Woman and the Changing World on Alternative Global Stage: Sixth Women Playwrights International Conference: Manila, 14-20 November 2003
Burns, Lucy Mae San Pablo, Asian Theatre Journal
This review focuses on the sixth Women Playwrights International (WPI) conference and festival, held in Manila, Philippines, in November 2003. Through a discussion of how the WPI festival both interrogates and stages a mainstream international festival, the review explores alternative global theater and its relationship to questions of gender and geopolitics. The article focuses on examples from the work of artists of Asian ethnicity or descent that were featured in the conference.
Lucy Burns was a UC President's Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She teaches at UCLA's Departments of Asian American Studies and World Arts and Culture. Burns is a dramaturge interested in community-based theater projects, and her research interests include Asian American performance, feminist and postcolonial theories, and Filipino Studies. She is currently working on a manuscript on the Pilipino performing body.
The Women Playwrights International (WPI) held its sixth conference, "Women Making Theatre in a Changing World," in Manila, Philippines, 14-20 November 2003. Two hundred delegates from all over the world attended the gathering. The mood of the festival was celebratory. Thai playwright Kulthida Maneerat commented that the festival felt "more like a reunion of old friends." Women Playwrights International has existed since 1986. Every three years, the conference/ festival is held "to further the work of women playwrights around the world by promoting their works, encouraging and assisting development of their work, and bringing international recognition to their work" (http://web.mit.edu/mta/iwp/). The WPI event provides a site for global arts exchange between women playwrights and offers an alternative to most international festivals where the works of women playwrights, feminist themes, and feminist aesthetics are often marginalized. Through a gender-based, transnationalist focus, WPI continually seeks to record and to create change. Given the centrality of Asia at the conference, this article focuses on the works of Asian artists.
The conference theme of women in a changing world highlights some thematic concerns of contemporary women's drama: calls for liberation, rising terrorism, shifting and contested national boundaries, and the formation and dissolution of states. In her address, playwright/ director Dijana Milosevic, for example, raised a quandary about how to identify her "country" of origin: Yugoslavia? Serbia? Montenegro? The country formerly known as Yugoslavia? Names of countries may change but the stories told on stage by artists such as Milosevic remember and embody the afterlife of war. Her theater project Art Saves Lives, which has taken the form of a festival since 1993, creates a network for artists exploring the role of art in sustaining and recreating life after the ruins of war and corruption. Her work with this project and her theater laboratory, Dah (Breath) Theatre, shows the continuation of life in war-torn states when U.S. aid has left and corporate media have moved on to another sensationalized war story.
The crisis of contested territories, of a "changing world," forces and inspires theater artists such as Milosevic to rethink compositions that are constituted around the model of "nations" and the fixity of gender norms. Simply raising questions and stating the fragmented nature of nation-states or gender construction will no longer suffice. While I discuss some of the individual performances presented and plays read, I wish to highlight some of the larger issues the event posed about the place of non-Euro-American work in the canon of contemporary women's performance, and the significance of site, programming, language, and ethnic explorations in structuring the event. To understand the organizational transformation the WPI attempted by meeting in Asia and the predominance of works by Asian artists in the festival programming, I need to briefly consider the genealogy of international festivals and the ways the WPI festival simultaneously questioned and replicated normative festival structures.
Internationalizing the Festival
Today directors and producers continually search for innovative programming and think through the changing function of international performance sites. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's chapter "Confusing Pleasures" in Destination Culture offers an insightful critique of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival of Arts. She questions its avant-garde thrust in presenting "performance forms from other social and cultural worlds, as if they had emanated from the avant-garde itself" (1998: 205). In another example, Nicholas Ridout, a scholar of contemporary European theatre, optimistically commends the London International Festival of Theater (LIFT) decision in 2001 to reexamine the notion of festivals as a unique construction to generate "engagements that ordinary discourse and everyday encounters do not permit" (Ridout 2003: 109). His re.ections on LIFT's "rethinking of their own practice as festival makers, and ... the role of both theatre and festival in the lives of London citizens," contemplates the "festivalization of everyday life" (108-109).
