New York's La MaMa pays tribute to PETA's Cecile Alvarez

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at Dec 06 2022 03:27 PM

Cecile Alvarez with fellow honoree Alvaro Restrepo from Colombia and La MaMa artistic director Mia Yoo. Photo by Susan Claudio courtesty of Cecile Alvarez
Cecile Alvarez with fellow honoree Alvaro Restrepo from Colombia and La MaMa artistic director Mia Yoo. Photo by Susan Claudio courtesty of Cecile Alvarez

Philippine theater pioneer and climate justice advocate Cecile Guidote-Alvarez finally gets her due recognition as global citizen and one of the seven transformational leaders in theater.

The awarding was originally scheduled on May 5, 2022 but due toa surge in COVID-19 cases in New York, she was given the award at the Remake-A-World Gala in La MaMa Experimental Theater Club last November 10.

In her testimonial, Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa, described Guidote-Alvarez as “a force of nature” as she was honored together with six other awardees from around the world.

“She is someone I look to as a guiding light. I’ve said time and time again, she paved the way for us in La MaMa. In our work to a more just world, that art can be a powerful tool to help us grapple with the issues of our time,” Yoo said.

Guidote-Alvarez became an active member of La MaMa in the early 1970s when she and her husband, freedom fighter-environmentalist and former Senator Heherson Alvarez, became exiles. Alvarez succumbed to complications from COVID-19 on April 20, 2020.

La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart took Guidote-Alvarez under her wing as director of TWITAS or The Third World Institute of Theatre Arts Studies, where she initiated cultural programs for the UN. 

She acted in La MaMa’s landmark plays like “Jilsa” directed by Duk Hyung Yoo of Seoul Institute of the Arts and Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” directed by Fritz Bennewitz of the Berliner Ensemble as well as in “Juana La Loca” written by Miguel Sabido of Mexico. She directed a unique Third World version of the Ramayana and a Theatrical Liturgy for the Rights of the Child, which was received by Robert Patrick of The Villagers as a “masterwork of a woman master artist.”

At the time, Guidote-Alvarez was already a Ramon Magsaysay Awards recipient, the youngest laureate at 28 years old, for being the founder of the Philippine Educational Theater Association or PETA.

In the US, she founded PETAL Ensemble or the Philippine Educational Theater Arts League, the extension of PETA in the US that taught community theater for Filipinos in diaspora. Her work garnered for PETAL Ensemble an outstanding political theater award together with the famous Bread and Puppet Theater. 

“She is a revolutionary in her work with human rights and global ecology and cultural caregiving. Her initiatives still continue to this day and are just as relevant if not more at this time,” Yoo said.

“So we are building up this extraordinary work she has done and continues to do with organizations such as PETA, the Earthsavers’ Dreams Ensemble and International Theatre Institute’s Global Social Change Network that she leads. The constant networking that she does by bringing different groups and people together,” Yoo added.

Guidote-Alvarez is still artistic director of the Dreams Ensemble, the performing arts group of the Earthsavers that was founded by her husband. The group has been honored consistently every year as UNESCO Artists for Peace since it was given in 2003. 

For decades, she has taught the differently abled, members of the indigenous community, refugees of climate conflict, the marginalized sectors of society, even prisoners for the healing and transformational power of theater. The Dreams Ensemble has performed all over the country and select cities outside the Philippines like headquarters of UNESCO in Paris and the UN in New York City.

“We continue to look to her because she works with such tenacity and intelligence, and ultimately out of this fashion and love that she has for local and global community. At La Mama, we are a global community, using art as a way to understand our shared humanity,” Yoo said.

Yoo pointed out how La MaMA was started by Stewart, the visionary founder “who created a platform for marginalized, under-represented communities to have a voice.” 

“We believe that having as many voices at the table, we can build toward a more equitable, harmonious future.

“This year, we are entering our 61st season. And we are contemplating the question of how do we re-make the world. We have our leaders who have been instrumental in getting us to this point,” Yoo added.

