Geej Williams' on her Theatre Experience

Below is an Email Interview for American Theater Magazine. Parts of this interview were in “Tribal fever: on the Philippine Island of Mindanao, popular theatre seeks to reclaim the ancestral land and traditional ways of living.”(SPECIAL SECTION: CULTURES IN PERIL). American Theatre, May 1, 2005. 

Where were you born / Where are you from? How do you identify yourself?

I was born in Davao City, Mindanao , Philippines, and have been residing there since I was born. I am a music and theatre artist, and a cultural worker primarily, but do web and graphic design for a living. The music and theatre industry in Mindanao can barely sustain artists, thus many of us have to do and be other things.

What kind of work are you most interested in doing these days?

Because I am a music artist and a social activist at the same time, I love to do music theatre work that tackles peace, environment, women, and other social issues.

How did you come to do the work you are doing today?

I am an artist by heart, which I can probably credit to both my parents who were theatre directors and choir singers. As a child, my parents frequently exposed me to their shows, and brought me to all sorts of music and theatre performances. I was a student activist even before I got involved in theatre and watched a lot of politically-motivated music and theatre productions in the early 80s, at the heyday of the political movement against erstwhile president and dictator Marcos. In 1988, I was working in a multi-media institution when two of Mindanao’s most prolific theatre workers Nestor Horfilla and Richard Belar invited me to be part of a group that was to become Kaliwat Theatre Collective.

as Guida in "Lem'afeu sa Habagatan"

Kaliwat Theater Collective with Theater of the Oppressed guru Augusto Boal in Belfast, 1992

Kaliwat taught me three important things in doing theatre work: 1. the use of people’s stories as materials for writing a theatre production, 2. development of the culture-creating capacity of peoples as against cultural consumerism, 3. the use of collaborative and collective process in mounting theatre productions.

Most of Kaliwat’s productions utilized dance and music in their productions, which I attribute to the cultural backdrop of Mindanao. Mindanao is home to many indigenous tribes and ethnolinguistic groups with very strong dance and music artistic expressions.

These all led to my serious interest in pursuing theatre, with music as its core form, people’s stories as its backbone, and the spirit of collaboration as a methodology.

Describe the evolution of your work; i.e. what milestones or major turning points / influences in your work can you identify / explain?

I would say there are three major EVENTS in my life that influenced my work:

My involvement with Kaliwat Theatre Collective – Kaliwat has trained me to become not just an artist, but a trainor, organizer and researcher as well. My involvement in Kaliwat shaped my theatre perspective (theatre work as a tool for peace and development).

The coming of The Tracking Project (TTP) to Mindanao The Tracking Project is an organization based inNew Mexico and led by John Stokes. It works for peace utilizing “a series of teachings which connect individuals directly to the natural world.   (Their) programs of natural and cultural awareness include a wide range of skills–from traditional tracking and survival skills to music, storytelling, dance, peacemaking and martial arts training. The name Arts of Life* was chosen to describe these programs, which emphasize indigenous knowledge, the lessons of Nature and the power of art.”  The Tracking Project was brought to Davao by the Initiatives for International Dialogue in 1999 and I was fortunate enough to have been a participant in their 5-day workshop.

Years before I met members of The Tracking Project, I was already dancing with thoughts of forming an all-women group. The highly spiritual yet humbling experience I had with TTP inspired me to pursue that thought. Thus in 2001, Mebuyan Peace Project was born.

Flying Circus 2000 – In year 2000, I and colleague Popong Landero attended the Flying Circus Project 2000 in Singapore. The 21-day workshop-interaction organized by Theatreworks, Ltd. based in Singapore gathered 75 dance, theatre, music, traditional, visual, and film artists all over Asia. I was inspired at the wealth of Asian expressions, and at the generous sharing of skills and ideas. I was particularly moved by the jamming sessions with the musicians, particularly the exemplary skills of Jaeng Jae Hyo, Yutaka Fukuoka (Yen), and visiting/observer New York-based vocal artist Meredith Monk.

When Popong and I discussed the concert-theatre project Salima in 2003, we carried with us the spirit of doing collaborative work with artists of various musical genre and traditions, which we experienced, in great measure, at the Flying Circus.

What does “Kaliwat” mean? What does the organization do? (explain for someone who has no idea) . . .

