A Culture of Possibility Podcast #31, Maribel Legarda and Beng Cabangon on The Philippines Educational Theater Association
NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 31st episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 18 August 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
Click here to subscribe free to The MIAAW Monthly and stay informed about podcasts, resources, and ideas related to cultural democracy and community-based arts.
* * *
On this episode of our podcast, right after François and I introduced Maribel Legarda, artistic director, and Beng Cabangon, executive director of the Philippines Educational Theater Association (PETA), I recalled a participatory exercise Maribel led at our first meeting, “based on picking a Beatles song. And I was like, ‘will everyone know a Beatles song?’ And everyone knew all the Beatles songs, so that was quite interesting cultural information. Also Maribel was the first person I knew who brought her own coffee-making equipment to a retreat.”
I was so excited to interview my friend and her colleague that I got the years mixed up in the introduction! We actually met in 2001, at a meeting at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. Community-based artists from 15 countries came together to talk about our work, following it up with an anthology entitled Community, Culture and Globalization. If you scroll down on the books page of my website, you’ll see that each of the chapters can be downloaded as a PDF. Maribel’s is chapter 19, “Imagined Communities: PETA’s Community, Culture and Development Experience.” I think you’ll find it interesting to see how the values expressed in this 2002 account have deepened and extended more than two decades later.
PETA is based in Quezon City, located in Metro Manila, capital of the Philippines. Maribel and Beng have been with PETA for a long time. Maribel explained: “I started in PETA by taking a summer workshop. A lot of us — actually, the leaders now — started by taking a summer workshop in the company. Beng also started as a teenager. We call it the Metropolitan Teen Theater League (MTL). It’s been really a good source of developing young artist-teachers, who later on become leaders in the company. So most of us started by start taking a workshop. So I started mine in — okay, I’ll be honest, it was 1978. And after I did that summer workshop, I was in college then, I joined the company, because there’s a regular recruitment that happens at that time. I have never left. Since I joined the company, as a young member, I’ve stayed and moved through the different programs that we’ve done. Primarily my area has been the Kalinangan Ensemble, basically the theater arm of PETA. So I’ve been working around the different aspects of that ever since I was 18, 19, working around developing productions, whether for mobile, or our main season, or our advocacy work.”
Beng described her involvement: “I started in theater when I was a teenager, I think I was in second year high school when I joined PETA via the youth theater program. I think that was how we got infected by the PETA bug. One thing that’s very fantastic about that youth program is that as young as we were then, we were already taught how to become artists, how to become teachers, young people teaching other young people. PETA taught us at a very young age what is the value of being an artist-teacher. So we already knew that this kind of theater is something that is not only good for ourselves, but it’s something that we can use in our schools and much later in our communities. Like Maribel I also I never really left. I joined MTL in 1980, and then I became executive director in 1992. I remember Maribel and I, we would consider ourselves at that time reluctant leaders. We were elected by the PETA membership: a responsibility was given to us and so we took it on. As an executive director, I’m in charge of overall management of the company, looking after the different aspects. Maribel mentioned that she was artistic director. She’s more focused on the performance program. But equally important, in PETA is also our education and teaching program.”
We asked our guests to situate PETA in the culture and history of its region. That is a quite remarkable story, since PETA started in 1967, 55 years ago! Beng explained:
“The theater has journeyed through the various and interesting historical moments of our country. PETA was founded in a very post-colonial context. Our founder thought of a theater company that would champion Filipino theater. At that time, there were lots of theater happenings in the country, but dominated by the use of the English language. She thought that it would be good to come up with a company that produces works in Filipino so that it could be better understood, and so that the audience can better relate to the plays, and at the same time that embodies the stories of the Philippines. Five years later, martial law was declared. So that’s like more than 10 years of martial rule. PETA learned how to navigate in a country where there is much repression, where there is major censorship, where freedom of expression is challenged. Maribel can talk about what we did creatively to be able to still convey very important messages at a time when there’s so much repression.
“And then 1986, there is what we call the EDSA people power revolution. That was the moment when Ferdinand Marcos senior was ousted via a peaceful movement in the country, and democracy was re-established. So again, PETA had to find its new bearings after such a long time of repression. Now that we have democracy, how do we now stay relevant in a different context? We can share with you how we were able to transform the kind of work that we’re doing by and maintain the very essence of what PETA is. In the various periods of PETA’s history, we’ve partnered with so many communities from Bataan in the north all the way to down south in Mindanao. PETA would usually partner with schools — many, many, many schools — and we would also partner with communities.
“In the beginning, we would usually work with communities that have strong church support, because the Philippines is largely a Catholic country and there’s a there’s a huge network of social action centers here that’s largely church-based and they support many communities. Especially during the 70s, PETA would work with community via this organized network of social action centers of the church. Much later, we began expanding our community networks. At the height of our community and school engagement, we would average from about 100 to almost 200 partners all over the country, at different levels and types of partnerships.
“That experience of PETA working with communities, it’s really not about us working for the communities. Honestly, I think we learn a lot also from working with them. Because, as we would always say, our experience of working with communities has helped ground our artistic practice as artist-teachers. During the 80s, one major offshoot of our engagement with communities — largely through workshops — is the formation of many community-based theater groups in different parts of the country. Our community partner engagement and school engagement may not be that many anymore, but that is still existing. And we still do have partners in the north, from Metro Manila, in the Visayas, which is the central part of the Philippines, and Mindanao.”
One remarkable thing about PETA is how creatively and successfully they retooled during the pandemic, a major challenge because they could no longer host live performances at the theater center they built in 2005. PETA needs to generate the bulk of its own funding, not only via original productions, but also through producing work for other companies and events.
As Maribel told us, “it’s really just not enough to produce. We also have to be able to sell our productions so that we can generate financial sustainability. That was a big question in the 80s. We were funded by huge agencies, but when funding got cut for all developing countries, which happened to almost everybody by the late 80s, it really threw us off because for quite a number of years we were dependent on funding from abroad. But at the end of the day, we had to deal with that. And we did. It was a long process of trying to find out how art can also find its sustainability and form of independence from financial support from the outside.”
Readers, I’ve just given you a little background and context here on a long and rich discussion. You will want to listen to all of it because PETA is such a shining example of adaptability, teamwork, and sustaining commitment. Not to mention a wildly successful jukebox musical and a dynamic YouTube channel. We’re so happy that our first podcast from Asia featured this amazing group.
“Sectoral Suite: The Workers’ Medley,” from PETA’s 50th Anniversary Concert.
Order my new book: In The Camp of Angels of Freedom: What Does It Mean to Be Educated?