Fifty years, 443 productions, and 80 seasons after it was founded, Repertory Philippines can proudly claim that it has achieved what it set out to do all those years ago.
WORDS LUNA GRIÑO-INOCIAN | ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF REPERTORY PHILIPPINES
When High Life thought of featuring Repertory Philippines’ 50th Anniversary in its September issue, they also thought I would be the best person to write the feature. I had, after all, just written the script for its Gala Concert and already had “a great deal of background material on it.” And I did, so I very confidently said, “Sure,” thinking to myself, as they probably did, that it would be the proverbial walk in the park.
Since the tagline for the Rep event was “Telling Stories for 50 Years,” the piece would be Rep’s story told through personal accounts from Rep veterans. It seemed easy enough. After all, stories of the good old days were told and retold ad nauseam during the preparations for the concert—at various planning meetings, after-planning meeting dinners, rehearsals, after rehearsals, get-togethers not meant to be about Rep but which ended up being just that. In fact, anytime you gathered two or three Reppers (though we “oldies” or “gurangs” prefer the term Rep-tiles) together, reminiscences flowed as bountifully as the food, wine, beer, mojitos, and scotch or Coke Zero for the teetotalers and the weight conscious. Piece of cake, right?
Was I ever wrong!
I had enough stories to write an entire novel (which I probably will one day so all that doesn’t go to waste) and ended up with an article so ponderous and exactly what High Life’s editors did not want it to be — hagiographic.
So, at the eleventh hour, I am back at my computer starting from the very beginning, a very good place to start — because this is about a theater company that loves staging musicals so I just had to stick that Sound of Music reference in.
ACT I. BEGINNINGS
I begin with A—for Amador. Zeneida, if you want to be formal; Amads or Amador, if you are close enough to dare; Sir, because, if you’re new, she’d bark at you if you didn’t; and, of course, Bibot, which everyone ended up calling her because that’s who she was. Bibot was the company’s main visionary and its moving force.
It was she who latched on to the idea of putting up a repertory company in the Philippines after seeing how they operated in London. She was fascinated that an actor would be a leading man one day and a lesser character another or one of the production team the next. “She loved the whole concept of ‘walang bida’” recounts Leo Martinez, one of Rep’s founding members, “and she wanted to put up a company that would be just like that.”
B is for Barredo—Carmencita, or Baby as she became better known by—was Bibot’s partner, colleague, collaborator, the right brain to her left, the one who could pinpoint exactly who sang that wrong note in a chorus of 40 people, the set decorator, shawl slinger, an incredible actress whose stage presence was palpable, its first lady—and for a long time, its only leading lady, and the only one I’ve seen charge at Bibot and win.
From B, we skip 10 letters and go straight to the letter M—for Monina and Tony Mercado and Leo Martinez! They completed Repertory Philippines’ incorporators. “Tony was top man in an ad agency, I was a fresh graduate working at an ad agency and Monina was a writer,” says Leo. “And, as incorporators, we contributed Php500 each.”
Repertory Philippines would operate like a repertory company but its vision was to bring in and produce the best contemporary plays and musicals from Broadway and the West End to Filipino audiences… plays in English, yes, but plays that had universal messages that could be understood and would be relevant to anyone.
The mission was to professionalize theater by creating a corps of actors who could and would deliver first-rate performances and directors who would helm high-quality productions.
They decided on a season that consisted of five plays — each one with four performances a week for two weeks. They were able to convince Don Jaime Zobel de Ayala to grant them use of the 186-seat Insular Life Theater for a minimal fee, recruited school friends, family, and co-workers at ad agencies to pitch in as actors and crew members; printed tickets on a promise to “pay-you-later;” used furniture and props from the Barredo home for the set, and Repertory Philippines was good to go.
The first play of the season was August Strindberg’s Miss Julie—in Tagalog. “Mali,” exclaims Leo. The fact that Repertory Philippines opened the production with seven people in the audience — mostly family, friends, and the family driver — has become legendary. “We did not take the location into consideration. Makati ba naman so maraming expats.” The disappointing beginning did not faze them, however, and they went on to do the rest of the season.
The sets cost Php800 and, with the costumes and props, totaled a staggering Php1,500. None of the actors were paid. Audience attendance remained dismal. “They were very loyal,” Noel Trinidad commented. “Very loyal but very few.”
In 1973, the cast and crew received their very first paycheck—Php50 per performance. When I asked Noel Trinidad what play that was, he answered, “I don’t remember! What The Butler Saw I think. Basta, we were all so excited that we finally got paid. We were all jumping up and down!”