“Kaliwat,” in Cebuano (main language used in Mindanao ), means lineage or ancestry.

as Bae in "Salima"

“Kaliwat Theater Collective was formally established in 1988. It exists as a cultural organization in Mindanao that actively engages in popular theater for empowering the culturally “silenced” majority. Over the years, Kaliwat directed its efforts at enhancing the creative capabilities of the grassroots through a creative process and a liberating methodology. Using various art forms, Kaliwat encourages the articulation of social issues within the community. Theater is utilized as a socially binding device and as a tool for community dialogue.” (Kaliwat Experience Papers)

How have indigenous art forms, or ways of knowing or living informed your work today? What connects you to indigenous Filipino language/arts? How does it become part of your own artistic expression?   What are the benefits, or dangers of working with indigenous languages, or symbols?

Many of the dance and theatre productions in Mindanao , including that of Kaliwat’s, explore indigenous myths, and utilize indigenous dances and music. While Kaliwat’s productions veered away from looking at myths as they are, and attempted to parallel them with contemporary issues, the productions always upheld the sense of integrity and truthfulness to the use of indigenous artistic expressions.

I shy away from using and approximating indigenous dances and music. We could never, no matter how many community iimmersions we conducted, copy en toto these art forms, because we do not live in the hinterlands, and we do not practice indigenous lifeways. What we see as dances and hand movements, and what we hear as gong and drum beats are mere maps of an entire philosophy of life.

I view indigenous artistic expressions and lifeways as a wellspring of wisdom or a “book” of life’s lessons and sayings as Confucius was to the Chinese, rather than as material sources to make my own artistic expressions more beautiful and palatable and exotic.

So instead of focusing on copying, or approximating indigenous art forms, I focus on finding contemporary meanings in them. How does indigenous wisdom relate to our daily lives? That is the concept upon which the all-women “Panaw” by Mebuyan Peace Project was built on.

“Panaw” was based on a Manobo myth about Mebuyan, the goddess of life and death.

Mebuyan is the underworld goddess who defies her brother Lumabet, God of the Sky,  and builds her own domain under the earth. As she spirals towards the navel of the earth,    she invokes her power over life and death. Her domain of pure gold becomes the place where souls take shelter before they reach Gimokudan, their final destination. (Mebuyan Peace Project “Panaw” blurb)

"Panaw" by Mebuyan

It was easy to connect the story of Mebuyan with women’s empowerment. Mebuyan resisted her brother’s demand to go with her to the sky–she wanted to build her own world. But what of her world, the place where all souls go before they reach their final destination? What need was there for souls to pass through her domain? I reflected on this for a long time and thought that perhaps Mebuyan’s domain was where all souls cleansed themselves of their mortal burdens and sins, preparatory to their FINAL journey. Thus, I wove in the story of the restless soul of Delia, who died by the hand of her own husband, and that of her still living daughter Rosario, who was following Delia’s violent path.

The myth of Mebuyan is dying. The first known research on Mebuyan was in 1913, the last known was in 1992, conducted by KaliwatTheatre Collective. Ten years later, in 2002, while we were mounting the dance-musical “Panaw,” we were told by a few indigenous friends that Mebuyan was in fact a devil, whose name shouldn’t even be mentioned.

This introduced a crisis in the group. Should we go on with our own interpretation of Mebuyan based on actual researches conducted? Or should we submit to the changing times that led to the transformation of Mebuyan from a revered goddess to an evil god?

Three principles guided our decision to pursue “Panaw.”

First, we acknowledge that myths, legends and folktales, spring from the political, economic, and social context of the time. Peoples, in order to survive, and being constantly in search of meanings to their lives, develop an entire culture founded on their relationship with nature and their environment. Thus, changes in their habitats engendered by conquering, and dominating cultures and other forces, for example, could easily wipe away an entire belief system.   We know, based on researches, that indigenous spirituality, carried through the generations by balyans (shamans) has rapidly eroded since the 1930s, with the influx of dominating cultures (e,g. Bisaya, Tagalogs, Christians).

Second, as long as there is enough documented research material on which our productions are based, we should not fear any accusation of being baseless and “wrong.”

Third, we need to revive the goddess and the power she symbolizes that is a source of great inspiration to women.

Can you explain how Kaliwat’s three part “cultural action” method actually works by talking about a specific piece that you worked on as an example?

I shall cite, as an example Oya, Arakan!