The latest WPI conference provides an occasion to further engage with the "rethinking" of the international performance festivals, both in terms of an ethnically diverse programming of performances and creating a truly international community. WPI's genderspecific focus, as an alternative to grander events such as the Los Angeles Festival of the Arts and LIFT, is arguably already a rethinking of such projects. Through a critical analysis of the structure and theme of this unique women's theater festival, I raise observations on emblematic shifts in contemporary global theater.
Mise-En-Scene: Third World Megalopolis
The 2003 conference/festival marked a historic moment for this nearly twenty-year-old international organization for women playwrights. It was the first time a WPI-hosted festival was held in a non-Western country. There has been a great desire within the WPI organization for an increased participation by playwrights from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Previous festivals have been held in Buffalo (1988), Toronto (1991), Adelaide (1994), Galway (1997), and Athens (2000). The decision to hold the festival in the Philippines was part of a series of efforts to diversify WPI constituency.
The events were held at the Shangri-La Hotel, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), and the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), in proximity to the bay and the nightlife of Malate. In her address, Filipino American performance artist and writer Jessica Hagedorn remembered this area of the megacity as her childhood neighborhood and shared the infamous story of the "haunted" Manila Film Center across the street from where the delegates were staying. A tragic accident occurred in the process of building the Film Center. Then former first lady Imelda Marcos, in her frenzy to satisfy her "edifice complex," had ordered construction to continue on the Film Center building without stopping to recover the bodies of workers who were killed in the accident. Today the building, which marks their concrete sepulchre, is a haunting reminder of the Marcos period. The setting of conference in its shadow was thus clearly strategic. Manila has a nimiety of visual, aural, and other stimulation of a third world city, against which a megalopolis such as New York City appears almost suburban. Hagedorn's award-winning novel-turned-play, Dogeaters, captured much of this third world city excess. Her combination of flair and matter-of-fact resists the third world as alien and embodies the creative and performative possibilities of nostalgia.
The CCP and the PICC are state-of-the-art facilities that have a well-developed local audience. The festival drew many luminaries of Philippine theater and culturati, such as the award-winning writer Virginia Moreno, who has been active since the 1950s, and the superstar actress Nora Aunor. Speaker Ellen Stewart, the founder of La Mama ETC, the legendary experimental theater in New York City, recalled fondly her relationship to the Philippine theater movement. Cecilia Guidote, the founder of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), who presented a performance at WPI conference by disabled youth, forged this connection. In the early 1970s Guidote directed a number of productions, including Sandigan-Kalinangan and Tausug Variations (June 1974), Sayaw Silangan (Dance of the East, March 1975), Third World Liturgy (January 1979), and Ang Tatay mong Kalbo (Your bald father, July 1979). In 1980, La Mama ETC produced Guidote's Diwang Lahi.
Manila, as the first non-Western site for the WPI conference, "eased in" the organization to the so-called "third world." It has all the amenities of the first world, especially within the parameters where the conference was held. Many locals can communicate easily in English, a lingering legacy of being an American colony, and a result of an aggressive contemporary movement to standardize English as the language of commerce in the Philippines. Yet, the burden of Manila being the only major urban center in the Philippines is evident. Sex workers, panhandlers, and people of all ages living off of the streets are reminders of uneven development in our changing world. Unlike the first world, where evidence of inequality are segregated, covered up, and highly regulated to avoid contact with tourists, sex workers, panhandlers, and others who live on and off of the streets are perhaps the principal actors in the daily drama of Manila. Staging international festivals in a place such as Manila makes it difficult to ignore the larger setting against which it is enacted.
Challenges of International Festivals
The WPI conference and festival, like other international theater festivals, has had to contend with a number of challenges. This section elaborates on two challenges, among many, of international theater festivals: programming and lack of common language of exchange.