Yoo is referring to the seven honorees. Besides Guidote-Alvarez, they are the Belarus Free Theater, the only theater in Europe banned by its government on political grounds; Richard Lanier, president emeritus of the Asian Cultural Council in New York; Alvaro Restrepo, one of the pioneers of contemporary dance in Colombia; Beka Vuco of The Balkans who was honored for dedicating her life to culture, democracy, human rights and international understanding. 

There’s Serhiy Zhadan, the most popular writer in Ukraine today, whose readings would fill large auditoriums.

Dallas Theatre Center classmates Duk Hyung Yoo and Cecile Alvarez were honored recently at La MaMa in New York for their work as global citizens and transformational leaders in theater. Photo from C. Alvarez
Dallas Theatre Center classmates Duk Hyung Yoo and Cecile Alvarez were honored recently at La MaMa in New York for their work as global citizens and transformational leaders in theater. Photo from C. Alvarez

There is Duk Hyung Yoo, visionary artistic leader in South Korea who also serves as president of Seoul Institute of the Arts. Incidentally Duk was Guidote-Alvarez’s classmate when she took up her Master’s Degree in Dallas Theatre Center, formed the prospectus for a national theatre as her thesis before going back to the Philippines and founded PETA. 

“All of these powerful cultural leaders have been transformational within the communities that they have been working. They have changed our world and we must continue this work that has been started with as much commitment as they had. We must feel this urgency in this tumultuous and challenging moment in history that we are all living through right now,” Yoo said.

Founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, La MaMa is the only original Off-Off-Broadway venue still in operation. Stewart died in 2011 at the age of 91.

Among La MaMa’s notable alumni was Tom O’Horgan, creator of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair.” Guidote-Alvarez said those two landmark musicals were given birth in La MaMa before O’Horgan brought them to Broadway. 

There’s also Hollywood icon Diane Lane and music legend Bette Midler. The list includes Sam Shepard, Philip Glass and Harvey Feirstein, the Blue Man Group, Ping Chong, Tisa Chang, Andr√© De Shields, Olympia Dukakis, Tom Eyen, Richard Foreman, Taylor Mac, Meredith Monk, Tom O’Horgan, Estelle Parsons, David and Amy Sedaris, Elizabeth Swados, Julie Taymor and Robert Wilson, among others.

Guidote-Alvarez celebrated her 79th birthday on November 13 also at La MaMa Theater, where she had visitors who lives she helped change because of theater. 

Cecile Alvarez with Potri Ranka Manis (far right standing), founder of New York-based dance theater Kinding Sindaw. Photo courtesy of Potri Manis
Cecile Alvarez with Potri Ranka Manis (far right standing), founder of New York-based dance theater Kinding Sindaw. Photo courtesy of Potri Manis

One was Potri Ranka Manis, founding artistic director of New York-based dance theater Kinding Sindaw Melayu Heritage. She described Guidote-Alvarez as “trailblazer, the era maker, the mother courage and more than words cannot capture.”

Manis had known Guidote-Alvarez when she was barely a teenager from Borocot village, Maguing town, Lanao del Sur in Mindanao. In the early 1970s, Guidote-Alvarez as founding artistic director of the PETA conducted workshops in the provinces in cooperation with the pro-peasant non-government organization Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement.

One of those workshops took place in Davao City and Manis was one of the participants. 

“I first met Cecile when I was 12 years old, while she was giving a theater arts workshop to farmers whose farmlands were taken over by multinational agribusiness corporations,” Manis said.

“Since then, the influence of that workshop has been a mainstay in the dance theater production of Kinding Sindaw, asserting the voice of indigenous people of Southern Philippines,” she added. At the time, Guidote-Alvarez also campaigned for a UN Declaration for Indigenous Peoples. 

When Manis migrated to the US and worked as a nurse, she never forgot her theater background and formed Kinding Sindaw in 1992 in New York City. At the time, Guidote-Alvarez has returned to the Philippines from exile together with her family.

Over the years, Manis and Kinding Sindaw performed at La MaMa.

Nowadays, Guidote-Alvarez mostly stays at home, keeping her days busy as producer and host of “Balintataw,” an online radio talk show whose topics revolve on culture, arts and climate change. 

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