The concert-play follows the story of the couple Tuwalang, a Manobo warrior, and Erlinda, a Christian settler. At their wedding, they are gifted with a gunso, the Manobo tribe’s ancient sacred jar, vessel of the Manobo’s heritage and wisdom. Tuwalang was given the task to guard the gunso. But the migrant settlers grab the gunso to try to unearth its secrets and gain power over the tribe. War ensues. And the two peoples–the Bisaya and the Manobo–once united, have now parted ways. ( Kaliwat Experience Papers)

Oya, Arakan!, the production is just one of several outputs in Kaliwat’s cultural action methodology. The program started in 1992 and ended in 1995. We went to the hinterlands of Arakan Valley –among the Manobo-Tinananon–with the view of gathering people’s stories and indigenous artistic expressions for a play. We were welcomed there through the Tribal Filipino Program for Community Development, Inc. (TFPCDI) led by the P.I.M.E. priests, and the people’s organization, Manobo Lumadnong Panaghiusa, Inc. (MALUPA).

as Inang Lupa in Pitong Ritwal ng Inang Lupa

The process of gathering stories and artistic expressions was through the conduct of various workshops (women’s cultural action, elders’ meetings, youth and children’s workshops). Pretty soon, Kaliwat artists learned songs, dances and stories through the workshop processes that served to evoke, primarily, the artistic expressions, real people’s stories, and the social/economic/political context of the Manobo-Tinananon. These cultural action processes surfaced the contradictions (social, environmental issues) in the communities. After constant consultations with officers and staff of TFPCDI and MALUPA, a significant community need was realized. The Manobo-Tinananon territory was being threatened by a 5-year-development program that would turn the entire ancestral domain into an agricultural wasteland, and would wipe away entire communities. Likewise, Mt. Sinaka , the Manobo’s sacred mountain, was continuously being attacked by illegal logging. And due to extreme poverty and debt, more ancestral lands were being sold to Bisaya migrant settlers. There was thus a felt need to push for the ancestral domain claims of the indigenous peoples in order to protect them from the onslaught of “development,” but one important thing was missing – a documentation of the ancestral territories, an ethnographic account of the Manobo peoples, to “prove” that Arakan Valley, is, indeed, ancestral territory.

Thus, Kaliwat was tasked to conduct a more intensive research on the people’s ethnography, social demography, the extent of their ancestral domain territories, and the Manobo’s history of struggle against landgrabbing.   Using creative research processes (focus group discussions, personal interviews, validation methods through performances and visual artworks), Kaliwat, along with TFPCDI and MALUPA was able to produce and publish the book Arakan: Where Rivers Speak of the Manobo’s Living Dreams, an ethnographic account of the Manobo-Tinananon in Arakan Valley in 1995.

While research was going on, Kaliwat facilitated several conferences and negotiation meetings between the Manobo people and the relevant government agencies. In 1994, Oya Arakan! was mounted, validated, and performed before leaders and members of MALUPA. In 1995, most of the ancestral domain claims were given Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADCs).

Oya Arakan! toured many places in the country, which lasted till 1998, bringing to the “outside” world the story of the Manobo peoples.

Soon Kaliwat began networking with various indigenous communities. In 1995, the legworking and networking gave birth to PANAGTAGBO, a network of indigenous organizations/communities around Mindanao.

Performing for indigenous peoples in the mountains of Columbio, Sultan Kudarat

Do you think Kaliwat has contributed something to the development of arts “tradition” in the Philippines, or to the evolution of indigenous traditions or arts?

What Kaliwat has substantially contributed in the arena of culture and development, is introducing theatre and other performance arts as a tool for community dialogue — empowering the silenced grassroots communities to “surface their own contradictions and find solutions to their own problems and issues.” In the process, community members are also trained to “mount their own plays reflecting their own local experiences.”

Indirectly, Kaliwat’s policy advocacy program helps seek the sustainability of the indigenous people’s capability to preserve or recreate their artistic traditions. The policy advocacy program serves to link communities to other communities “through: a) theatre performances by Kaliwat that depict the issues of the communities; b) facilitating the intervention of other relevant NGOs and government agencies to support community-desired programs and projects ( e.g. Department of Agriculture, Forestry, etc.; c) facilitating dialogue between communities and relevant government agencies towards resolving community issues and towards legislative action; and d) promoting and popularizing friendly legislations through theatre performances in communities. (Kaliwat Experience Papers)