Financial limitations have privileged solo performances in these international festivals. Solo pieces are relatively easy to remount and are economical. There is only the performer and perhaps a stage manager. In this festival, the fourteen evening performances included at least ten solo performances, ranging from excerpts to full-length pieces. Language-based performances were in the minority here. Of critical note is that in most of the world, performance genres are not so strictly demarcated into dance, music, poetry, and theater, though the dominant paradigm of contemporary Western theater privileges spoken word and written text.
Two notable movement-based performances are excerpts from Ananya Chatterjea's In Search of Sapna and the group Hanaarishi's Kaniku (The fresh of fruit). The intense physicality of the two pieces stresses the demands of the performance on the body. Both pieces pursue metaphysical concerns such as dreams, hopes, and existence itself, through corporeality.
Chatterjea, an Indian classical dancer based in the United States, choreographs women's struggle for hope, peace, and joy in In Search of Sapna. She is an emerging contemporary feminist performance theorist and author of Butting Out (2004), a book-length study on African American choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and South Asian choreographer Chandralekha. Chatterjea's performance works physicalize her own theoretical questions about form, arts, and politics. In Search of Sapna's choreogaphy uses classical Odissi dance as a tool for contemporary stories. In Search of Sapna is part of Chatterjea's recent community-based project Bandt, which brings together women of color from various aspects of community work in Minneapolis. Chatterjea does not perform Odissi in a traditional mode, exclusively to retell the eternal union of Radha and Krishna. In this excerpt, the link between beauty and rigor often masked in classical dance forms is demystified. Moves that stretch and reach, fast and firm footwork, winding torso, and jutting out of the hips are used to emphasize desire. She deploys the sensuality of Odissi to stage the centrality of desire in women's pursuit of hope, dreams, and joy, embodied in this piece as a young girl, performed by Chatterjea's daughter Shrija. Chatterjea is stalwart performer whose intensity reverberates beyond the stage.
Japanese performance group Hanaarishi presented Kaniku, a stunning visual dance theater work that centers on the subjectivity of corporeality. This piece featured one performer, Furukawa On. Kaniku draws from butoh and kabuki, and primarily features On's bare torso covered in white body paint as the only lighted object on the darkened stage. Her stomach movements, sustained for more than twenty minutes, vary from undulation to rapid sucking motions. This stomach sequence creates visual illusions on the stage: Is it a puppet of an enlarged head? Is the torso suspended? At the core of Haniku is the question of the subjectivity of the flesh.
Among the assumption about nonspoken language-based performance is that the body transcends the restrictions of spoken language. There is a certain fetishization of the body and its assumed translatability across languages, cultures, borders. The body-in-movement as fetish object is either valorized precisely because of its abstract nature, or is dismissed as too abstract and unreadable. Works presented at the WPI conference, specifically those of Chatterjea and On, resisted these views of the body. The pieces presented by these Asian dance theater artists are deeply rooted in the ongoing discourse on the body and movement in South Indian classical dance and Japanese butoh.
More conventional theater included Filipino PETA's full-length performances from Malou Jacob's story of a woman lawyer ostracized for her refusal to partake in the systems of patronage and petty bribes that beset local office life. The musical stage premiere of the Philippine film classic Himala (Miracle) was also part of the festival's evening presentations. Himala tells the story of a girl who sees religious visions and is forever separated from her peers. Ricardo Lee, the original scriptwriter, penned this stage version in the 1970s, while he was incarcerated for his political disagreements with the Marcos regime during the martial law years. The film version of Himala took years to be produced, and was finally released for public viewing in 1982, after the martial law was lifted. The well-known known theater, TV, and film director Soxie Topacio directed the stage version, while Vincent de Jesus directed the music, composed, and cowrote the lyrics.
