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PETA’s ‘Stage of the Nation’: A continuing mission to start conversations

As Filipinos marked the 46th anniversary of martial law on Friday, September 21, students, workers, rights activists and members of religious groups staged protest rallies, chanting “Never again!” to dictatorship.

But there are groups that believe that the period under martial rule was the country’s “golden age.”

This divide is evident, further widened by the abundance of false information and exchanges on social media that border on hate speech and harassment, making one wonder: Can Filipinos still talk about martial law and today’s issues without alienating one another?

The artists at the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) offered one solution: The stage.

“There is social media, and there’s a lot of conversations going on there but it’s also different when we are conversing this way; live, nararamdaman natin ang isa’t isa (we can engage with each other),” PETA executive director Beng Cabangon said.

In this spirit, PETA launched Stage of the Nation, a 10-month campaign on democracy that includes a lineup of performances and workshops, which the group says, aims to “contribute to the discourses that concern our nation.”

Among these offerings is a rerun of PETA’s original musical A Game of Trolls which tackles issues like historical revisionism, false heroes, fake news, apathy, and misinformation, geared towards the millennial audience. The play follows the story of “Heck”, a paid social media troll and is ironically the son of a former martial law activist.

The campaign also includes shows from other performance groups and individual performers like Dulaang UP with Kundiman Party, spoken word group Words Anonymous with their anniversary show, and comedian Jon Santos with a satirical one-man show.

Unlike PETA’s previous seasons, Stage of the Nation will include “talkbacks” or debriefings after each performance to allow the audience to process what they have witnessed on stage.

For PETA president Cecilia Garrucho, this is exactly what the country needs right now.

“We need to watch what is happening and talk about what’s happening around us so we can all be forced to think about what’s right, especially the youth. In the abundance of ‘fake news’, how do we discern what’s true? All of these things need to be talked about after watching the shows,” she said in Filipino.

PETA is not new to this advocacy. The theater group had staged various plays and performances about the Marcos dictatorship, such as 1896 and Panatang Kalayaan.

The current campaign, which will run from September 2018 to June 2019, is part of PETA’s mission to use the arts as a means to inform and enlighten people.

“(This is our) continuing mission…when there are very important matters happening around us…we would always use theater as a platform so we can talk about those issues,” Cabangon said.

“Every day is an opportunity for us to reach out and to dialogue with people using our arts, (to) make people more sensitive to what’s happening.

“It’s not actually telling them ‘do this, vote for this, make this decision,’ but rather giving them that space…for critical reflection and so that when that day comes when people will have to make decisions, (we hope the arts have made a significant contribution to how they make those decisions),” she added.