Essays and Projects

Dotoc in Sta. Cruz, Baao, Camarines Sur, May 2008

The Bicol Dotoc

The dotoc is a religious devotion to the Holy Cross in Bicol, Philippines. Women cantors take the role of pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land to visit the Holy Cross or performers reenact as komedya St. Helene’s search and finding of the cross. The practice was introduced by the Spanish colonizers, but I argue that the dotoc appropriates the colonial project of conversion, translating it into strategies of survival, individual agency, communal renewal, and the construction of identity, through the performance of pilgrimage. I grapple with issues of ethnographic authority and representation. The project is a journey back to childhood and to a place called home, to sights, sounds, smells, tastes recollected in the many stories of informants, or experienced on recent visits as a participant in the performances, but it is also already a journey of a stranger. I am an insider studying my ownculture from the outside. Using a Badiourian framework combined with de Certeau’s practice of everydaylife and Conquergood’s methodology, the thesis explores how fidelity to the enduring event of the dotoc becomes an ethnographic co-performance with active subjects. Theirs is a vernacular belief and practice that cuts off the seeming infinity of the colonial experience in the imagination of the present. The centrality of the actors and their performance is a practice of freedom, but also of hope. The performances are always done for present quotidian ends, offered in an act of faith within a reciprocal economy of exchange. Chapter 1 poses the major questions and my initial answers and thus provides an overview of the journey ahead. Chapter 2 locates the dotoc in the field of cultural performance, problematizes my gaze as traveller, as insider-researcher, as indigenous ethnographer, and sets down my own path of ethnographic coperformance inspired by Dwight Conquergood. Chapter 3 gets down to the details of the ethnography. Chapter 4 is a probing of the postcolonial predicament, which ends with Badiou and a decision to keep to the politics of the situation. Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 take up the dotoc as a practice of fidelity that is integrally woven into the performers’ everyday life and informed by autochthonous concepts of power, gender, and exchange.

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At the Site of the Void: Inaesthetics of Performance in the Bicol Dotoc

A. Citron, D. Zerbib, and S. Aronson-Lehavi (eds) Performance Studies in MotionInternational Perspectives and Practices in the Twenty First Century. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014, pp. 223-232.

How might performance studies be used as a kind of thinking about performance in the postcolonial context of the Philippines? The performance practices of formerly colonized countries pose a challenge for research and knowledge production, problematizing generally accepted principles of theatre and performance studies. Understanding the variegated aesthetic, cultural and political forms intertwined in post-colonial performance practices is a complex, reflexive process for the local researchers, who are now no longer only informants but theorists of their own context, facing the challenge of examining and articulating the historicity and contemporary significance of these cultural practices of performance. For these local scholars, including myself, the process of knowing is both enabled and burdened by colonial education – the postcolonialpredicament famously discussed by Spivak,1  Bhabha2  and Said.3  These figures have become highly influential in theorizing the post-colonial condition, claiming a discursive space for the subaltern and the oppressed in ways that diverged from Fanonian radicalism by emphasizing ambivalence, contingency and hybridity. The framework of post-colonial deconstruction has been, however, strongly contested by Marxist critics, especially on the grounds of denying the subaltern a specific voice and creative political agency. Concomitantly, in the field of performance studies, performance ethnography from Turner4  to Conquergood5  has redefined ways of speaking about the practices of conquered, silenced or peripheralized, and many new participants working in the ‘field’ have been ‘contesting performance’,6  insisting on ‘the situatedness of local sites of research’.7  This paper follows that trajectory of contestation, in order to address the key questions of political agency and innovative creative practice in the post-colonial context, by exploring possibilities opened up by Badiou’s theory of event and related concept of ‘inaesthetics’.8

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Inaesthetics of Performance in the Black Nazarene Procession

Best Paper at the DLSU Research Congress 2014. First presented at the Inaugural Conference of Performance Philosophy 2013 at the University of Surrey, United Kingdom.

Thinking Slow, Thinking Thick: Necessary Human Work in an Age of Innovation

Asia Pacific Social Science Review Volume 18 Number 2, pp. ix-xiii. Keynote Talk at the Asia-Pacific Innovations Conference 2018 held in Pattaya, Thailand.

