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The KALAHOK Theater Approach: A Communication Perspective by Ricamela Palis

Our history of arts and theatre is often conveniently divided in terms of the advent of colonialism and the cultural influences of our colonial masters—that is, Indigenous (pre-colonial), Spanish, American and Contemporary (post-Second World War to present times).

This periodization implies that, without colonialism, we do not have a history of arts and theatre to speak of (Navarro, 1997).  It is as if Philippine arts and theatre came into being as a result of our capacity to adapt through the process of “indigenization,” a euphemism for the “ability to imitate,” though the former label suggests an intention to adapt based on the needs and general welfare of society.  Cultural adaptation, though, is not strength but a weakness, in the sense that it emanates from an outsider’s perspective of how history—likewise arts and theatre—are constituted.  It leads us to conclude that our own history, arts and theatre are no different from their colonial origins, which becomes a stumbling block in our construction of our own identity.

According to Dr. Zeus Salazar (Navarro, 1997), the history of a specific community or nation should be construed primarily on the basis of the internal flow of its own history.  Colonized for centuries by foreign powers, our worldview is largely influenced by the works of scholars under the tutelage of colonial education.  Philippine history, therefore, may be construed based on our own understanding of concepts and constructs that spring from two perspectives—first, from the likas o taal na Pilipino; and second, from the Western worldview.

With the arrival of Spanish and American colonizers, historya was introduced, which weaves three traditions of Western historiography: one, history as chronicle or sequence of events; two, history as a positivist science based on documentary evidences; and three, history as interpretation framed in western language and ideology.

Sining, Tanghalan, Dula, Teatro, Drama

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Philippines, what they found were numerous societies with diverse ways that, to the European judgment, were barbaric, pagan or uncivilized.  Contrary to this continental bias, pre-Spanish communities were organized, with their own socio-political and economic systems and cultures deeply rooted in their everyday interaction and struggle for survival.

Western civilizations have evolved their own definition of arts and theatre based on their own socially constructed realities.  However, when the conquistadors introduced their art and theatre to Philippine societies, it was in the context of proselytization and the nation-building project of the Spanish Crown that subjugated the formerly independent indigenous societies in the archipelago.

Ironically, while the conquistadors were preoccupied with colonization of territories in the Asian and American continents, Spanish literature reached its Golden Age, with Lope de Vega (1562-1635) as one of the most prolific writers (Almario, 1992).  It is believed that de Vega wrote some 1,500 plays.  The Spanish national theatre was shaped by de Vega’s works and was held to be at par with its contemporaries.

De Vega defines theatre as the “passionate combat of human beings in a platform” (Boal, 1995).  Augusto Boal mentions in his work that this definition captures the essence of theatre.  The “passionate combat” refers to the conflict that propels a story through the actors in order for dramatic action to take place.  These are the same elements that can be found in the definition of drama.  The “platform” in De Vega’s definition refers to any space where the “passionate combat” could take place.

With the advent of American colonial rule in the Philippines, art was taught in the schools based on the colonizer’s understanding of the Aristotelian concept of art as “the imitation of nature.”  This conception of art gave justification for setting canons for any artwork—standards of “quality” and “legitimate characteristics” that should be evident in any work of art.  These were of course, standards based on the colonizer’s culture and perspective.  Thus, Filipinos were encouraged to be excellent imitators of art that is neither congruent nor related to their social reality as a colonized people.

However, according to Augusto Boal, Aristotle’s definition should not be taken literally.  His concept of “mimesis” refers not to imitation of nature, but to re-creation of nature.  “Nature” in the Aristotelian sense is not nature as physical environment, but nature as characteristic or essence of things.  Thus, a re-reading of the Aristotelian concept tells us “art re-creates the creative principle of created things (Boal, 1979).”   

Kalinangan, Kultura and Kabihasnan

Lope K. Santos was among the writers who popularised “kalinangan” as a Tagalog term for “culture.” (Almario, 1993)  Etymologically, kalinangan comes from the root word linang, a cultivated lupain or land.  Lupain here refers not just to the terrestrial soil, but also to all forms of life in that particular domain.  It is very probable that Santos and other writers construed “culture” as a concept based on the agricultural mode of production of early Filipinos. 

