April 08, 2014
In December 2013, Alex Lazaridis Ferguson – a Vancouver-based theatre artist, writer and long-time PuSh Festival colleague in various capacities, including editor of PuSh’s 10th Anniversary commemorative broadsheet – travelled to Manila, Philippines to direct Nanay: A Testimonial Play. The work premiered at the 2009 PuSh Festival and has since continued to evolve. Here is an account from Alex of his time working on the play in the Philippines.
I’m in Manila directing Nanay: A Testimonial Play. It’s a show about Filipino nannies working in Canada. Vancouver and Berlin audiences may remember Nanay from the 2009 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival or from the Your Nanny Hates You festival at the Hebbel am Ufer. Both cities have troubled relationships with migrant labour programs that import domestic help. The reductive version of the story goes like this: rich country wants affordable child and elder care, poor country supplies cheap labour force, workers get exploited.
But before I go any further… We arrived in the Philippines as the largest hurricane in recorded world history smashed into, flooded, and scraped away portions of the archipelago, leaving two million without homes and unknown numbers of people dead. That’s to the south of where we are. Up here in Quezon City, part of greater Manila, life goes on at what seems to be the usual pace. It’s been challenging to work out production details with PETA Theater via Internet from Edinburgh where our producer (and artistic director of Urban Crawl) Caleb Johnston lives, and from Vancouver where I live. In light of the disaster occurring to the south these challenges seem trivial. Even so, they persist. We still have a show to do.
Nanay consists of between 8 and 12 performance installations that spectators move through in small groups. Some installations contain actors, some don’t. To be clear: Nanay is a site-specific, not site-responsive show. We respond to the architecture of the spaces, not to the history of place (although that history does colour the audience’s reception of the work). We examine the dimensions of a room, the textures, the pressure the architecture exerts on us, the available light, the smells, and the general atmosphere. In November of 2012 we toured the PETA building for about three hours. Over the next 12 months we made provisional decisions about which spaces to use. We chose the backstage kitchen for the Canadian women’s stories, the dressing room for a Filipina nanny’s safe house, the lobby for an art-installation style performance featuring a privileged Canadian couple, and so on. I’m told the program presenting us is only a year old. Maybe it’s because of that, or due to long-distance communication, or due to the way PETA assigns a monetary value to square footage, or because of other factors that remain a mystery to us, the host company withdraws some of the spaces. This changes, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. We have a space, and then we don’t.
Space is crucial. During the first week I use adaptations of exercises from American director Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints to physically explore the various spaces. This is how many of the staging concepts are arrived at. I also work from image concepts I have developed in advance of rehearsal. And I think through some of architect Bernard Tschumi’s concepts about actual and ideal space: When is an aesthetically created space in harmony with the architectural space, when is it indifferent, when is it in opposition? And finally, I try to adapt to each actor’s working method. Some actors are very comfortable working with form and image. Others need to comb through the psychological cause-and-effect of a character’s narrative.
In the Manila version of Nanay four of the actors are local and three are from Canada. So there are a total of seven actors. Or, rather, there were when we started. One of the Manila actors fails to show up for the first two days of rehearsal. On day three she arrives four hours late. We feel we have to let her go. We cut one of the characters she was going to play and assign the other to our Filipino set designer, Lex Marcos, who is also an actor. The consequences of these decisions become fully apparent only when the show opens. The monologue that is cut was our “good news story.” It shows a nanny who comes to Canada, meets the requirements of the temporary work visa program, does so in the minimum amount of time, goes on to find other work of value, and generally creates conditions in which she and her children thrive. In post-show discussions, due to the absence of this success story, we are criticized for presenting too bleak a picture. But we have to ask ourselves, do the Filipino activists critiquing us really want a success story that makes the migrant labour program look good? Seems unlikely. Maybe they’re just tired of being portrayed as victims. The other consequence is that Lex Marcos turns out to be a great actor. He plays a Philippines government public relations officer who smoothly argues both sides of an argument, at once lamenting the loss of social capital in the form of labour leaving the Philippines while at the same time celebrating the joys of family reunification the labour program promises those who are able to get landed immigrant status.
Next we lose one of our Canadian actors. Her health was fragile prior to making the trip. After a few days in Manila, the stress is too great and she gets very sick. She’s unable to rehearse or perform the two characters she normally plays. This has several consequences: We cut one of her characters completely and discover that the part was superfluous—we should have dropped it a long time ago. This makes the show shorter and better. But her other monologue was one of the strongest in the show and she had performed it beautifully in Berlin. We’re forced to present a shortened version of it as a power point. It functions. We get the info across but lose affective power. This makes the show shorter but worse.
During our two-week rehearsal period at PETA there are other shows performing in the theater, other companies share the rehearsal studios, and there are ongoing classes and workshops in various spaces. PETA is an amazing hub of activity. There’s always something going on. But this means the theatre’s material resources are spread very thin. A show called Maxie: The Musical seems to be using just about all the lights and sound equipment, and possibly most of the technical staff. We have eight rooms to furnish with sets and lights, and sometimes sound. This means we have to be very precise with the one or two lighting instruments we are afforded for each installation. As ever we treat each constraint as a creative challenge.
