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On Writing: The Task of Naming Things Cannot Be Finished

A scene from Tanghalang Ateneo's Antigone versus the People of the Philippines. Quezon City, 2019. © Zoe Tababa

It begins with the same lack that nudges me to prayer—the same questions I ask knowing I will not hear any Voice but my own, turning back on me like a siren from someone I’m waiting to become. Both prayers and manuscripts travel this way: out and back within the same utterance, but immediately coiled and charged with new possibility.

I suppose this is why it never made sense to me to write “what I know.” Every time I wrote something that meant anything to me, it came from a pursuit of what I didn’t know: why my mother laughed at my father’s anniversary gifts and then cursed him when he left; what to make of my Ilokano heritage and simultaneous disdain for the Marcoses; where I take place in the perpetual back-and-forth between Quezon City and Nueva Vizcaya.

My plays have become the mechanisms by which I imprison myself to these questions and set myself free from them at the same time. I’ve met myself in my own works as a displaced probinsyana, a middle class woman denouncing the same social injustice she benefits from, and a young daughter caught between duty to her hardworking mother and the dreams she shares with an absent father.

If I learned anything from these women, I’d suspend all hopes of arriving at singular conclusions about who I am and the world I live in. If I am truly listening, I will continue taking up the task that cannot be finished—the task of naming what is, even as it moves and constantly renegotiates itself.

One of my good friends and writing mentors, Guelan Luarca, once jokingly remarked at a workshop, “Behold the beginning of Manila’s union of multi-hyphenates?” And after a round of awkward laughter, I caught everyone in the room seriously considering it in momentary silence. Why not? We had unwittingly gathered a group of playwright-actors, playwright-directors, playwright-dramaturgs, and playwright-producers all united by the same drunken drafts and awkward laugher. We would render all other theater companies obsolete, we dreamed. A second question trickled in a few days later: in fact, isn’t this multiplicity part of our job as theater artists in the first place?

I found myself keenly leafing through previous manuscripts a few days later. Suddenly, my older (purer) poetics essays, stolen production memorabilia, and favorite passages from favorite writers, all essentially echoed each other.

“I want to make art that recognizes my duality as playwright-actor as a strength,” I wrote in 2015. “I want to break free from an artistic condition that fragments itself into delineated art forms and professions.”

In 2018, a note on my thesis journal read, “Seeing the script evolve in directions that were not imposed by the singular authority of an author or director will reassure any theater-maker that the process of enacting a text and offering it to a body of interpreters is dynamic and moving towards a democratization of creative agency.”

In 2019, an acting teacher wrote on a reference report, “Through her work, [she] articulates drama as a necessary example of a multi-perspectival practice of designing and sharing communal experience.”

In 2020, I delivered three playwriting lectures about “Actor-Sourced Playwriting,” a kind of writing that involves the curation of games and rehearsal activites that would allow actors to generate insights and scenes that would later on be written into the play.

To put simply, I’ve found that my relationship with drama has always been linked to that multiplicity of roles: writer, actor, facilitator, game designer all at once. I'd like to believe my writing and my perception of the world will always come from this.

Actors improvising a scene for Tanghalang Ateneo's 'Lysistrata ng Bakwit.' Quezon City, 2018. © Waldo Katigbak

Another multi-hyphenate Austin Kleon said, “We are, in fact, a mashup of what we choose to let into our lives,” and I’ve since always perceived drama to be exactly that—something intended to constantly evolve according to the myriad introspections it mediates. It is simply never written once. It immediately necessitates an intermediality and hybridity through which it will be repeatedly uttered and heard, with each utterance completely different from the next.

In my original plays, I string up all the names I’ve shed and taken up in hammering out the narratives that can afford me a better understanding of who I am and who I want to be. In my adaptations, I summon the names of the writers and characters that came before me, in an effort to further the dialogue between past and present struggles. In Actor-Sourced Playwriting, I accept my position not so much as the main generator but the facilitator of ideas through which my collaborators can give their citizenship new names and faces. In offering up my scripts to be enacted by bodies and artistic visions that aren’t mine, I open myself to an authentic experience of dialogue and compromise and humbling disruption.

Over and over, I have seen the self- and community- revealing power that this disruption can harness. Over, and over, I wish to deploy it in my interrogations of the socioeconomic realm, where we are plagued by structures that insist on a singular hierarchical way of living. We are living in an economy that is based on sowing fear and engineering identities, working hard to trap us into selecting a permanent name for ourselves. One of my greatest writing influences, Anais Nin, calls this a kind of death.

For too long, Filipinos have been named tamad, pasaway, and adik. Dilawan. Komunista. We’ve been taught to call our neighbors our enemies and our oppressors our fathers. We’ve called our women housewives and our homosexuals, abominations. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have assigned labels like “non-essential” to the performing arts industry, crippling part-time playwrights like me as well as full-time circus entertainers and club singers who don’t have other employment prospects. As a woman, I was called “selfish” by my first playwriting mentor for wanting to write the roles that otherwise wouldn’t have been available to me. As a man, he was named “overly sensitive” for wanting to write at all.

Each play that places these people center stage to be seen and listened to, moves us a step closer towards eliminating the rigidity responsible for these outdated and dangerous names. Each decision made in collaborative the space of rehearsals moves us away from the centrality of an individual meaning-maker and towards the development of a healthier interdependence, of a necessary class consciousness.

I’m moved to call on Augusto Boal, the man responsible for Forum Theater and the form majority of my manuscripts have taken, to help me close this meditation on playwriting. Boal coined the name, “spect-actor” to elevate our understanding of audiences as passive consumers of what they see. He makes the case that all performance-making must employ the belief that audiences will become more well-equipped to handle situations of oppression in the real world if they were able to practice for it within the play. In other words: theatre is not revolutionary in itself but rather a rehearsal towards revolution.

I like to think of myself as a playwright in this regard. Who I am and what I achieve in the scripts I write are only half-formations of the work that needs to be done, nothing but names on paper that have not been called out to anyone yet.

Now more than ever, in the face of a government that villainizes its own people and criminalizes dissent, I feel that citizenship is a constant struggle of speaking and listening in the midst of persistent conflict. Drama, as it has done since the time of the Greek polis, is what affords me a relationship with citizenship that actively questions and seeks out the meaning of justice, the distinction between leadership and tyranny, the legitimacy of the state, and the equally destructive and life-giving potential of human passions.

I write to name them all and hopefully shed light on little truths along the way.


Note: This piece was originally written as a poetics essay for a national writers' workshop in 2021.


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