The mission of Artist Inc. Center and the gains of community theaters

Edward Perez in his theater haven, Artist (Arts Research and Training Institute in Southern Tagalog) Inc. Center —PHOTOS BY BOY VILLASANTA

When the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) presented Edward Perez, head of its national committee on dramatic arts, at a press conference in January to announce the launch of National Arts Month (NAM) in February, I was both proud of and excited for him.

Perez spoke about his flagship projects, zeroing in on the 18th Tanghal University and Community-based Theater Festival as a celebration to unify theater artists and cultural workers for NAM 2024.

He drew the scope of the project which will kick off in various provinces nationwide after an opening ceremony at Rizal Park in Manila on Feb. 17. The project, according to NCCA press briefs, is an attempt to recognize and emphasize the pivotal role of theater and its practitioners in responding to social and environmental challenges, thus contributing to enhanced community building.

I’ve known Perez for more than three decades although we hadn’t seen one another and talked for the longest time until recently. After asking one or two questions at the presser, I left for another event. But I met up with him one recent Sunday afternoon in his theater haven, Artist (Arts Research and Training Institute in Southern Tagalog) Inc. Center on Rosal and Sampaguita Streets in the sprawling Carbern Village in Barangay Anos, Los Baños, Laguna.

37 years

Artist Inc.
Artist’s museum

Artist has been serving the community and its neighboring areas for 37 years, staging theater plays of all genres and persuasions, nourishing the artistic embryo and intellectual acumen of viewers and participants/creatives, and enhancing social relationships in the real world.

Carbern Village is Artist’s third site and has been so for six years, according to Perez. Its first site, which I visited in 1991, was just a stone’s throw from the main gate of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). The second site was also in the area, but the arrangement with the property owners of the place was short-lived.  

My visit to Artist’s birthplace in 1991 was for coordination and orientation. In that year I formed Dumalo (Dulaang San Mateo), a community-based drama guild in Lopez, Quezon, and Artist had offered a free seminar-workshop on choreography (or “kilos-koryo”).

At the time I was quite active in entertainment news reporting and producing for “Star News” in ABS-CBN’s primetime news program “TV Patrol.” I was broadcasting on weekdays; on Saturdays and Sundays I was in Quezon with my three facilitators, Sidney Dalanon, Cymbie Osias and Marze Sibayan to teach lit, practical theater, and the theories and histories of Philippine and world theater. (Sidney and Cymbie are graduates of Peta, or the Philippine Educational Theater Association, and Marze is a nursing graduate.) 

I thought of founding a theater organization not only to produce relevant plays—such as those mounted by Peta like “Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas,” “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo,” “June Bride,” and “Bombita”—but also to reorient the community on the fact that theater or an acting workshop does not necessarily qualify one to become a movie or TV actor (or then again, why not if one really deserves a break, or the stars indeed conspire to bring forth an idol).

Clear objectives

My objectives were (are) clear: personality development, discipline, and viewing things from the correct perspective of truthful and artistic expression. I suppose these are Artist’s goals as well, and more, as seen in the hundreds of plays it has produced.

Artist acquired the property and developed each corner of the land and structure. There are: a manicured lawn; trees, shrubs and flower-bearing plants of several varieties; a dainty garden set of native chairs and tables suited for tea or coffee time; a foyer with a long table to receive friends and inquiring visitors; a performance venue in square cut with a gallery big enough for regular productions; and an adjacent hall that functions as a seminar room, museum, and workshop.

A nongovernment organization registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Artist has come a long way since it was founded in 1987 by art-loving and enterprising individuals—UPLB professor Leo Rimando, now deceased; Ricamela Palis, who currently chairs the board of trustees; and Perez, the executive director. 

Perez graduated with a degree in creative writing in Filipino from UP Diliman. And it was during his teaching stints at UPLB that he was inspired to write and direct original stage plays and revise his students’ works, which eventually prodded him to establish a theater group.

Artist has produced such proud artists as Cedric Castillo, news anchor at GMA Network’s Integrated News and Public Affairs; Lani Navarro of ABS-CBN; and Rica Palis of Peta. Its productions make modest money from its own marketing, ticket sales, and sponsorships, but that does not mean that it earns enough to finance its next projects.

Perez acknowledged that he does not depend on Artist for his bread and butter; he teaches in local schools, including a Montessori in Laguna.

He said Artist is lucky to have benevolent and generous souls in Los Baños and elsewhere who occasionally sponsor its events.

Trial and error

Organizing a theater group is a trial-and-error project, especially if it is not supported by big companies or cultural grants, whether public or private. At the moment, if one applies for a grant from a public estate like the NCCA, one has at least an institution to bank on.

I established Dumalo from my own pocket. I burned more than P1 million to get things started. Training was free and the community was enthusiastic.

Kids from kindergarten and grade school, young boys and girls, college students, professionals, out-of-school youth, etc. registered and joined the six-month theater seminar. I got to invite actors and critics/lecturers from the multimedia like Efren Reyes Jr., Mike Feria (aka Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., then an active member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino who later founded the Young Critics Circle), Zorayda Sanchez, Ernie Garcia and Joel Saracho.

We started in June and ended in November. I was on my weekly expenditures. All my savings, monthly salary from ABS-CBN and other sources of livelihood were eventually drained. 

Unfortunately, I did not have a marketing outfit to sell the project and to look for sponsors. When we printed tickets for the recitals, just a few were sold, not enough to buy a sandwich and a glass of juice. I wrote the town mayor and sent him tickets, and he sent us P300 as token support.

But I never said die. I went for broke, continued to lose money on my stage productions—until I realized I had not a single cent to sustain my theater dream. I also left ABS-CBN for a sense of media independence, but I still had to paddle my own canoe even if I got Dumalo registered at the SEC.

Too bad, my documents had become dormant and I was advised to reorganize. Later, Janet Napoles’ bogus foundations got my association generally affected for the scams they created, and stricter SEC rules scuttled the support of many well-meaning groups. And that was how the cookie crumbled.

Good for Artist that it has judicious leadership. I realized that I should be more thoughtful the second time around, when I revive my theater group.

One of Artist’s meaningful and progressive programs is its Book Nook, a reading place that encourages members of the community to read.

Perez cited current findings that young people do not know how to read. Here, he said, the public teachers themselves coordinate with Artist for reading sessions in the compound. 

Again, a noble idea, a public service project that, indeed, I envy.

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