Director’s Choice

15 10 2008

Getting Anointed as Cultural Manager in the Philippines
by Vanini B. Belarmino

This article was originally published in German, “Philippinische Sternschnuppen” in TanzRaumBerlin for its November-December 2008 issue. 

M. Butterfly was the first professional theatre production I saw as a freshman student at the University of the Philippines. It was a big shock for me to be exposed to nudity on stage, when the character “Song Lily” revealed herself or rather himself to his lover at the end of the performance.   As a 16-year old Catholic schoolgirl, this was not something I expected from a performance directed by one of my professors.   I decided to go to theatre school because wanted to be an actress, although it meant disappointing my whole family.  After seeing this performance, with fear of having to experience kissing scenes or taking my clothes off for artistic reason – I silently decided that management was the safer side for me to pursue.  Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

 

Anton Scheker

Vanini Belarmino performing in Musiko Mundo on the grounds of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, February 2002. Photo: Anton Scheker

 

At the time I was at university, there was no such thing as a school for arts or cultural management.  Studying theatre meant learning everything from A-Z: acting; directing; theatre history; scene and lighting design; stage movement; playwriting; costume and make-up; Shakespearean and European Drama; Philippine Theatre; Asian theatre and production management.  Production Management, as an optional course, covered the know-how in producing i.e. planning, marketing, ticket sales, fund raising, artist management, finance, stage management, PR, and everything and anything one needs to take into consideration when attempting to put up a production.  Apart from attending the classes between 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., as a student I worked for Dulaang UP, the university theatre. During the day, knocking from door to door at different classes to sell tickets, and in the evenings with rehearsals from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. followed by rigid production meetings. This was my routine for two seasons (2 years) of four productions/season, 2-3 month rehearsal/production, 3 week-run with performances from Wednesdays to Sundays, led by the action principles of “Beg, Steal or Borrow” and “It’s either you are dead or dying.”  Excuses were not accepted. I remember vividly coming to rehearsals the day after the tragic 1990 earthquake that shook the whole country. If the problem was the budget for instance, one has to find a way to produce money or other resources that will make things possible.

 

I worked initially as front of house manager for a Sanskrit play, which required me to decorate the lobby of Guerrero Theatre with an India theme, handle the ticket sales each night and usher people into the 200-seater theatre along with my other classmates, selling brochures as well as advertisement space where I coaxed my grandfather to approach at least 4 moneyed relatives for P1,000 each (approximately 15 Euro).    Through this assignment, Tony Mabesa, founding Artistic Director of Dulaang UP, spotted me and immediately gave me the responsibility to work as assistant stage manager for a Maxim Gorky play Summer Folk. 

 Mabesa kept giving me bigger responsibilities and by the end of the season, he decided to pass me on as protégé of the enfant terrible of the Philippine theatre, Anton Juan, Jr., who was just returning from Athens in 1991. To me, this only meant work and more work: washing coffee cups after rehearsals, throwing lines with actors, standing in for absentee actors, buying supplies including costumes, setting-up the stage, set changes, writing press releases, marketing, sales, preparing the production booklet with the typewriter, coordinating the printing of production materials such as posters and brochures, working with the graphic designer and photographer, putting up the marquee, painting, organising gala reception, etc. etc.  By the time I was 18, I was doubling as production and stage manager for varied productions. 

While still in school, Nestor Jardin, who is currently the President of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), hired me to work on special projects with the Performing Arts Department. This gave me the opportunity to work both on a national and international level being exposed to different types of art forms and in contact with the who’s who in the Philippine, Asian as well as European performing art scene.  Jardin assigned me to handle projects like ASEAN Dance Festival, Bavarian National Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.  I worked closely with him for about 7 years, which landed me a job at the country’s premiere dance company, Ballet Philippines where I held three different jobs as Marketing and PR assistant, Stage Manager and Assistant Production Manager with a monthly salary of P8,000 (115 Euro approximately). 

It was in 1996 that I first saw the professional title: arts manager from Jardin when we were on the way for company’s US Tour.  From that time on, I dreamt of having this title in my passport.  I figured that the term signified something noble.  Although I was very active in the field, all of us, who were in the rank-in-file were called “cultural workers.”  For some years, I pondered how I could ever anoint myself and dare to write this down.

Although I was pretty much secure in getting jobs in arts and culture, since one need not apply for position as it is normally the choice of the “gods” or the powers that be, to whom I was right-fully connected, it was never enough to support oneself.  As a worker in the field of culture in the Philippines, I made sure I had minimum 3 productions running in one month or manage to design sales for either a theatre or dance performances.  From time to time, I worked as an extra (actor) for television, film or advertising – or when lucky be cast in lead role for TV commercials. Later on, I maintained a regular job as Researcher and Assistant Director for a TV musical.

Apart from sustaining oneself, I also felt the pressure of keeping the projects ongoing as I noticed that this likewise produced work for a number of my artist friends.  When I regularly sold performances, they were employed, we had an audience and I get the benefit of earning – although this meant driving over 8 hours in traffic ridden Manila or other cities simply to convince people from a range of 30-300 tickets that cost P50-150/each (0.80-2 Euro). 

After 10 years of working in the Philippines, establishing professional relationship with artists, cultural operators including institutions, my house phone regularly received calls from individuals asking for help in finding an audience or seeking ways and means sell art or an idea.   With this, I started asking questions what it means to hold the title of arts or cultural manager in my country that has an audience that is yet to be developed, very minimal support or is lacking in structural funds for the arts and culture?  I am still searching for the answer.