ACT II. A TURNING POINT
A major turning point in the life of Rep occurred during the last play of the first season—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It rained cats and dogs and the creek in the Don Bosco area overflowed, flooding the surrounding areas. Everyone thought of canceling the show but the rule of thumb had become: If there are more people in the audience than there are cast members, then the show goes on.
There were six people in the cast and 10 in the theater—the show went on. “One of the 10 was Don Jaime,” says Leo. “I guess he was really impressed by our determination to see the show through because, after the performance, he came up to us and asked, ‘What do you want? We will help you.,” Thus, Repertory Philippines gained its first benefactor and began a relationship that would last decades.
Relationships were—and still are—very important to Repertory Philippines. The original members banked on that and called on friends to join in as actors, directors, sponsors—people whose names rank among the theater and cinema greats — Rolando Tinio, Ella Luansing, Joey Gosiengfiao, Nick Lizaso, Nestor Torre, Susan Calo Medina, June Keithley, Laurice Guillen, Mitch Valdes, and Celia Diaz Laurel to name a few. Cast members would also include CEOs of multinational and local companies and/or their wives, members of the diplomatic corps, nieces, nephews, and classmates.
Leo brought in school buddies Noel Trinidad and Subas Herrero for Rep’s second season. “The play was Lysistrata and I was a soldier or something… just a small role,” he says. “I don’t remember much about it but I do remember being overwhelmed by Baby. Nilampaso n’ya kami onstage.”
Noel and Subas would eventually become Fair-Haired Boys—the ones who got the plum roles, played opposite Baby, and could pretty much get away with murder. But they still had to stay on their toes whenever they shared the stage with her.
Being recommended by friends already in Rep was primarily how cast members were recruited so it was a big surprise when, one day, an actor walks into a rehearsal of Awit Ni Grusha unannounced. “He was tall, good-looking, armed with resumés and photos and asked to audition,” says Noel. “No one had ever done that before!”
That man was Bernardo Bernardo. “I had an impromptu audition with Bibot and, it may have been ‘playtime,’ because I overheard some playful snickering from where Leo, Noel and Subas Herrero were standing: ‘Yan daw ang papalit sa ’yo,’ one of them clearly said.”
“As it turned out ako nga ang pumalit but it took more than a year before I could take my turn as Rep’s Fair-Haired Boy,” Bernie recalls with a mischievous smile.
His first play was You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown and he played Snoopy. That was also the very first Repertory Philippines play I saw. That was in 1975 and it was their 10th season.
Three years later, my then-husband Junix auditioned for 1978 production of Fiddler on the Roof with Freddie Santos already cast as Tevye. Bernie was in the audition panel. Junix, fresh from doing the same role in a Silliman University production, sang “If I Were A Rich Man.” Bernie turned very pointedly towards Freddie and whispered rather loudly, “Naku, patay! May kapalit ka na.” The whole panel erupted into laughter and Freddie was not pleased. Junix did not get the lead role though but was cast as Lazar Wolfe instead. He did finally get to play Tevye in the 1983 production, with our 10-month son playing his grandson, Baby Kamzoil.
For Junix and me, the time between 1978 to 1983 was a time fraught with uncertainty. We had three children by then and had to live on an actor’s meager pay. Yet he was determined to make it in theater no matter what. Bibot told him there were no roles for him in the season but he could start out as one of the stage crew. Junix answered, “Beats driving a pedicab” which must have left an impression on Bibot because she clapped him on the back and said, “Welcome to Repertory Philippines.”
As he was wont to do, Junix poured himself into the work, did a lot of homework and was literally willing to do anything. True repertory style, he swept floors, washed props, ran lights, did bit roles and took the heat for his accent (Visayan) or his lack of it (British). And it could get pretty hot.
Bibot’s temper is legendary… and all of the stories were true.
Bernie still remembers that The Rep Dynamic Duo (Bibot and Baby) were “uptight during rehearsals. Repressed. Very serious. They ran a very tight ship. But it wasn’t fun.”
Blackboard erasers, tables and chairs, expletives in Tagalog and English flew fast and furious in the rehearsal halls. Sometimes the outbursts were for show—to instill fear in the newbies mainly—except you never knew for sure if they were real or not. Other times, they were very, very real and those times were always terrifying!
“Discipline” was the byword and Bibot believed in breaking actors down before building them up again. Junix was an emotional mess after every Sweeney Todd rehearsal. It was his first big musical role and it was a particularly demanding one. Bibot would not let up on him until he gave her what she wanted.
