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All call: PETA’s bold performances and raw portrayals mirror reality

More than just a mere theater group, PETA dives deep into the grassroots to tell compelling and socially relevant narratives.

It’s no question that people admire theater arts. The dramatics, the brilliance, the intensity—what’s not to love? Unknown to many, however, is that performances take their rawness from real-life narratives and mold them into intricate bases for impactful storytelling. This is what the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) has labored to achieve since their conception in 1967. Now in their 55th year, PETA still has no intention of halting their vast array of spirited performances. 

More than just theater

Staying true to its core as an educational theater institution, PETA goes above and beyond merely producing captivating performances, and as well strongly focuses on creating meaningful, social commentaries. The theater organization boldly ventures into what would otherwise be considered “controversial” topics.

“We want to use theater as a platform for dialogue, information, education, [and the] conscientisation of our audiences,” shares Melvin Lee, artist teacher at PETA. This purpose is demonstrated in PETA’s Care Divas, a comedy that talked about the realities of transgender overseas Filipino workers, and Under My Skin, which highlighted the struggles of people living with the human immunodeficiency virus. 

While their objectives occasionally draw harsh criticism for its bold portrayal of taboo subjects, for PETA, this is nothing more than an opportunity to open dialogue and bring important issues to light. “Most of the time, the plays we are doing [are] very timely…There is a specific issue that is relevant—which is very pressing—when we do it,” he notes. 

She Maala, senior resident artist teacher for PETA and former DLSU Culture and Arts Office events coordinator, echoes this sentiment. “‘Yung struggle at tsaka ‘yung activism, talagang nandun na ‘yun [sa theater],” she posits. “For you to have that instrument and not use it for social change, walang saysay ‘yun.” 

(Struggle and activism are inherent in theater. For you to have that instrument and not use it for social change, it’ll make no sense.)

But in order to effectively translate these progressive ideas to the audience, an authentic connection between the performer and the watcher must be established—a connection that is impossible without the processes that occur behind the scenes. Melvin and She both assert that PETA productions wouldn’t be possible without the sufficient research and fact-checking their writers undergo. Melvin explains that they strive to create grounded stories, thereby “[using] theater as a mirror of reality.” 

She highlights the important role that good research plays behind a striking display, which can be seen in the Palanca award-winning Rated: PG—first staged in 2010. As the piece is centered around positive discipline imposed on children, its actors were required to undergo training to understand the thesis of the play. Additionally, parents, teachers, and child psychologists were consulted by the playwright, Liza Magtoto, to ensure that the story would be grounded in facts and substance. “For you to understand an advocacy and [to] play [the characters effectively], magtra-training ka to understand what [the important concepts are],” she discloses. 

Once all the research is finished, the script is written and its accompanying songs are composed. The actors then prepare intensely through a series of workshops and other educational opportunities—“that’s where it’s whole,” She finalizes. 

Theater bug

But outside the major planning behind each production, all this effort is fueled by every member’s passion for theater arts. For She and Melvin, their paths leading toward the spotlight started at the ages of 14 and 16, respectively. “As a young person, it all happened accidentally; I was bitten by the theater bug,” Melvin says wryly. 

Meanwhile, She expresses that she was chosen by the theater world, rather than the other way around. “It’s not like [I] chose it—every time I [tried] to do something else, I always [went] back. It’s like [I was] really meant to do [it],” she says. Her brief stint as an NSTP professor in the University brought her to the realization that her work for PETA had inexplicably trained her for work outside of the organization. “‘Yung Lasallian Reflection Framework…[it’s] very connected to my work with PETA; pareho ng tinutunguan na ideologies,” she expounds.

(They both subscribe to the same ideologies.)

Nevertheless, both artists recognize that the field of theater is not one for the spiritless. She admits that it can be a struggle to balance pursuing one’s passion and making an earning from it. “Hindi ka mapapayaman ng teatro—‘yun ‘yung [struggle]. You will always struggle between your economics and your artistry,” she discloses pensively. 

(Theater does not make you rich—that’s the struggle.)  

Unshaken, Melvin says he has no regrets staying in PETA. “[Learning through] educational theater goes both ways—to the creators and also our audiences,” he reveals. Witnessing how their performances move audiences while highlighting a specific advocacy is the satisfaction gained from being a member of the renowned theater guild, “Natututo ka, na-eenhance ang iyong skills as an artist, so saan ka pa, diba?” 

(You are able to learn and your skills are enhanced as an artist. So where else would you go?)

In dire straits

Among the theater industry’s most pressing contemporary issues is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To survive, Melvin shares that they had to “pivot everything online,” drastically affecting the organization’s production of its plays and workshops. 

Over the course of its 55-year history, PETA has weathered many storms, overcoming trials and tribulations that have ultimately played an instrumental role in the development of the theater company. However, the pandemic stands as one of its biggest challenges yet. “‘Pag nag patuloy-tuloy pa [ang pandemic], at mamamatay ‘yung art form, wala kaming maihahandog sa susunod na henerasyon,” Melvin laments.

(If this pandemic continues, and the art form dies out, we would have nothing to give to future generations.) 

Nevertheless, Melvin is hopeful that the youth recognize their part in upholding PETA’s mission. One way to begin is to simply keep one’s mind open, and have the willingness to try new things. As Melvin puts it, “Theater is fun,” and all it takes is one brave, curiosity-filled step for the youth to discover the wonderful world of theater.

As the country continues to grapple with double digit positivity rates and a recent surge brought about by the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant, the end of the pandemic appears to be nowhere in sight. On top of this, theaters are still barred from operating due to the threats of catching the virus. As Melvin puts it, “Hindi ito laban [lamang] ng politika; it’s [also] a health crisis that is killing our work because we cannot produce anything for the public and for our sustenance.”

(This is not just a political fight.)

Despite this, She remains cautiously optimistic, noting that the theater “will always find creative ways to float.” On top of its online workshops, PETA has been streaming previous plays and performances online on platforms such as Ticket2Me and YouTube. It also had the opportunity to shoot one of its most popular plays, Under My Skin, and adapt it for online streaming. 

Driven by its mission of producing impactful performances, PETA still has a crucial role to play in the future of Philippine theater. “Hanggang mayroong naaabuse na kababaihan, hanggang mayroong nangangailangan ng edukasyon, hanggang mayroong [taong] natatapakan ang kanilang mga karapatan, hindi matatapos ang ating gawain,” She declares emphatically. 

(As long as women still experience abuse, as long as there are people who still need access to education, and as long as there are individuals whose rights are trampled upon, our work as theater actors will not stop.)

By Angelo Emmanuel Fernandez

By Marie Angeli Peña

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