportunity sa bagong artists kasama sa pagpapahinog ng Actors Company. Kaya naisipang ipasok sila Fitz at Jen na bahagi ng team."
"Pagdating naman sa version na ito, super collaborative kasi ng proseso. Sa pagbuo ng script at dramaturgy, sa disenyo, sa direction, kahit sa music. Shared tasks, research, and artistic decisions. Tulad ng community nila Lam-ang. Lahat nagbibigay ng kontribusyon sa bawat aspeto na pwedeng makatulong, at isa ito sa mga joy ng buong proseso na ito," he added.
REWRITING THE BOOK
On directing with Viaña, Bitana said it's nothing new for him in terms of dynamics.
"Minsan sasabihin ko, 'Marco, papasok ako sa loob (ng scene), ikaw titingin sa labas. Ikaw mag-block. Or minsan naman, sasabihin ko, ikaw sumampa sa aktors. Micro and macro, ganoon yung dynamics," Bitana said.
"Hindi ko ini-expect na kukunin ako ng TP. Nagkaroon ako ng opportunity na mabuo. In terms of length, 'yung vision ko for this (version) is grounded in terms of Lam-Ang's journey. Marami ring mga loopholes, ano nangyari sa gitna?" he added.
Enter dramaturg, award-winning playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc, to fill out those gaps. He wrote a new book for this ethno-epic musical using Torres's lyrics and music.
Deldoc told ABS-CBN News he needed to bring the story back to the pre-colonial era. Torres's version, though loyal to the text of Isabelo delos Reyes, had present-day references.
The version found in school textbooks is the one written by Delos Reyes, from which Torres based her libretto.
"For example, there's a character who is a student reading the 'Lam-Ang' like a flashback. There's also a Catholic wedding, which obviously didn't exist during Lam-Ang's time. We've decided to present the story direct to that era," Deldoc said.
Deldoc said he needed to add some scenes so as to establish the motivation of each character. A character from the textbook version whose name reeks of historical revisionism and controversy also had to be changed.
Torres said being a member of a rock band, her influences are alternative rock, punk and pop.
Having TJ Ramos, whose background is classical music, helped in creating a new sound for "Lam-Ang." Ramos is musical director and sound designer of TP's version.
According to Viaña, the choreography of JM Cabling is based on research on traditional dances. Bonsai Cielo is doing costume design. ("She has Igorot roots," said Viaña), while Meliton Roxas, whose recent work was DUP's "Fuente Ovejuna," is lighting designer,
In June this year, Viaña was part of a TP team who did an immersion in Amganad town in Ifugao province. He told ABS-CBN News they focused on the Aliguyon epic and existing rituals like the Bogwa.
"Ang naitulong sa akin ng immersion sa Ifugao ay ma-experience 'yung dynamics ng isang community na malaking bahagi ng 'Lam-ang,'" Viaña said.
For "Lam-Ang, the main source, or as Viaña termed it, the "bible" of the TP team, was the Tinguian community in Abra.
Being a native of Abra, it was Bitana who mentioned about the Tinguian tribe.
Viaña said: "Kasi he is Ilocano so maraming bersyon ang nalaman niya. Pero ang script na basis ni Eljay ay ang bersyon ni Isabelo Delos Reyes."
The TP team didn't have the opportunity to personally meet members of the Tinguian community but they were able to find enough materials.
"Naging inspirasyon ang Tingguian/Itneg before the Spanish colonization. Ilan sa mga sources namin ay Michael Armand P. Canilao’s 'Mountains and Sea' and Fay-Cooper Cole’s 'The Tinguian.' Itong mga naging 'bible' namin sa pagbuo ng mundo ni Lam-ang para sa kasuotan, scenography, weaponry, tunog, pati mga ritual," Viaña added.
"Pinaghalong research at imahenasyon para sa isang reimagined version ng epiko ni Lam-ang."
Josef attested to ABS-CBN News: "'Yung research sa Ifugao was more focused on the Cordillera 'Hudhud,' more than on 'Lam-Ang' but since the 'Lam-Ang' playwrights, directors, designer decided to research, write and set our version of the Ilocano epic 'Lam-Ang' in our pre-colonial history, a lot of common socio-cultural indigenous characteristics among the different tribes in Northern Philippines including those in the Ilocos region and Cordillera region, have been identified and incorporated in the TP version of 'Lam-Ang.'"
"A lot of researches point to the fact that while our northern tribes have their own uniqueness in their cultures, there are also some commonalities and similarities," Josef added.
VIRGIN PROFESSIONAL DIRECTOR
Though he's sharing directorial duties with Viaña, Bitana is both excited and nervous for his debut in professional theater.
"Professionally, first directorial job ko ito. Nag-start ako sa university theater, sa DUP, bilang aktor. Nagdaan ako sa mga batikang direktor tulad nina Jose Estrella, Alexander Cortez, Dexter Martinez Santos and the late Tony Mabesa," Bitana said.
Bitana graduated from UP in 2018 with a Theater Arts degree, major in Directing. "Natupad dream ko na madaanan silang apat," he added.
Estrella was his professor in Directing Class 1. Under the guidance of Estrella, he directed "Cymbeline R-13," a deconstruction of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," adapted into Filipino by George de Jesus III and staged by UP Dulaang Laboratoryo.
Bitana was also assistant director to Cortez in DUP's "Teatro Porvenir" and to Mabesa in DUP's "The Country Wife."