Whereas the evening performances of Chatterjea and On pushed the limits of what constitutes a "play," the afternoon reading sessions were dedicated to language. These reading sessions were in English, and plays were either written in or translated into English. As mentioned earlier, the structure of the festival privileged the work and process of play writing. The play readings were structured so that excerpts or full plays were read and then discussed, with one hour allocated to each playwright. A reading session consisted of three playwrights' work. Sixty plays were featured in the festival in addition to the evening performances, and a minimal number of plenary sessions with speakers or panels.
The lack of a shared language made extended critical conversation difficult in the play reading sessions. Although the plays were presented in English, some playwrights were not comfortable conversing in the language. For example, one of the sessions featured the work of a Sri Lankan playwright, Ratna Pushpa Kumari's A Soldier's Wife. The play dramatizes the intersection of national and domestic domain. It narrates a housewife's relationship to the war between Tamil liberation fighters and the ruling government of Sri Lanka. A Soldier's Wife was written originally in English. This play is simplistic and sympathetic to the actions of Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government.
A number of us in the room attempted to engage the author about the play's valorization of state violence against the Tamil minority. Her response deflected the play's reinforcement of the dominant political structure: "This is how it is." Her concern in writing the play was to give voice to the women who are "being widowed by this ongoing war," yet the Tamil widows were given no voice. In an effort to squelch tension, some of the participants steered the conversation toward "artistic license" and benign questions about character development. The desire of some of the audience members to "help" the playwright respond to what they perceived to be an attack foregrounded liberal anxieties around race and language. For some audience members, Kumari's nonfluency in the English language made raising critical questions a "wasted" exercise. The conversation was steered toward "universal" or aesthetic-centered issues, even as those who offered critical comments on the play resisted infantilizing Kumari and her work.
The challenges and possibilities of corporeality and language on global stage were vigorously enacted at the WPI conference. The examples I cite above are some instantiations of the friction of producing culture in the age of globalization as it unfolds on the global stage.
Performing Ethnicity on Global Stage
A dominant theme that emerged in the evening performances was an exploration of counternationalism through the langauge of indigeniety. Tammy Anderson's I Don't Want to Play House, by which a Tasmanian native critiques Australia; Ivete de Oliviere's Dancing in the Blood, by which an East Timori indictes Indonesia; and Bebot Rodil's Gagmayng Butang (Small Things), which addresses the Mindanao conflict, go beyond a celebration of the heterogeneity of women. Each piece is a strong critique of nationalist constructions of womanhood as inextricably linked to national identity. This was evident in the content of these works, but also in their incorporation of performance traditions from the various ethnic and racial communities under suppression by ruling powers. Scholar Christopher Balme in Decolonizing the Stage (1999) theorizes the turn to indigenous performance traditions in postcolonial theater as part of a decolonizing process. I cite here three Filipino performances at the WPI conference that highlighted ethnicity as resistance to both patriarchy and nation: The presence of T'boli chanters (traditional epic singers with a shamanic background) and two pieces that came from the Mindanao region, which is currently battling against the central government of the Philippines. All three pieces as performance questioned the homogenization of ethnic groups into the larger nation-state and extolled gender-specific ethnic identity. T'boli from the Southern Cotabato region had a marked presence in the festival opening evening performances with chanting and were ever visible in traditional clothing at sessions.
Other performances approached Philippine ethnic diversity through display of such diversity. In Pagbati (Paghilab sa Panganganak; Pangs of childbirth) Grace Manuel and Mary Jane Alejo performed Geejay Ariola's and Marili Fernandez-Ilagan's piece. This montage of songs, folk dances, monologues, poetry, and myth directed by Fernandez-Ilagan depicts the plight of women in Mindanao as they navigate state repressions and daily survival. The performers brought lightness to what could otherwise have been a heavy-handed and morose narrative. Moments that portray pain and suffering-for example, the shriek of a woman giving birth-are balanced with a scene where the actors take turns searching for lice on each other's head. Folk and rock music played on an acoustic guitar enlivened the performance. Pagbati thus staged the speci.city of ethnic gendered body, even as it is anchored within an archetypal nation-state narrative.