Kabihasnan is from the root word bihasa, indicating a certain level of mastery.  In the course of the early Filipinos” struggle to survive, they experienced adversities caused by or resulting from tensions among human beings, or between nature and human beings.  Societies were able to overcome these adversities through rituals- pagtutuklas while nalilibang, nagpupugay amidst the pagdiriwang of the community—the definition of the creative process of art and theatre.  Through time, this process honed their mastery in dealing with the tensions, and constituted the kabihasnan.

The term kultura is a Western concept that refers to the way of life, shaped by a people in a specific period in the course of their interaction with nature, other people and external forces.  Included in this definition are the economic system, political system, social organization, beliefs and traditions and arts and crafts.

These concepts represent the view that culture is a dynamic phenomenon, and reflects not only the past achievements of humanity, but also what humanity continues to create and recreate.  Therefore it is possible for every society to evolve its own distinct culture based on the particularities of the tensions among human beings and between human beings and nature, so that no culture is superior over another.

These two perspectives converge to form the basis of a discourse of culture and arts in the Philippines (Ileto, 1989).  According to Dr. Zeus Salazar, this convergence may also be the springboard for a new perspective for historiography and historical analysis.

An Overview of Emergent Constructions
Of Philippine Theatre
Ritual as Theatre in Pre-Hispanic Societies

In pre-Hispanic societies, rituals were initiated by the babaylan.  The will of the supernatural is collectively understood by the mundane through the babaylan.  The pusong or lukayo serves as the articulator of experiences collectively held by society, whose story is later to be affirmed in the “performance.”

Alexander  (2003) defines rituals as “episodes of repeated and simplified cultural communication, in which the direct partners to a social interaction, and those observing it, share a mutual belief in the descriptive and prescriptive in the validity of the communication’s symbolic contents and accept the authenticity of one another’s intention.”  Rituals are cultural performances defined by Alexander as “the social process by which actors, individually or in concert, display for others the meaning of their social situation.”  Earlier societies are characterized by the centrality of rituals, where what is performed is not a representation of the action, but is the action itself (Sonesson, 2000).  Rituals are not even conceived of as art, for in earlier societies, the cultural and social parts are not differentiated and segmented.

The collective representations to which these social performances refer are not texts composed by specialists…nor do these collective representations form a critical “metacommentary” on social life… .  Rituals not only mark transitions but also create them, such that the participants become something or somebody else as a result.  Ritual performance not only symbolizes a social relationship or change, it actualises it.  There is the direct effect, without mediation (Alexander, 2003).

While art and theatre are intended to “interpret the world,” rituals “change the world by changing its own interpretation of the world (Sonesson, 2000).”  On the basis of the collectively held interpretation of the world, rituals ensure the continuity of the social organization and other functions of society.

Theatre as Ritual in the Anti-colonial Resistance Movement

Four centuries of colonization altered the patterns of social relationships among Filipinos in a variety of intensity and scope.  The penetration of market forces into the simple commodity economies of the various pre-Spanish societies drove a wedge into the stratified population.  Social stratification became more sharply pronounced as the various societies were placed under a single political system.  Power relations became more hierarchical.  Responses to these external pressures varied likewise, the more notable of which were the movements dismissed as milleniarists such as those led by Hermano Pule, Papa Isio and Nicolas Encallado.  These movements emerged at the crossroads of the Spanish or United State’s nation building projects, the local responses to colonization and the people’s assertion of their reinterpretation of the metaphysical and the mundane.

Art here is not a separate enterprise.  The rituals were collective experiences, not by the whole society but by a segment of it. Hermano Pule, Papa Isio and Nicolas Encallado were not known as artists but their movement definitely spelled trouble for the colonial governments.  The elements of the social performance had to be mediated by prominent figures that tried to reclaim and regain the “seamless connection” between the social and cultural parts.
Rather than being organized primarily through rituals that affirm metaphysical and consensual beliefs, [they] have opened themselves up through negotiations and reflexivity about means and ends, with the result that conflict, disappointment, and feelings of bad faith are at least as common as integration…(Alexander, 2003)

Theatre as Rehearsal for Change

Organized responses to colonization were also accompanied by the emergence of theatre that aired the “voices” from below and placed on centre stage people who used to be spectators of colonial stage presentations.