One of Bibot’s favorite admonishments was, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
And some did get out. Freddie, who was playing most of the leads then, up and left one day. We were too new in the company to ask why. All we knew was that it took a long time before he returned to theater.
Others left to join other theater companies because, when one was from Rep, the unspoken rule was that you could and should only do Rep shows. Lines were clearly drawn and an actor had to choose. There was no such thing as working for multiple companies as there is now.
Yet others stayed—willing to put up with whatever was thrown literally and figuratively at them for a chance to work in theater—to do what they loved.
Jamie Wilson thinks that some people needed to be screamed at. He did. He began as a student at Rep’s summer workshop and, at 10 years old, was cast as Theo in Pippin. “Mom freaked out when she realized I had a solo. Me? I was just excited to see what everyone tried so hard to keep me from seeing,” he remembers with glee. “I kept sneaking out to sneak a peak. I was so pasaway,” he admits, “and now I’m in charge of the pasaways.”
Noel had a totally different experience. “Though I never personally got screamed at, I learned the importance of discipline, responsibility and teamwork because she screamed at others for not being disciplined, responsible, and a team player.”
Junix stayed. By then, I was already doing odd jobs for the company and I, of course, stayed. Many did. We stayed because it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes it was very, very good.
We stayed as Rep plays ran at the Philamlife Auditorium in Manila, the Meralco Theater in Pasig City, the Rizal Theater in Makati City where Shangri-La now stands, and, at the country’s premier venue, the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
“Things started getting better once we started doing musicals at the CCP. “Bibot loosened up,” Bernie said. “It was like the depressing fog lifted. The dictatorial stance and relentless cuss words were almost done for show, delivered with a knowing wink to the ‘inner circle.’”
It was also then that Rep started building its audiences and selling season tickets thanks to the initiative of Joy Virata. Not only was it widening its reach, its productions were receiving a lot more media attention and getting rave reviews. Sponsorships were coming in and people in the government and the upper echelons of society were taking notice and giving their support.
Bernie wrote this about those times: “Looking back, working with Repertory Philippines was like walking in the Corridors of Power—acting/interacting with Joy Virata (wife of the prime minister of the Republic), Celia Diaz Laurel (wife of the vice-president of the Philippines), Chito Ponce Enrile (brother of the Defense minister), and Imee Marcos (daughter of President Marcos) … talented actors all, but heady stuff being around them when you think about it.”
Rep shows were getting better and better, the production values were becoming higher and higher with stunning costumes, impressive sets and outstanding performances by the actors who had also become better and better—their skills constantly honed as they performed two seasons a year, five plays per season, each play running for four weekends with five shows each weekend. In between, there were rehearsals for the next play and rehearsals and performances for corporate events, dinner shows, fashion shows, and the occasional tour.
In 1993, Les Miserables elevated Rep to an even higher level. It was a major hit, catching the audience’s attention with its moving story, great music, amazing sets and costumes, and world class performances by the best of Rep’s actors. Les Mis moved them and made them want to come back for more. And they did. Jack and the Beanstalk was a runaway hit with over 60 shows and Rep’s Children’s Theater productions, begun by Virata in 1992, were packing audiences in and making it big at the box office.
“We always start the year in the red,” comments Gidget Tolentino, Rep’s general manager and general go-to-person, “but by year’s end, we are always in the black and then some, all thanks to the success of Rep’s Children’s Theater productions.”
Those were the biggies but it is the little things that we—I, especially—remember most.
There were meals served between matinees and evening performances in the Insular Life Theater. The menu was almost always monggo and pork chops courtesy of Marietta, Bibot’s faithful Kamuning-based “kasambahay.” When it wasn’t, we ate delicious meatballs marinated in toyo and calamansi fried to perfection — juicy on the inside and crunchy on the outside. I still serve that dish to this day.
I remember my children growing up in Insular Life Auditorium. They celebrated their birthdays in the foyer with Bibot and Baby only too happy to put on party hats and play parlor games. They learned to walk in the hallways of the Meralco and turned the stage into one giant playground much to the stage manager’s chagrin. They had a plethora of titos and titas to hug, coddle and feed them, and to help them do their homework, teach them to play the guitar as well as cuss words which I wasn’t really very happy about. None of them turned out to be actors but all of them love the theater and theater folk.
