WHAT relationship does one have with a space that one only navigates after a disaster? And we’re not talking just any disaster, as I do speak of the strongest storm to make landfall in the world.
I ask that now almost a year since Typhoon Haiyan, as I sit in Tacloban’s Jose Karlo’s Café, a quiet escape from the long days of work I’ve had in this city. On a nearby wall are written the names of people the cafe thanks for helping them rebuild post-Haiyan. By the cashier are beautiful leather-bound journals that they’re selling to raise funds for their staff members still in the process of rebuilding their lives. They sell t-shirts on which is written: Better Leyte Than Never.
Last night, walking the streets of Tacloban looking for this café, I realized how much light there was, and it reminded me of the darkness from when I first came here to do a soup kitchen with my friend Rambie in December last year. Then, dead bodies were still being recovered, the stench of death still strong, and the conditions were far from normal contrary to what government press releases said.
Now, almost a year since the typhoon, there is a sense that people have recovered. But only the heartless would think that the building of physical structures is all this city, this province, this region needs to recover from a typhoon like Haiyan, and that all it takes to forget the neglect they suffered after the storm is the return of commerce and the daily grind.
We are talking about people here, the people of Leyte and Samar, the people in a post-Haiyan context. They still remain that, one realizes, almost a year hence.
Theater for development
In late July, Tanghalang Pilipino first went to Tacloban to begin work on a post-Haiyan theater for development project. This is not the first time it has done this kind of development project. In May of this year they also toured a theater production for four days to promote health and hygiene awareness in four pre-identified Eastern Samar towns. Before that they toured “Melanie,” a theater forum production on HIV-awareness in Manila.
This current project though is different as instead of bringing actors from Manila to tour the production, TP trained theater students from the two Leyte towns of Tacloban and Palo so they might be the ones to perform in and tour the play. This was what that late July visit was about. Actors Company’s Jonathan Tadioan and Marco Viaña facilitated basic theater workshops for members of Leyte Normal University’s (LNU) Sirang Theater Ensemble (Sirang) and the Palo Culture and Arts Organization (PCAO). Members of that group underwent auditions with TP’s Associate Artistic Director Tuxqs Rutaquio, who would also be directing the production.
Tadioan and Viaña would go back to Tacloban soon after that, to conduct advanced theater workshops that focus on forum and image theater. They traveled with playwright Layeta Bucoy, who interviewed the Sirang and PCAO members about their experiences of Haiyan. This would be the basis of the story she would write, this one that these same kids who survived the storm will perform.
On Wednesday, September 24, Surâ (ulam) did its pilot performance at LNU, with an audience of students, and community and LGU leaders from across Region 8. I watched the dress-technical rehearsals of the play and could not but be floored.
Surâ is a Haiyan story about a seven-year-old boy separated from his family by the floodwaters. Intoy then goes through the process of deciding what he might do to find his parents, and how he might make it easier for them to find him. The decisions he makes he takes from what the audience members suggest he do, as the form of forum theater requires that the actor is able to engage the audience in the more critical questions about what’s unfolding on stage.
Intoy’s older sister Sarah meanwhile faces the pressure of engaging in sexual relationships with her boyfriend of so many months. In the context of the evacuation center where there is no privacy and casual sex has become a norm, Sarah is pressured by her boyfriend Carlo.
Translated into Waray by Voltaire Oyzon, and with music composed by Sirang’s Rene Eugene Tan, what awes me about this production are these young theater performers who re-capture and perform the disaster that was Haiyan. One watches them go through the scenes of the storm, the separation from family, the loss of home and community after the disaster, and one can’t help but remember how this is not mere performance for them, as it is also a reminiscence.
One can only be floored by the courage.
Almost a year since Haiyan, what Surâ reminds us is how we actually grasp very little of its survivors’ experiences. Because none of our tears and empathy count relative to those who might relive these images everyday in their heads, or those who now live with an irrational fear of the rains, or those who see the sea as enemy.
Watching these young actors perform the story created based on their own narratives, one is reminded of how large this performance is, and how much heart it has. Because they are actors who are survivors, too, and as they perform this play they are in fact performing how they survived the largest disaster of their lives.
But also they are performing through trauma and anger, they are performing through the knowledge that they were neglected—that they still are being neglected—because they are rarely spoken to, their voices rarely heard.
Beyond us still
This particular theater for development process is one that interests me because one realizes that it is such a refusal to merely deliver information in the easiest ways possible, refusing as it does to treat survivors like sponges that must merely absorb information. Instead it is away to empower these teenage survivors of the storm, and engage them in the process of creativity that mounting a production requires. Instead it is about respecting their own experiences in the task of allowing them to embrace their stories, and perform it for an audience who would know of these experiences to be true.
The bigger project of course is to tell this story so that they —performers and community audiences—might learn from it. But to me that is actually secondary to the task of empowering these young theater actors to speak a little louder about their experiences, and perform with more weight in their steps. It is about engaging them in a creative process that is necessarily grounded in reality, and critical of those who might want to control it.
One of the things I learned from these kids is that after Haiyan, survivors their age became more aggressive, more forward, more daring. They said this was the effect of having seen what looked like the end of the world. It was the effect of seeing their communities in shambles, their dead on the streets: the world might end tomorrow, I might as well do all the things that I want, right and wrong be damned.
That makes sense doesn’t it? And yet one can only imagine what the conditions were like, and what kind of emotional trauma it was, that brought on such ennui. One can only imagine what it takes still to walk their city streets and have those distinct memories of Haiyan in their heads.
The strength of these kids is beyond words. Their ability at paglaom—hope—even more so.
SURÂ is performed by the Sirang Theater Ensemble (Sirang) and the Palo Culture and Arts Organization. The original in Filipino was written by Layeta Bucoy, translated into Waray by Voltaire Oyzon. Music was composed by Rene Eugene Tan. Direction by Tuxqs Rutaquio. Sirang moderator Professor Joey Lianza and PCAO moderator Carlos Romano, as well as the Leyte Normal University, have provided invaluable support to the project.