‘We are like the tikog, just an ordinary weed’, but in their hands this weed becomes all kinds of colourful mats, baskets, bags, etc. Basey, Samar, 30 March 2015.

A Sea of Stories

A Sea of Stories: Archipelagic gatherings and RoRo journeys

PERFORMANCE RESEARCH 23·4/5 : pp.256-261

The concept of the RoRo Journeys began in 2011 in Utrecht with Ray Langenbach’s and Paul Rae’s idea of having a conference at sea, on a boat, while navigating the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea, however one may refer to this territory. The project was planned for Southeast Asia, with the Philippines as a take-off point of the journey. We had to abandon this idea, as each of us – Ray, then me, then Paul – had a change in our circumstances: Ray going to Finland, me transferring to Manila and Paul coming to Melbourne. Of course there was the big problem of where to get the boat and how to fund the journey. I found out later that there was a Philippine team that sailed in a balangay, the ancient boat of our ancestors, for fifteen months, on just these waters, in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. They travelled to as far as Micronesia and Madagascar, retracing the ancient routes of migration, using reconstructed balangays crafted by Badjao master boat builders. The boats had no metal parts or nails, only wooden pegs and dowels, and had no engines, only sails. It was a feat like no other (Valdez 2014).

Our RoRo journeys in 2015 were not meant to be as grandiose as the balangay project, or as risky, and our travellers were not like the balangay team, who were athletic types: prior to this project, the balangay project team had successfully climbed to the summit of Mt Everest. As I eventually discovered, none of those who thought up the RoRo project in the Philippines, except me, and Paul, who joined the Visayas leg, would have the courage, perhaps the foolhardiness, to undertake the journeys.

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Pilgrimage as utopian performative for a post-colonial counterpublic

PERFORMANCE RESEARCH 16·2 (2011): pp. 91-96

In Utopia in Performance  Jill Dolan writes that utopia means, literally, ‘no place’, and she refuses to ‘pin it down to prescription’ (2005: 7). Instead, she refers to moments that can be only partially grasped because they are fleeting, evanescent and yet so powerful they give a glimpse of ‘what redemption might be like, of what humanism could really mean’. ‘Any fixed, static image or structure would be much too finite and exclusionary for the soaring sense of hope, possibility and desire that imbues utopian performatives’ (7–8). Victor Turner wrote of these moments as communitas  experienced in ritual. In a seminal work in pilgrimage studies, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Turner describes communitas as ‘an essential and generic human bond … undifferentiated, egalitarian, direct, nonrational, existential …. It has something magical about it’, and it brings‘ a feeling of endless power’ (Turner and Turner 1978: 250–1). Dolan draws parallels between communitas and utopian performatives (Dolan 2006) and describes communitas as engendering ‘a cohesive if fleeting feeling of belonging to the group’ (Dolan 2005: 11).

In this paper I take up a local performance practice of pilgrimage in the Bicol Region of the Philippines to ask how this practice is a ‘utopian performative’ in the sense that Dolan describes and to explore the limits of thinking of this practice as or involving a post-colonial counterpublic.

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To Rest in the Gap: Possibilities for Another Politics Through Theatre

P. Eckersall and H. Grehan (eds) The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 127-130.

A gap denotes a hollow place, a space in between two points, a rupture, chasm, hole, crack, crevice, vent, divide, and so on. It can also connote nothingness, emptiness, airlessness, darkness, but also the possibility of going to either one or the other of the two points. Poignantly the term brings to mind two things at once: inequality – like the gap between the rich and the poor – and liminality – a condition of in-betweenness that escapes structure and is rife with potential, theorised by Victor Turner and appropriated by performance studies as a condition of the fi eld itself. Crucially for this chapter, ‘gap’ also means interstice – a break, pause, or recess. As the gap between rich and poor worsens, so the liminal condition stretches on and becomes a long pause of inaction – or perhaps non-action. Is this the contemporary condition of impossibility of political resistance in a post-democratic world described by Western authors (Rancière, Ridout, Kunst, to name a few) or proof that ‘the age of revolution is over’ (Badiou)? The Philippine contemporary situation militates against a simple answer to the question, because there is still a Maoist revolution being waged and the confl icts between the government and other forces such as the Muslim separatist groups in the south have worsened, with ‘terrorist’ and ‘criminal’ acts of some other groups like the Abu Sayyaf and, more recently, the Maute Group of Marawi, joining the fray. A key question that must be asked, then, is where are the theatre artists in this situation?

