Kumusta ka? (drop response and emoji reax on the comment section) This year marks my first year as festival director; my return to the Virgin Labfest after 5 years of choosing to work in various spaces outside the black box -- in the streets, in basketball courts and other spaces where people gather and listen, discuss and en-live a good story. The world is our stage and laboratory. Just when I thought it is the ripe time to go back to the theatre stage to create better re-enactments of our visions of a more just and free world, came a pandemic that not only exposes our vulnerability as human bodies, but continues to expose and magnify age-old social illnesses. We come at a very challenging time in our history as people and as human race, and we choose to forge ahead. Working in disaster areas both natural and man-made, I learned that when everything is gone and you are left with almost nothing but fragments of destruction, you have to seek and hold on to what is essential. Theater is an essential need in this difficult times only if we continue to change our ways of making -- reflective to and reflecting on the conditions of our present. Operating under very D.I.Y. conditions and left with limited resources but with unlimited imagination, we continue to be reflective on why theater is and will always be essential to our lives.
The theater is our shared sacred space. For years it has been confined to the walls of the blackbox, setting its own language, rituals and traditions. The roles are defined like how the lines that we draw in our relationships and in society at large are very much defined. It provides a safe space, never neutral, always charged and fuelled as it confronts the past, investigates the present and propels the future. The theater speaks the truth of the times as it embodies and manifests the collective desires and aspirations of the people. It is never devoid of connection to the immediate realities of the present. Theater is about enabling the fullness of our humanity and being. Theater is about belonging to a world yet to come. The theater is about being present together.
“KAPIT!” (hold on, get a grip, anchor, hold tighter). This is the battle cry of the theatre-makers of Virgin Labfest 2020 during the time of global pandemic exposing a larger cultural and socio-political crisis. We need to take care of each other and arm ourselves with the necessary skills and tools we need as human beings and as storytellers. The Virgin Labfest goes beyond being a festival dedicated to supporting development of new works by playwrights through collaborations with directors, designers and actors. It becomes a caring creative community exchanging and creating possibilities.
In times like this when we can’t physically come together, online engagement to create theatre becomes more than about the stories we need to tell, but also about the thriving and nurturing spirit of a community. It has been a challenge for us to turn the festival into an online safe space for the well-being and meaning-making of theater-makers and audiences joining us in these challenging times.
The “theater” migrating online became Zoom and Microsoft meeting rooms serving as rehearsal rooms. FB pages serve as lounges and lobbies, while countless group chats on messenger are tech booths and many more. The theater migrating online became less about the software but more about it being a web of relationships creating safety net in interconnectivity where we might be physically distanced but never unconnected. Theater migrating online becomes the newly shared rituals of muting/unmuting, hiding and spotlighting, letting one speak and not allowing mansplaining, praying, drinking, passing time - together.
As the Virgin Labfest is now online, open to virtual public across the country and the world, the challenge is how to design audience engagement and ensure we provide all necessary conditions for responsible, informed, and engaged audienceship.
The performances we choose to tell are new articulations of present conditions. We want to uphold the highest values of compassionate excellence and champion the range and plurality of voices. We want to keep our platforms as safe spaces for ethical and responsible exchanges, championing dignified work and exercising freedom of expression. VLF remains to be a fearless program supporting works in an untried and untested virtual platform - unflinching in its support for freedom of speech and artistic expression. VLF remains to be a space for deeper engagements where voices can be amplified and where collective imagination and action can be made.
VLF is a pioneering platform in the exploration of this new medium with all our performances rehearsed and performed online in the remote spaces of everyone involved. As a leading laboratory and festival on a virtual stage, we have invited mostly next generation of theatre-makers to undertake rigorous processes of staging performances online. Seasoned stage directors return to VLF and take the challenge of collaboration on this new platform. Being online makes it possible now to be in conversation with our brothers and sisters across the nation and across national borders. We have made this year’s VLF a more enriching platform for exchange of knowledge through our performances; talkback sessions post-show; roundtable discussions with local theater collaborators on CoLab Discussions; and with a special roundtable with fellow theater-makers from neighboring festivals in Asia; plus, all the numerous workshops in our Playwrights Fair.
We are no longer in the comforts of the echo chamber of the arts; we are now directly in conversation with the wider public online. Theater is becoming more and more relevant and at best, directly engaged to society and the world.
The theater is now in our bedrooms, in our homes intertwined with the spaces we navigate in our daily lives. Now, the world and your room is a stage. We are mere players learning how to listen deeply again, how to connect better and tighter, how to be together and “hold space” for each other. In our isolation caused by biological threats and systemic violence, theater in its new form shall continue to bring us together. The Virgin Labfest, for now a virtual festival, is about the people showing up and coming together making sure it remains a safe space for our history-making and for hard fought futures and freedoms.
Much respect to all theater-makers of the Virgin Labfest 2020, to all our supporters and to all audiences who join us and share this definitive moment in history. Once again, let’s gather and listen, discuss and en-live necessary stories. VLF is our shared story of persistence, resilience, resistance, hope, love and light, even in the darkest of times.
(on Zoom) Act-ors standby... (from laptop) Sound fading in... (from cellphone) Lights fading in...
Kapitpuso, JK Anicoche
Quezon City, Philippines
June 2020, Year of the Pandemic