A play reading of Gagmayng Butang (Small things) by Bebot Rodil of Mindanao examined the long battle of Islamic "separatist" groups against the Philippine government from a region that produces over half the country's food supply but receives only 8 percent of the national budget. Rodil's funny and poignant play focuses on the search for peaceful coexistence in the conflict-torn Lanao region of southern Philippines. The play captures the three impacted communities-Filipino Muslims, the tribals, and the Christian lowlanders-living in tension while hoping for peaceful communal existence. The play dramatizes how the daily warring affects women, as well as their vision for a peaceful coexistence, in a nondidactic way. Rodil highlights the possibility of a sustainable reconciliation through peace dialogues, including role-playing, scenarios, and storytelling. Rodil also criticizes sensational depictions of alleged Islamic fundamentalists in the state of Mindanao. Such representations mask the culpability of the Philippine government in the warring state. Rodil is amongst the group of artists and activists who put the responsibility of facilitating a peaceful accord upon the Philippine state. They also identify the Philippine government's capitalist ventures as aggravating the situation.
Displays of ethnicity were not limited to the formal stage. The ringing anklet bells announced T'boli chanters' presence wherever they were during the festival. They wore their unique beadwork designs on their jackets and jewelry throughout the five-day event. On the last day of the festival, they replaced their "native costumes" with blue jeans and T-shirts as they headed back home, making the performance of ethnicity an uncertain terrain beyond the confines of the formal performance stage. In other words, was this performance of a specific Pilipino ethnic identity an ironic comment on authenticity, on indigeneity, or on the very spectacularization of ethnicity?
The Body On Stage In the Twenty-First Century
Throughout this essay, I have gestured to the performing body as a critical concern in the works featured at the WPI conference. I have discussed the setting in Manila, the movement-centered performances, and the vexed representation of ethnicity. The sixth WPI conference has continued its commitment to creating an alternative global stage by bringing together diverse works from women all over the world. By choosing a site in Asia to hold its latest meeting, the WPI organization acted on its promise to expand participation of women theater artists from Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the WPI. Thus, for example, the conference location in Manila made it possible for ethnic works by smaller women's theater organizations from nonurban centers to be presented more substantially and centrally at the festival.
In the context of a changing world, the WPI could provide an opportunity for women theater artists to engage with the global stage. An intimate setting and an atmosphere of camaraderie in these gatherings is an alternative to the professionalization of international festivals. Holding this unique international festival in a post-colonial city such as Manila explicitly highlights histories of imperialisms and multiple colonial legacies. The delegates of WPI were confronted with the madness of national hero Jose Rizal's classic literary heroine Sisa, the testimonies of the lolas (grandmothers) who were sex slaves during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and the present conditions of uneven development most evident in the sex workers that frequented the lobby of the hotel where the delegates were staying.
Interface among nations was further embodied in the dance theater performance by Maria Nunes's Dancing in the Blood, about the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, and in the play of a Sri Lankan playwright Rathna Kumari read by South Indian Tamil artist Mangai. In their local national settings, these artists would not be in dialogue. The space of WPI enabled a potential site for communication across silences enforced by national and ethnic divides. As a productive site to restage hegemonic ideologies of gender and nation in a changing world, WPI thus asserts an alternative vision of a global stage, a gendered performing space that frames difference as equally possible and impossible in representation.
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Ridout, Nicholas. 2003. "TFORUM: Eat, Drink, LIFT: Re.ections on the Festival." Theater Forum 22: 45-47.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Woman and the Changing World on Alternative Global Stage: Sixth Women Playwrights International Conference: Manila, 14-20 November 2003. Contributors: Burns, Lucy Mae San Pablo - Author. Journal title: Asian Theatre Journal. Volume: 22. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2005. Page number: 324. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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