"Hindi lang umarte, pati mag-design, lahat. Matututo ka to find your own comfort zone in terms of theater practices," he said.
In his final year in college, as Bitana termed it, the "end point" was Dexter Martinez Santos, serving as his thesis adviser.
"Sinalo ako ni Sir Dex. Very thankful ako na sinalo niya ako," Bitana said.
In the summer of 2017, for his thesis Bitana staged "The Xplicit Show," a twinbill of "Matyag" and "Sylvia Q". "Matyag" is a Filipino adaptation by Pat Valera of Jean Genet's "Deathwatch." "Sylvia Q" is Deldoc's Filipino adaptation of Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?"
The critic Arturo Hilado wrote in his review for the Philippine Daily Inquirer: "(The twinbill) proved to be an outstandingly brave production of a daring material, very finely directed by Fitz Edward Bitana."
Hilado is also a senior jury member for the annual Philstage Gawad Buhay Awards and if there's a category for school-based productions, Bitana's thesis would have made it to the new list of winners.
Among other plays Bitana directed was "We Choose to Go to the Moon," for Fringe Manila 2016. It was a devised play based on John F. Kennedy's "Moon Speech" written by Vlademier Gonzales and produced by Project Mayheim Productions.
Vincen Gregory Yu in his review for the Inquirer wrote: "Directed with flair by Fitz Edward Bitana, 'We Choose to Go to the Moon' was a searching, intelligent piece on sexual and emotional connection told through the (interconnected) lives of strangers."
Amid all praises, Bitana chose to go out of his comfort zone. He has tried acting in films but he hasn't tried television.
Bitana took a break from school for two years, from 2015 to 2016, and concentrated on embarking a career in television via ABS-CBN's "It's Showtime" and eventually, on Cinemo's sitcoms. Cinemo is a free channel exclusive under ABS-CBN TV Plus.
"I wrote my thesis in 2017 and I graduated last year. But before that, tumigil muna ako noong 2015. 'Yung co-student ko si Jules dela Paz, niyaya ako mag-audition sa ABS-CBN. Actor or comedian," Bitana said.
He was accepted as stand-up comedian and writer in a talent-search segment on "It's Showtime" titled "Funny One" as part of the comedy duo Iskobi Duo.
"Hindi lang barangay comedian. May theatrics na pakulo. Very theater 'yung script. Kami 'yung gumagawa ng script," he told ABS-CBN News.
"The original concept was like a 'Pinoy Big Brother'-type show pero lahat ng housemates puro comedians. Somehow hindi natuloy 'yun so sinama na lang na segment sa 'It's Showtime,'" Bitana said.
"Funny One" was a talent search contest eventually won by Ryan Rems.
"After three months to four months, when the competition ended, sabi ko babalik na ako sa school. Ang hindi ko nalaman, magkakaron pala kami ng Cinemo. So I had a contract with Star Magic to write scripts for this project," he said.
He eventually became part of "Funny Ka Pare Ko!" on Cinemo featuring the winning comedians led by Rems. Bitana was one of the scriptwriters and occasional actors.
Directed by Jon Red, "Funny Ka Pare Ko!" is the first series in what used to be an all-day movie channel, combining elements of sitcom and stand-up comedy. It started in 2016 and lasted for five seasons until middle of 2018.
The series also gave birth to another sitcom titled "Funny One Ibang Klasiks."
"I went back to school in 2017 but occassionally I had writing and acting projects for Cinemo. Siyempre may connection ka na eh. Contractual naman 'yung sa TV so ang challenge lang for me is paano ko iba-balanse ang pag-aaral," he said.
In the alleys of ABS-CBN compound, Bitana said he would occassionaly bump into JC Santos, who at the time has become a famous heartthrob.
WORKING AGAIN WITH JC
Santos was also a Theater Arts major in UP but was two years ahead of Bitana.
"I think when he graduated, I was on my second year. Kasabay ko sina (theater actors) Lorraine Macatangay, Elora Espano, Gry Gimena," he said. If, at this point, one may wonder why it took Bitana that long to finish his degree, he told us he wasn't getting a full load every semester, concentratiing on theater productions most of the time.
"Lam-Ang" is not the first time Bitana has worked with Santos. During their UP days, Bitana remembered he needed a male singer for a song he composed titled "Pamamanhikan."
"Kailangan ko ng kakantang lalaki. Eto 'yung before siya mag-fly sa showbiz," said Bitana.
Bitana also remembered a cast party for a DUP play whose title he can't recall, where Santos approached him and his companions and gave them some "kuya" advice.
"Lumapit siya sa aming magkakabarda. Sabi nya, 'Hoy mag-stay kayo sa theater, huwag kayo umalis. Huwag niyo iwan teatro,'" Bitana recalled.
"Ngayon actor ko siya. Director ako. Noong una (during 'Lam-Ang' rehearsals) naninibago ako kay JC. Eh sa UP, senior ko siya. Hesitant ako. Paano ko siya i-a-approach? Paano ko sasabihin, 'eto gusto ko mangyari sa eksena'. Eventually naging OK na rin," Bitana said, laughing before taking the final drag from his cigarette.
"Ganda ng dynamics namin ni JC kasi brotherhood 'yung dating. Natanggal 'yung boundary. Mas comfortable ako sa kanya now."
Bitana may not be playing Lam-Ang but he he has become the co-creator of this much-awaited ethno-musical. With the help of TP, his childhood dream is now realized.
Fitz Bitana has become his own demigod.