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Throwing off the Philistines


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“Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.” -Albert Camus

To understand the passions of the artist, one needs only to take a look at Dessa Quesada-Palm. Consummate theater actress and tireless community activist–as founder of Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts or YATTA, she uses community theater as instrument to further causes such as gender sensitivity and the environment–she has epitomized for me, and for the longest time, the selflessness of a person who believes in cultural work and its importance in community life.

Since May, we had worked together to fulfill director Amiel Leonardia’s vision for Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s In My Father’s House. She played my mother Amanda, and in the course of six weeks devoted to the strictest of rehearsals, I saw firsthand how she worked to get her part right. What she showed me and the rest of the cast was a masterclass in acting. Part of that revelation was a model for professionalism that went into it, and a dedication that necessitated sweat and sacrifice.

In the end she did command the Luce stage like the strong actress that she was–but we also knew how generous she was in sharing the stage with us amateur actors: how she reminded us of our cues with the slightest of glances that she gave us, the subtlest gestures that she made in our direction, enough for us to be prompted when necessary. And yet, all throughout those intense months of rehearsals, she still managed to go about her work as a cultural worker, giving workshops everywhere in Negros, and teaching her Directing class at the theater department of the College of Performing and Visual Arts in Silliman University…

Earnest Hope Tinambacan, who played my brother Franco, is also the same: he, too, had workshops to do–his bread and butter–aside from the fact that he also had his music to take care of, being the front man and composer for Hopia, a local band that is increasingly making waves in local music. Two weeks before we had to debut at the Luce Auditorium, he also had to stage a huge concert that blocked off the whole stretch of Silliman Avenue from Rizal Boulevard to Hibbard Avenue, an event he pulled off with other Dumaguete bands–to showcase, of course, the release of their compilation CD, The Bell Tower Project. In his spare moments, tucked in the wild schedule that was the bane of our existence, he’d squirrel away to memorize his kilometric lines for the play. In the end, he embodied Franco with a finesse that was startling–sending many in the audiences we had to tear up. In the 3 PM matinee of our last day of performances, the high school students who were our audience for that show went en masse to the side entrance of the Luce, demanding to see their “new idol.” The shouts of “Franco! Franco!” was a heartening sound to listen to.

In Dumaguete, you can find many other people exactly like Dessa and Hope–extremely gifted artists with extremely busy schedules, and yet they are still able to do something concrete for the community just for the sake of elevating culture and the arts. There’s Razceljan Salvarita. There’s Hersley Ven Casero and Anna Koosman. There’s Whitney Fleming. There’s Arlene Delloso-Uypitching and Annabelle Lee-Adriano. There’s Virginia Stack and her Valencia troop that would include Larissa Gutch, Jaruvic Rafols, RV Escatron, and Aaron Jalalon. There’s Joseph Basa. There’s Ramon del Prado. There’s Moses Joshua Atega. There’s Leo Mamicpic. There’s Diomar Abrio. There’s Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez, and so many more.

But they all know, like I do, that the work of culture is often both frustrating and rewarding. And sometimes, the frustration can start to break our spirits–if only temporarily. Once, while doing an Arts Month event with Dessa a few years ago, I turned to her and with such despair in my voice: “Why do we do this? Cultural work can be such a thankless job.” She turned to me and said, “Because despite everything else, we love what we do–and we cannot help but share it with everybody else.”

She was right. Theater producer Hendrison Go said as much to me last month when he said, “You may say you’re stressed out–but you do this anyway because you know it makes you happy.” He’s also right.

I am particularly happy that I work with kindred spirits in the Cultural Affairs Committee of Silliman University. Under Diomar Abrio’s savvy leadership, and with keen support from our university president, the CAC has worked hard for so many years to put a semblance of structure and balance to the cultural life of the university and the city. The committee turns 51 years old this year, and already it has brought in so many significant cultural milestones to Dumaguete–so much so that we can verily call this city as the real cultural center of Southern Philippines.

But like most things, it has its highs and it has its lows. When we decided to reboot how culture was being done about six years ago, we took in something that was more or less shapeless, and gave it structure. This is how our “cultural seasons” came into being: to give the university a workable cultural calendar, which at the same affirms culture and informs people about the things we are doing in the university. We are still learning how to promote culture and the arts properly, but at least we have made a start.

I always tell my students that they are lucky to be in Silliman because they get this cultural programming during their entire college stay, which will certainly inform their education, and finally the way they will conduct things in the real world. (And under a subsidy, too! Which means they get culture in an affordable way. No other university in the Philippines does this–and so they get the best of culture, locally, nationally, and internationally, for a pittance almost.)

But students being students, they do think this comes under the thankless maneuver of things “required,” which is something they are loathe to do because…I don’t know, it takes time away from their DOTA and their Internet surfing? But many of us persevere anyway. And then I do get many emails from former students, finally thanking me for “forcing” them to watch all those shows when they were younger. I guess the impact of cultural education in their real lives only get manifested much later on. (They say, for example, how many of their co-workers in the Real World are basically culture-deprived, ignorant. “Thank God I went to Silliman,” they’d tell me.)

We’ve been doing well at the CAC, more or less. Things could always be better, of course, but alas most people–even the best and brightest of the city–think culture is something to be largely ignored because it is “unimportant.” It is the least in their hierarchy of “necessary things.” It becomes a constant struggle every year to convince people of the otherwise. Every year, the CAC tries to balance all the arts–literature, music, dance, theater, the visual arts–in our programming, and most of the time, we do get the best for our efforts. And people have indeed been responding more positively to our efforts year after year.

Culture’s a hard job, but somebody’s got to do it.


Author’s email: [email protected]

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