There were always parties at either the Viratas or the Laurels where everyone was expected to perform. The challenge was how to escape singing. It was amazing how many people needed to go to the bathroom. Birthdays were also celebrated at Burger Machine on EDSA with our cars pulled up with doors open and music blaring from the car radios. We watched Godzilla Vs. Mothra in Audie Gemora’s house, did midnight runs to Tagaytay so we could watch the sunrise or “balikan” trips to Baguio on a whim just because. There were impromptu visits to our little apartment on West Avenue heralded only by Junix’ phone call saying, “Cook lots of rice. We’ll bring barbecue and Coke.” 1 a.m. stopovers at Whistle Stop on Jupiter to shop at the PX store or to grab a post-show snack. There was laughing—a lot—and eating… because we always seemed to be eating.
But more than these fond memories, there was the learning. Bibot was an excellent teacher—well-read and articulate, she insisted that everyone around her be just as well-informed. She knew how to wear doublets properly and how to sit down in 12th-century court dress. And she was eager to pass on what she knew to us.
We would study the classics once a week in the Laurels’ residence on Shaw Boulevard. It would be a time for learning as well as an opportunity to bond over food and laughter. We were reading Oedipus Rex for the first time and we each had a turn at reading parts of the play. Cita Astals was first up and she read the titles as “Ow-ed-di-pus.” Bibot scowled at her and said, “It’s Ed-uh-puhs, Ed-uh-puhs! Haven’t you read Ed-uh-puhs Rex before.” Cita answered, “Not aloud.” Then everyone in the room burst into laughter—Bibot laughed the loudest.
There was the screaming and cussing, sure, but just as often, perhaps even more, there was the laughter: friendly, tension-easing, bond-cementing laughter. There was also a lot of teasing, ribbing and the roasting. Not to mention the testing-Bibot’s-limits pranks.
Insular Life Auditorium was tiny and backstage consisted of a small room with a bathroom that served as the “star’s dressing room,” and a winding staircase that led up to an even smaller dressing room. An eight-foot-square storage room behind the stage was converted into another dressing room we called The Ghetto. Backstage business had to be done in silence because the audience could hear anything beyond a whisper. And you never-ever flushed the toilet during a performance because the whole house would hear it. Well, one day someone did — during a particularly dramatic scene — and the entire audience lost it. Whether it was done on purpose, we still don’t know. The hapless creature who caused it all lost his job that day, too.
One thing we all learned: You never, ever disrupted a production. You could have playtime moments but the audience should never catch on. You should not ever, Bibot would drum into everyone’s ears, “destroy months and months of hard work with one thoughtless mistake.”
We would also learn to do everything that needed to be done. I was sitting in the audience one day, waiting for Junix as he rehearsed when Bibot saw me and said: “You! You’re just sitting there! Make yourself useful.” That’s how I got my first job with Rep—as one of the crew. I would eventually become dresser, assistant stage manager, spotlight operator, light technician, front-of-house manager, librarian, PR writer, and actress — yes, I was actually on stage for four productions, three of them with lines even.
Jamie Wilson started out in plays like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. But when he outgrew the “kiddie roles,” he realized “If you didn’t have a role, you went and found where you could help” so he started doing a lot of backstage, front-of-house and tech jobs. Today, Jamie still acts, assistant directs, is one of the finest technical directors around and is looking forward to his first directorial job in Rep’s next season.
We were working, learning, and growing together, learning to be more than friends… becoming family.
Then there were the “bad times” that brought us even closer together.
The deaths of three members of the Woman of the Year production that left us not just emotionally bereft and grieving but also grappling with the task of having very quickly to find people to take over the roles left vacant by their passing. People long uninvolved with Rep stepped up, learned the parts in two days and took over.
A mass exodus by disgruntled Rep-tiles in the mid-1980s to put up their own companies because they were convinced that there was a better way of running a theater company. Some were simply tired of doing the same old-same old season after season and wanted to do newer, edgier material.
Several theater companies, now prominent in their own right, were born of this “rebellion.” Monique Wilson put up New Voice Company; Bart Guingona, Dodo Lim and company formed Actor’s Actors, Inc.; Audie Gemora, Freddie Santos, Enchang and Mari Kaimo, and I put up Trumpets. In more recent years, Robbie Guevara and Mio Infante have Nine Works Theatrical; Joel Trinidad, Upstart; Rem Zamora, Ana Abad Santos, Jenny Jamora, and Topper Fabregas, Red Turnip; Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Michael Williams, Resorts World Manila’s Full House Theater Company.
A financial crisis in the early 1990s triggered by two of Rep’s trusted employees siphoning off the bulk of Rep’s funds into their own personal accounts. It was a wake-up call: time to stop being a mom-and-pop operation and professionalize not just the performances but the administration of the company itself. Consultants were called in and more experienced staff hired. Gidget came in at this time as an accountant. She would soon, like most of us did, be doing much more than just counting beans and is now a veritable jack-of-all-trades but master of quite a few.
