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How PETA uses theater to fight historical revisionism 

September 11, 2017

Digital Reporter

Cover Art Erka Capili Inciong

There’s a saying that goes: “The internet never forgets, the internet always remembers.” But right now we're faced with a movement that is forcing us to forget about the tragedies that occurred between 1965 to 1986.

Look at online news sites and you’ll find a flood of comments posted by a throng of troll accounts. Skim the edit histories on the Wikipedia entries for Ferdinand Marcos and Martial law in the Philippines and you’ll see that it's become the setting for a massive edit war.

This vile movement is called Historical Revisionism.

To combat this assault against facts, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), which recently won the Ramon Magsaysay award, uses musical theater as a record of the experiences of people who dared criticize a dictatorial regime.

This is the generation of our parents, the ones who sired the “temperamental brats” that we are today. PETA was founded by Cecile Guidote‑Alvarez in 1967 and remains rooted in protest plays and elevating the creativity of Filipinos. Today, it is reaching out to the millennials.

“We believe in telling the truth and only the truth, from the people’s point of view,” PETA President Cecilia B. Garrucho told SparkUp in an interview at the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation building. “The Marcos family may claim that he deserves to be buried there because he’s a hero. But what is the truth from the people’s point of view. Was he a hero? I don't think so. They plundered the country, that’s the truth. So many were salvaged.”

“The Ramon Magsaysay award validated the significance of theater and arts to help build society,” Ms. Garrucho added, as the association got the esteemed award this year for its contributions to society. “Sometimes you think, well it’s just theater, just a performance, it has nothing to do with helping our country. But our kind of work uses theater and applies it to helping the country, to tackle social issues and help people through our workshops.”

Far from a lofty organization, PETA reaches out to people—the urban and rural poor, marginalized communities, farmers, fisherfolk and the like—to teach them theatrical skills that can fuel their self‑expression, and eventually let people know about their lives and struggles.

An example of a result of these workshops is a play that’s been written and performed by the batang hurnal (children who work in sugar cane plantations) on their lives and desire to go to school. These plays led people to know about the reality of living. It also became an avenue to receive donations from local and international non‑government organizations.

For the month of September, which is not only the same month as the birthday of the late President Ferdinand Marcos but also the month when he proclaimed Martial Law, PETA is showing A Game of Trolls (#aGoT).

“We want to tell the millennials why martial law must not happen again... What happened then,” Ms. Garrucho said. “We say it using humor and entertainment.”

“Power must never be in the hands of just one. Democracy is a slow process but it’s the best so far. If power is in the hands of only one, power corrupts,” she added.

She is grateful that there are now more theater‑going audiences. “Back in the 1960s we only had a few audience. Although our inaugural play—Bayaning Huwad—was full house, it wasn’t always like that. It was hard to get an audience. Now there are more theater‑going people, and we market the plays before we open.” And because of that, despite the growing role of the internet in our lives, they will continue to stay in live shows.

“We want people to come and watch a play live, and find that there’s nothing like it,” Ms. Garrucho said. “A play can change the direction of one’s life. When you watch a PETA play, we encourage discussion. Nowadays people don’t converse as much, they’re always on their phones. Plays encourage interaction, which encourages caring for others.”

Back in the early days of PETA, plays were not shown in seated theaters. “Sometimes we didn’t even have stages,” Ms. Garrucho recalled. “We had to make do with banners that we’d wave around. And we had to be fast.” In the years of martial law, just the suspicion that your plays were subversive could lead to arrest, torture, and even rape. “We had what we called Theater of Detour because the censorship was so strict. We used a parallel time in history in our plays when the history was also strong, like the time of Zarswela. Then the audience would understand that we’re talking about the now. There was a protest in another historical period, so the audience of Martial Law time can understand what we’re saying, because we live in the same historical context. Sometimes we’ll use folk tales or other sources. But you’ll understand that we were making a statement of protest. This went above the heads of government agents.”

She also spoke about a play by the late Soxie H. Topacio about Macli‑ing Dulag, an elder of the Butbut people of the Cordillera mountain range, who protested against the attempt of the Marcos administration to sequester their land to build the Chico River Dam. He was assassinated by government agents on April 24, 1980. “The play was held in Fort Santiago,” Ms. Garrucho said. “He transformed Fort Santiago into the village of Macli‑ing Dulag. There were rice terraces and there were actors acting like the military. The audience thought that they were actual military! There was an alternate reality then.”

Right now, there had to be a change in the way PETA delivers its message. No, they still stick to the truth. But before, Ms. Garrucho recalled that they could be more serious and straightforward with their delivery. “Life is too stressful, you plow through two hours of traffic to go to our theater tapos ma‑stre‑stress ka pa with the way na i‑de‑deliver yung message,” Ms. Garrucho said. “Dapat engaging kami, entertaining. But even as you’re laughing, you’re thinking quite deeply.”

“We want the youth to learn to ask questions. Have time to reflect. Quiet time to think critically and discern what is truth, what are lies,” she added, recognizing that as far as martial law is concerned there really were some people who benefited from that time period. “I guess we cannot convert everybody, but at least if there’s a force working for what the majority thinks is the truth that force should enlarge. The positive pauses of forces in this society should bond together. And actually it’s possible to be that force even if you’re a child, or just a student, or a mother and a housewife. You can be that force. You don’t have to be a high status holding a high position. It’s not just for them, its for everyone to be that positive force.”

“Kung ano ang tama, ano yung katotohanan, dapat yun ang mamayani.”