In this chapter I am thinking of the ‘gap’ as both a restive space in which inequality continues to worsen and a time of ‘resting’ or taking a break, a time of non-action, of politics at a standstill – resting in the gap. What does it mean in terms of my own context in the Philippines? Does it include perchance the gaps between the faithfully restive and resistive? Does it also include those who choose to ‘rest’, that is to say, stop, and those who take other paths of theatre and politics? What possibilities are there for going forward? What does ‘going forward’ entail?

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The Escalante Story

Sugar Overflows and Teatro Obrero’s Escalante Story

Theatre Research International Volume 43Issue 1 March 2018 , pp. 63-82

Protesting against the Marcos regime in 1985, farm workers and other activists and their supporters from multisectoral groups are ‘massacred’ in front of the Escalante town hall by state police and paramilitary troops, resulting in the death of twenty persons. A year later, Teatro Obrero, the ‘cultural arm’ of the Negros Federation of Sugar Workers, stages a re-enactment of the massacre. Thirty-two years later, in 2017, the theatre group performs the re-enactment for the thirty-second time; the group has been doing the re-enactment every year since 1986. What is the reason for this fidelity to the restaging of a traumatic event? What is the logic of the repetition that happens relentlessly in the same way every year? Drawing from a co-performative engagement with Teatro Obrero and its re-enactment theatre, I argue that the reason may be found by looking at the long history of the sugar workers’ oppression, which spans centuries, and which is about more than Marcos and his repressive regime. The theatre has not changed because the social conditions that birthed it have not changed. It has become an intergenerational resource for the Escalante survivors who have once again lost their trust in promised change under the current national leadership.

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M. Bleeker, A. Kear, J. Kelleher, and H. Roms (eds) Thinking Through Theatre and Performance. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2019, pp.  211-224.

How does theatre think through politics? 

How does theatre think through politics? Threading this question together are three major terms: theatre, politics, thought. The answers depend largely and critically on how these terms are understood, how each stands in relation to the others, and the possible permutations of such relations and what they might mean – such as when we speak of ‘political theatre’ or, as I shall do here, of re-enactment as political theatre. 

To state that theatre thinks suggests that the human capacity for, and activity of, thinking invests theatre with the same power, the same capacity. But how is theatre both thought and action? Or is this a given that comes organically with the idea ‘theatre’ – that is to say, theatre becomes itself because it thinks? That theatre thinking is a ‘thinking through’ emphasizes a process that is always and inevitably messy and repetitive. But true thought always comes in a flash, incalculable, unplanned. That there is some methodology signalled by the ‘through’ and ‘how’ is not always evident. That theatre and politics can be thought together or have something to do with each other – the third idea in the question being addressed – is the topic ‘proper’ of this chapter. 

I explore answers to the question of how theatre thinks through politics by thinking through a thirty-two-year-old practice of re-enactment of a 1985 ‘massacre’ of demonstrators on the streets of Escalante, Negros Island, in the Philippines. Teatro Obrero, the ‘cultural arm’ of the Negros Federation of Sugar Workers, has been staging this re-enactment every single year since 1986, a year after the violent event. While the faithful restaging of the traumatic experience over the course of thirty-two years is thought by Teatro Obrero as a practice of ‘political theatre’, I want to understand the politics of the practice beyond its declaration, attentive to current discussions on or around the fraught question of politics and performance within performance studies, but also paying close attention to Escalante’s specific contexts – the situation of the sugar workers and the sugar industry of Negros, the ideological and organizational affiliations of the group with the dominant Philippine Left espousing a national democratic struggle, and Teatro Obrero’s genealogy of aesthetic practice within a larger historical context of political theatre making in the country.

How does this practice of political theatre think and do politics? The question shall be answered by a thinking through of the re-enactment itself, how it appears and is experienced as theatrical re-enactment and spectacle complete with the sound of gunfire and the blast of water cannons, and how the performance is organized and mobilized as community theatre performed mostly by young actors, within a program of torch parades, Catholic rites, concerts, and street demonstrations of sugarcane farmers, the oppressed sacadas of Negros. 

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