Transcending the Norm of Theatre

Note : This article was published in the first edition of LAWIG. On March 2021, LAWIG was re-launched underlining photography and design talents from the provinces of the Philippines.

📍Albay

Arinola, Barako, Nang Magmahal ang Puta and Mama Bonsai are just some of the masterpieces produced by the home-grown talents of Sining Banwa together with other local artists. The plays touch on thought-provoking themes of socio-political relevance in keeping with Sining Banwa’s motto, “Ang sining ng bayan ay sining mula sa bayan at sining para sa bayan.”

Born out of passion for the arts, Sining Banwa Albay Performance Collective, Inc. was founded in Legazpi City in 2011. Its members come from diverse backgrounds and are composed of volunteer young professionals, out-of-school youth and students. It currently has about 30 active members.

The group explores interdisciplinary arts ranging from theatre, music, dance, visual to literary. They have performed over a hundred stage plays regionwide and have also graced the stages of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and PETA Theatre Center, to name a few.

Sining Banwa has collaborated with various schools, communities and other organizations to make the arts more personal, accessible and relatable to many people. Through these efforts, they have also been able to gather stories for stage plays and allow their audiences, regarded as part of the creative process, to provide feedback.

Sari Saysay, 38, who is the founder, fondly remembered their early days. It was during his stint as the Director of the resident drama company of the then Aquinas University that he and his colleagues realized the need to go beyond the limits of stage plays in the academe. With his background in community theatre, they formed the group which envisioned a wider engagement with the society.

Saysay who is now a full-time theatre artist and cultural worker, shared that listening to radio dramas during his childhood sparked his interest in the performance arts. “I believe the absence of visuals in radio dramas developed my imagination, which later on helped me a lot in both writing and directing plays,” he added. His first theatre role had a single line in a full-length play. “We always say that there are really no bit roles, everyone is as important as the leads.” He recalled how proud he was of the role that he invited people from his barrio to watch.

Soon, Saysay found himself immersed in other roles as well as directing plays. “Directing is as hard as acting, and so is mopping the rehearsal floor as washing the costumes.” He shared that limited resources have been the most serious challenge in staging a play. “Directing is always a test of flexibility and resourcefulness. It’s also an experimentation. You can’t really say what works and what does until you test it during rehearsals,” he added.

In its early days, the collective would rehearse in public spaces like parks, boulevards, church yards or just about any place possible. Funds were also limited. Yet, the show must always go on. Now, they rent a small space they call Sining Banwa Harong and a larger space they call Balay Bayan for rehearsals. Saysay dreams to have their own venue where they and other theatre companies can perform.

As Sining Banwa approaches a decade since its establishment, Saysay reminisced its learning journey which led to organizational progress and artistic refinement. “We’ve attended trainings, assessed our creative outputs and improved our aesthetics. We’ve developed a pool of directors, writers and senior trainers.” Sining Banwa has likewise sustained community engagement and it continues to connect with fellow local artists. It has also remained socially relevant by standing with the poor and marginalized in their struggles.

Ronnel Magtoto considers Sining Banwa as his second family. At 13, he is the youngest member of the collective. In 2018, he was convinced by his brother to join the theater workshop organized by the group and landed a role in the musical play Oktubre. Magtoto is also a playwright. He has written some stories such as Laro which tackles bullying and physical disabilities, and Natukso an upcoming stage play which depicts the lives of people deeply affected by the pandemic crisis.

“If not for Sining Banwa, I wouldn’t know how to write stage plays nor act in front of an audience. I am happy that I am able to make others happy through what I do,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sining Banwa’s witty President Julie DM Bega, 23, has been with the group for eight years. Realizing her passion for theatre arts, she auditioned for a production which earned her roles. She recalled that she would rehearse in the afternoons and after her college night classes.

“All of us experience how to become directors, actors, writers, production managers, costume designers, choreographers and others. We value the people behind the stage as much as the actors,” Bega said.

Some of the challenging plays for Bega were Gymgurls, Bekstage and 1900 Mga Banguing Bulanon wherein either they channeled three to five characters in one performance or they wore six-inch high heels for the roles.

Bega learned discipline and selflessness and how to appreciate humanity as a member of Sining Banwa. Also, she finds fulfillment in knowing that audiences are able to reflect on their art and encourage them to contribute to solving pressing concerns like poverty, HIV, and oppression, among others.

Sining Banwa’s latest projects titled Monovlogues and Sining ng Paghilom are their way in coping with the pandemic and videos of it are posted on their Facebook page to reach a wider audience. Also, the group will stage for the first-time a shadow puppetry titled Ang Jeep Naming si Jepjep for their ninth anniversary this year.

Truly, Sining Banwa is a plethora of talents, able to stir the senses of the crowd – which is what art is all about.

Photographs by Onin Lorente, Words by Jade Loria