Air conditioning is also crucial. Most days the temperature hovers between 28 and 32 degrees Celsius. It’s very humid. Packing 15-20 people into the small dressing room used for one of the installations quickly turns it into a sauna. We have to be able to cool a room prior to the audience’s arrival, then silence the AC during performance. The problem is that whenever we want to turn the AC on or off we have to find the lone technical staff member who seems to be the keeper of the remote control—which appears to be the only AC remote for the entire four-story building. The spectators must move in groups of 15-30 through the eight installations, sometimes with six groups travelling separately at the same time. The logistics of audience travel is mind-boggling. It took all the brainpower Caleb, David Kerr (our stage manager and technical director), and I possessed to come up with a plan, one that included compromises such as cutting and shortening scenes. Actors Hazel Venzon and Patrick Keating, who each play more than one character, must travel from a scene in one part of the building to a distant location in another while changing costumes very quickly. Joanna Lerio repeats her monologue in the tiny dressing room almost continuously for two and a half hours. The AC must be turned on or off at the appropriate moment. Without a remote to lower the temperature she begins to fry.
Caleb, after close to a week of investigating and negotiating, and just as opening night arrives, has a breakthrough. PETA reveals that there are actually a number of remotes, enough to give each room its own if necessary. Why it took so long to solve this issue is another of the mysteries of working at PETA.
It comes together. We have to embrace the challenges, and everyone does. Caleb and DK (as David Kerr likes to be called) work tirelessly behind the scenes. The actors go forward, only forward. Whatever the circumstances there is never a sign of surrender. Marichu Belarmino, Angelica Heruela, and the actors mentioned above have a way of getting down to it. Each one embraces the particular conditions of their installation—the genre, the spatial issues, and the challenge of maintaining concentration and openness in the delicate flow between performer and spectator in an intimate setting.
We achieve what we came to do. We put Nanay up and add a couple of wrinkles to the discussion around migrant labour, the inequity between rich and poor countries, the inequities that exist within each country, and the issue of how we are going to deal with the care of our children and elders in the future.
On the last day Caleb, DK, and I have a round table discussion with the creative and administrative staff of PETA. We talk about how the writing came together, directorial strategies, and site-specific performance. I get to feel the intelligence and commitment of the PETA company. This is a company that started with an anti-establishment political agenda. For many years they performed in the ruins of the old city, Intramuros. Their work was site specific, and sometimes site-responsive—at times they delved into the history of Intramuros itself. Nanay is not PETA’s first connection to Vancouver. The company performed in Vancouver in the late 1980s at the start of a world tour. Vancouver theatre and film veterans such as David Diamond, Nettie Wild, and Colin Thomas housed them and sponsored a performance they put on at the Waterfront Theatre. For the past 10 years PETA has been housed in its own theatre building in a middle-class area known as Quezon City. The company continues to create a certain amount of political performance, but because they must maintain the building and a large staff they have become something of a North American-style regional theatre, reliant on the commercial success of their productions. In an era of global funding cuts to the arts, the pressure to make theatre a money-making venture, and the compromises that come with that, is having its effect on what most of us produce. Nanay was mostly sheltered from this by the funding Urban Crawl, the UBC Department of Geography, and PETA brought to the project.
As we leave the country, the rebuilding process in areas affected by the storm has begun. My experience as a whole, including televisual witnessing of the devastation the hurricane and an insufficient state infrastructure inflicted on the Philippines, has confirmed what I already knew: There is no universal justice that protects the innocent and rewards the good. There are only moral frameworks constructed by humans and our willingness or unwillingness to live inside them. I don’t believe the human suffering occurring in the Philippines is the result of anything other than chance and the power the rich exert over the poor—an impulse rooted in greed, envy, and paranoia. And ignorance. I often compare our comfortable existence in Canada, where the majority of 33 million people live in material luxury dependent on underpaid and overworked labourers from poorer parts of the world, to the Palace of Versailles before the French Revolution. Like French royalty we occasionally cast a puzzled glance over our abundant hedgerows and wonder why the people on the other side hate us. You may recall that the festival we performed at in Berlin was called Your Nanny Hates You.
Thinking back on our time in Manila I’m grateful for the challenges we faced. Meeting them has made me a more decisive individual and a more creative artist. As artists, the aesthetic frameworks we construct are interwoven illogically with the moral codes we choose to live by. Ambiguity, paradox, seemingly useless play, indulging in mysterious atmospheres—these are some of the ways we recover meaning, create moments of interpersonal connection, and keep ourselves open to one another in a theatrical performance. In Nanay we mixed these approaches with the ‘hard facts’ of migrant labour practices. Something emerged from all that—lengthy after-show discussions with the audience, private conversations, and the strengthening of interpersonal bonds. In a small way, with a small amount of money, and using a marginal cultural practice—political theatre—we hope to have had nudged the discussion forward.
Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is a Vancouver-based theatre artist, writer, and teacher. In the past year he has devised work with MACHiNENOiSY Dance (Bamboozled), Leaky Heaven Circus (Der Wink), and Projet in situ at PuSh (Do You See What I Mean?). Last fall he performed in Rumble Productions’ Penelope at The Cultch and directed Nanay: A Testimonial Play at PETA Theater in Manila. Alex has devised or performed in several works at PuSh over the years beginning with Neworld’s Crime and Punishment. He teaches performance theory in the Bachelor of Performing Arts program at Capilano University.