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Theater in the Streets: An Interview with Chris Millado about the 1980s Philippine Protest Theater

Cebu City was a protest center

Google News - Manila News 1987

Using street theater to inform the public about social issues

The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) stages informance plays—performances meant to inform—on social issues ranging from women’s rights to children’s rights across the Philippines. With its mobile theater, PETA uses informance plays as tools to engage the public to confront important social issues that remain unaddressed. In doing so, PETA indirectly forces individuals to seek solutions to their own problems.

Today, one-third of the Filipino population lives below the poverty line. As a result, a majority lacks education. This lack of education is seen with social problems such as family planning, domestic abuse, marital rape, and child abuse. A majority of the Filipino population has come to silently accept these social concerns, relying on tradition to justify the use of violence in families or the growing number of children in impoverished households. PETA’s work has sought to reverse this situation.

Established in 1967, PETA is committed to social change. For thirty-three years, PETA has presented educational and developmental performances on various issues, from domestic abuse to family planning. PETA has given mobile workshops for marginalized communities as well as for an array of audiences to promote a “culture of peace, social justice and sustainable development” (“Histoire récente du Théâtre,” Online). Through informance plays, PETA has sought to achieve this mission.

Communities, villages, or organizations first request PETA to perform. These requests usually ask PETA to stage their plays around specific issues affecting the community. For example, the Commission on Population asked PETA to stage its informance play around the causes and consequences of unmet needs. PETA then gives the issue a human face by incorporating everyday characters with whom the audience can relate. This may include a male-chauvinistic husband and a desperate wife. In addition, PETA stages the setting of the play in accordance with its audience’s situation. The informance play lasts around seventy-five minutes. The play, however, portrays a social issue without giving any solution to it. PETA’s intent in doing so is to give the audience something to think about. PETA’s work does not finish there: after each performance, actors hold a discussion with the audience. If the audience is small, they discuss the impact of the play in a circle. The actors ask for the audience’s reaction to the play. In many cases, individuals relay to the actors their connections with a specific character. To the actors, this indicates that a connection was made, as intended. During this debrief session, PETA listens to the audience’s feedback, personal stories, and initiatives for action. PETA may recommend or provide ideas for the audience to act upon; but PETA does mostly acts as a supporter. PETA wants the audience to find their solutions on their own.

PETA’s work has made the company evolve into a prestigious theater in the Philippines and in Asia. PETA has performed more than 300 productions attended by thousands of individuals. Examples include “Tumawag kay Libby Manaoag,” plays on domestic violence, and “the Libby Files.” The success of informance plays has been so tremendous that requests for PETA cannot accommodate any more performances. PETA’s tactic has left its mark most significantly on its audience. As a result of these performances that touched the heart of many of the spectators, local communities, individuals, or groups have taken action to solve their problems. Issues no longer remain unaddressed. For example, after an informance play on marital rape, a woman went back home and said no to her husband when she did not feel like it. PETA, in other words, has challenged its audiences to re-think conventional, deeply rooted beliefs about issues such as man and wife, gender roles, and population control.

In thinking about how to implement this tactic in another context, i.e. child prostitution or HIV/AIDS, it is important to keep in mind that 1) criticism to one’s theatrical approach may emerge, 2) participation from communities, villages, and organizations is necessary, and 3) funding for the tours is important.