The loss of many of Rep’s mainstays to Miss Saigon in 1986, Junix among them. That left Rep scrambling for people to fill the lead roles, any role. It was a temporary setback eventually turned for the good of Rep because it resulted in an increased interest in theater and bigger enrolment for Rep workshops—because of every little girl wanting to become the next Lea Salonga.
And, in November 2008, one final blow: the passing of Bibot that very nearly broke Repertory Philippines’ back. And most certainly broke its heart.
Having formed our own theater companies, we had remained friends but could no longer be called close. We were competition after all, even though we weren’t really. But when we found out she was ailing, we went, we hugged, we kissed, we teased that she would do anything just to get us back. Bibot laughed. We laughed and all was right with our world. She made one final request of us—she made us promise to help keep Rep alive once she had gone.
“Bibot was the Captain of the ship,” Jamie says thoughtfully, “and she did not leave a Captain’s Log behind. There was no clear successor and no clear vision.”
Gidget Tolentino, Rep’s general manager, commented that “Bibot knew everything about Rep —the business side and the artistic side. The new leader needed to have just as good a grasp of both sides as she did. Baby had to learn. Joy had to learn. We are all still learning.”
We all pitched in any way we could. Some came back to act; some, to direct. As members of family do at such a time, the prodigals returned, put their shoulders to the wheel, and helped get Rep back on its feet as best they could. We promised, after all.
There would be other conflicts, disagreements, parting of ways as there are in any family. So much more in this family peopled with intelligent, sensitive, expressive, passionate people.
Goodness, just planning the 50th anniversary was like being on an active battlefield. Put together nine of the country’s best directors, a pair of strict bean counters, a determined-to-keep-within-the-theme head writer and you are bound to see differences of opinion. And fireworks, lots of fireworks.
ACT III. PROMISE FULFILLED
Families always come home when the need arises. Over 100 Reppers who were free to come showed up at the 50th anniversary and there were many more who could not but wished they could have.
Differences were brushed aside. Relationships were renewed. New ones were formed. Pleasure was taken in meeting the new generation of Reppers. And though the veterans felt lost because everybody seemed to know each other and they did not, they didn’t feel like they shouldn’t be there. They could sense the feeling of camaraderie and felt welcome. Everyone was in full reminiscing mode. Telling old stories. Sharing new ones. The young ones listening in rapt attention — wavering between being awed and amused. Everyone was remembering Rep’s beginnings and remembering what Rep is all about.
Fifty years, 443 productions and 80 seasons after it was founded, Repertory Philippines can proudly claim that it has achieved what it set out to do all those years ago.
The mission was to professionalize theater by creating a corps of actors who could and would deliver first-rate performances and directors who would helm high-quality productions. And, on that stage that day, was living breathing proof that its mission has been accomplished.
“We wanted to take acting to a new level and we did,” Leo affirms. “We wanted to lift the status of actors and we did. Look where the actors are now: on Broadway, in London’s West End, in Germany. Everywhere, in lead roles!”
Rep’s Annie, Lea Salonga and her friend Monique Wilson would become Miss Saigon’s very first Kims. Junix would become the very first Filipino Engineer. Many other Reppers would join the cast in London, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia.
In a recent interview, Red Concepcion, the Engineer in Miss Saigon’s 2017 UK Tour, divulged something Cameron Mackintosh told him. “In the UK, there have only been five official Engineers — Jonathan Price, Junix Inocian, Leo Valdes, Jon-Jon Briones and now you.” Red beamed with pride as he said: “Imagine, four out of five are Filipinos!” I am even more proud to say that all four of them came from Repertory Philippines.
“Rep’s fingerprints are seen in almost every production that’s happening in the city, even abroad,” says Jamie Wilson. “I mean there are at least—how many—seven or eight theater companies directly or indirectly influenced by Rep.”
Bernie sums everything up with one emphatic statement: “And it ain’t no factoid: practically everybody who’s anybody in Philippine Theater, from the late 1960s onwards, was at one time or another a Repertory Philippines actor.”
This is Repertory Philippines’ legacy. Bibot’s favorite quote goes: “Ah, but a man’s grasp should exceed his reach or what’s a heaven for!” This legacy is within the reach of all Reppers—past, present and future. Let us grasp it and improve on it.
Griño-Inocian has played many roles within Repertory Philippine, her most recent being head writer for 50 Years of Telling Stories, Rep’s one-night musical gala in celebration of its 50th anniversary.