In 1887, Andres Bonifacio founded the Teatro Porvenir. As a young man, Bonifacio used to perform in comedias.  In Teatro Porvenir, Bonifacio decided to change the name of the characters, settings, and other scenes in the staging of Bernardo Carpio to make the material relevant to their times.  Five years later, Bonifacio organized the Katipunan, a secret society that led the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia in 1896.  Bonifacio’s theatre work in Teatro Porvenir offered him an opportunity to realize how a script can be changed in accordance with what they think is needed by their audiences.  It is likely that this experience also offered Bonifacio the possibility of changing the “script” of the larger theatre, that is, Philippine society under the Spanish colonial rule.

Amidst the raging Philippine resistance against American colonization in 1902, Aurelio Tolentino wrote Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas, cited in most Philippine literary history as “seditious drama.”  The play portrayed the hardships experienced by Filipinos under the colonization of the Chinese, Spanish and Americans.  After five years, Tolentino and his theatre company wrote and staged the play Bagong Kristo despite the very repressive American-made laws that threatened the lives of the theatre workers.  Bagong Kristo articulated the situation of workers at the turn of the century under a new colonial master.  The plays of Tolentino and his theatre company encouraged the people to strengthen and continue their resistance against any colonial power.

During the Second World War, the Filipino resistance movement Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (HUKBALAHAP) established its own Cultural Information Divison and the Nueva Ecija Cultural and Dramatic Association (NECDA).  This spurred the flowering of theatre and musical performances of the guerillas in the different barrios through which audiences were recruited into the HUKBALAHAP.  The ordinary barriofolk who used to be spectators of the performances that highlighted the need for people to resist Japanese occupation became active members of the liberation movement (Maceda, 1996).

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the political turmoil that engulfed Philippine society.  Gintong Silahis of Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) and Panday Sining of Kabataang Makabayan (KM) filled the streets with fiery dula-tula and songs that exposed the corrupt and decadent nature of the local bureaucracy that continued to uphold and protect U.S. imperialist interest in the country (Atienza, Lumbera and Zafra, 1998).  The performances teemed with themes that explained the roots of poverty and injustice—themes that were given little space in schools, church, media and other institutions.  When martial law was declared in 1972, these groups went underground and participated in actions beyond the stage, immersed themselves in marginalized communities and continued to take part in the national social movement that ultimately toppled the Marcos dictatorship.  

It was Augusto Boal who coined the concept “theatre as rehearsal for liberation.”  Boal took off from the works and practice of Bertolt Brecht.  In his work Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal quoted from Brecht and explained that

the popular artist must abandon the downtown stages and go to the neighborhoods, because only there will he find people who are truly interested in changing society: in the neighborhoods he should show his images of social life to the workers who are interested in changing that social life, since they are its victims … .  Brecht wants the theatrical spectacle to be the beginning of action: the equilibrium should be sought by transforming society, and not by purging the individual of his just demands and needs… .  I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people them.  The theatre is the weapon, and it is the people who should the means of production in the theatre so that the people themselves may utilize wield it (Boal, 1979).

Kalahok as a Discourse on the Theatre Practice of
ARTIST – Korido Theatre Ensemble

ARTIST may not have originated the concept and practice of Kalahok, for deliberate and purposive attempts to cultivate the educational and transformative functions of theatre in the Philippines can be traced back to the early American colonial period.  Theatre activists pursued this “tradition” in the 1960s and 1970s as part of their work in the various social movements for transformation.

The Emergence of Kalahok

Kalahok found its way into ARTIST via the organization’s founders, whose theatre practices were seasoned by a cultural movement that flourished during the Martial Law years, advocating national sovereignty and social justice.

In 1990, ARTIST produced Suntok sa Buwan, a play performed more than 40 times within two years, for a variety of audiences in various settings, with each performance unique in terms of stage orientation, time duration, casting, texture and meaning to the actors and audiences.  The material as well as the performances went through a continuous evolution.