Kaliwat has likewise developed a direction in arts work that could lead to an “arts tradition” that is founded on a comprehensive, holistic perspective of culture and development, with theatre as the primary path or tool. In 1996, Kaliwat, together with the IPA/Lakewood Parish and people’s organization MESALIGAN in Lakewood, Zamboanga del Sur, developed the concept of Cultural Resource Management. Thus Kaliwat facilitated the ” conduct of various creative skills workshops and management trainings to enhance and manage existing cultural resources (food production, instruments-making, beadwork, furniture-making, etc.) Taking it a step further, the program expanded to include environmental protection measures, establishment of a village school incorporating a “learning farm”, co-management of thed literacy program including the training of para-teachers, expansion of linkages with groups outside of the municipality on the mining issue, reforestation, piloting of communal bio-intensive gardens and fruit tree orchards, and the establishment of various alternate livelihood programs, among others. (Kaliwat Experience Papers)

Describe what your process was in creating your performance last summer (Alleluia mentioned a piece that had a kind of rock-n-roll influence / something about refugees(?)) What inspired it? What audience was it intended for? What has been the  audience response? Do you think the piece could be presented in the US with the same response? Why or why not?

Have you done the work in different locations? How is audience response different in different places?

Three weeks after a bomb exploded at the Davao airport in March 2003, Davao artists gathered in music, poetry and dance to celebrate and call for peace. Just two hours into the long artful celebration, I began to brew what was to become Arnel Mardoquio’s Salima in my mind. Feeling ecstatic, I blurted out bits and pieces of my thoughts to close friend and development worker Lyndee Prieto. War was going on and artists had to do something about it.

Two days later, I met with librettist/playwright Arnel Mardoquio, musician Popong Landero, and development worker Lyndee Prieto armed only with five keywords; music, evacuees, journey, child and peace. Popong added a sixth – what would become one of the most important features of the production that was being cooked: collaboration.

Three months later, fourteen artists of the Earthmusic Foundation, Inc. spent three whole days and eight afternoons together arguing, laughing, counting beats, searching for musical notes, telling life stories, discussing politics and philosophy, and drinking Tanduay, gin or beer while Arnel’s tragic but hopeful Salima was quickly taking shape.

Salima is based on actual interviews of evacuees in Pikit, North Cotabato conducted by Arnel. It was then performed before the remaining evacuees of Pikit, North Cotabato to validate the integrity of the story and determine the impact of the show. The evacuees told us that while they didn’t understand the songs written in Bisaya, the music clearly depicted the images of war, terror and helplessness that they suffered. Many of them cried.

Since then, Salima has been performed in at least fifteen other areas with audience ranging from children to adults, reaching approximately sixty thousand. Everywhere, the audience response was the same. The show generated thunderous applause, tears and immediate positive feedback from audience who stayed behind to talk with the performing artists.

If the storytelling (not the lyrics) is translated in English, or provided with subtitles, I think the US audience will appreciate it as much as the Filipino audience did. Salima provides a video backdrop of powerful images of the war in Pikit. Combined with the songs, the concert theater will definitely grab the hearts of any non-Filipino speaking audience.

What benefits have you gotten from working the way you do / doing what you do? What have you learned?

First and foremost, I believe that every single small step taken towards peace is always a leap of faith. You can never gauge the extent of your work’s impact on a single human being. You can only hope that it affects a person enough for him/her to pursue his/her own path to peace. When you see a person cry or laugh or smile as s/he watches your show, you get the feeling of satisfaction that at least one person has understood and has sympathized with the story and the cause of the play. And we have to keep doing what we do if only for that single emotive response.

Second, productions that tackle social issues help gather all sorts of people, and convince the unconvinced around a common cause. Having performed and toured productions that tackle very significant social issues, we were able to involve various parties such as the religious sector, the non-government organizations (NGOs), the academic institutions, local government, and the business sector.

Third, what is very peculiar about music and concert theatre productions is that the form itself, being popular, generates more acceptance and wide audience mobilization. Therefore, this increases the percentage of people we can affect and convince with our cause.

Fourth, a collaborative work of art such as Salima, which gathered music artists of various generations, genre, and political persuasions proved that genuine democracy and genuine peace is possible. Communication and generosity are at the heart of peace and democracy.

Any conflict can be settled through constant communication. Every living creature is generous at the core. Generosity means giving each other space, giving each other time, and sharing internal and external resources.

Fifth, all philosophical and pedagogical differences are wiped out when we break into song or dance. Art is a NECESSARY part of life, for art not only reduces conflict, but promotes spiritual well-being. The six basic necessities of life are food, shelter, clothing, education, health, and ART. If government poured all of its resources into these six basics of life, what a wonderful world it would be.

What inspires you?

A house built on ashen ground. A baby born in an evacuation center. An empty can of sardines turned into a toy truck. A fish caught in a river that runs red. Laughing on empty stomachs. A prayer amid the sound of guns and bullets. A full moon over graveyards. A song.