In 1995, ARTIST had a similar experience in the development of the play Sa Liyab ng Libong Sulo.  Starting from a two-hour proscenium performance involving about 50 persons as cast and crew, the play evolved into a one to one-and a half hour theatre-in-the-round performance that can be rendered in any space by a group of 10 people doing onstage and backstage tasks.  The play was performed more than 60 times in a span of three years—in basketball courts, public elementary school classrooms, barangay plazas and churches.

It was only during the Sa Liyab ng Libong Sulo experience that ARTIST coined the term Kalahok to refer to a theatre practice that directly evokes audience participation in the themes and scenes developed by the actors.  The levels of audience participation vary—from moving stage props, guided performance of cameo roles onstage, answering questions posed by the actors, telling their own stories related to the theme and instructing actors how to recreate the story, and finally deciding how to end the play.

The “talk” on Kalahok started in 1996 among the members of the Korido Theatre Ensemble, and was extended to members of the theatre network in Laguna and Luzon, and other dramaturges in the regional theatre scene.

The Main Arguments of Kalahok
  • In any form of social organization, people would always seek to communicate their ideas for specific purposes.  Communication is an inherent ability of human beings in order to fulfil their basic needs.
  • The arts and other forms of cultural expressions are among the means by which humans communicate their ideas.  Art though, is more deliberate and more defined as a distinctive category and activity in more specialized societies.  The ability to create art is not primarily determined by nature, but can be nurtured through participation in social life.
  • Injustice, oppression and conflict are realities of Philippine society.  This creates a condition that enables oppressors to manipulate arts and other forms of expression in order to maintain the status quo.  The oppressed are reduced to becoming end-users of arts that are, more often than not, detached from their realities (or worse, mask their realities),
  • However, this condition also offers opportunities for the oppressed to make use of art and other forms of expression as a weapon to liberate themselves, transform society and establish a social order that would promote social justice and genuine human development.  Theatre is a dialogue among actors, between the actors and the audiences, among the audiences, and between the audiences and the general public.  Through theatre-dialogue, actors and audiences paint a picture of their social reality and their desired future, and discuss possibilities for action and involvement in the process of social transformation.  This argument borrows heavily from Augusto Boal’s concept of theatre as a “rehearsal for liberation.”

Alexander, Jeffrey, 2003. The Cultural Pragmatics of Social Performance: Between Ritual and Rationality. Blurred Boundaries: Rethinking Culture in the Context of Interdisciplinary Practices. Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan, December 13-14, 2003.

Almario, Virgilio S., 1992. Kung sino ang kumatha kina Bagongbanta, Ossorio, Herrera, Aquino de Belen, Balagtas, atbp. Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc.

Almario, Virgilio, 1993. Filipino ng mga Filipino. Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc.

Almario, Virgilio, 1993. Panitikan ng Rebolusyong 1896. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Atienza, Glecy C., Bienvenido L. Lumbera and Galileo S. Zafra, 1998. Bangon: Antolohiya ng mga Dulang Mapanghimagsik. Quezon City: UP Office of Research Coordination, Diliman.

Boal, Augusto, 1979. Theatre of the Oppressed (translated by Charles A. and Maria Odilia Leal McBride). New York: Urizen Books, Inc.

Boal, Augusto, 1995. Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method Of the Theatre (translated by Adrian Jackson). London: Routledge, 1995.
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Maceda, Teresita Gimenez, 1996. Mga Tinig Mula sa Ibaba: Kasaysayan ng Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas at Partido Sosialista ng Pilipinas sa Awit, 1930-1955. Quezon City: UP Press Diliman, 1996.

Navarro, Atoy, 1997. Mary Jane Rodriguez and Vicente Villain (patnugot). Pantayong Pananaw: Ugat at Kabuluhan.  Mandaluyong, Palimbagang Kalawakan.

Noceda, Juan de and Pedro San Lucar,1860.  Vocabulario. Madrid (?)
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Perron, Paul. 1997. Semiotics.  The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ritzer, George, 1992. Sociological Theory. McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Sonesson, Goran, 2000. Action Becomes Art: “Performance” in the Context of Theatre, Play, Ritual – and Life. kultsem/sonesson/Actionstoart1.html

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