Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Her theater, her life


Tita Naty (she said I must call her that) and I in her room

Natividad Crame Rogers’ living room is not an ordinary sala. It looks out into an airy garden. Two small openings in the ceiling let the sunlight in. The wooden furniture takes you back in time. The room is circular. “There is always something magical about being in a circle,” says the proud owner, who had her Kapitolyo, Pasig home built on top of a hill in 1958.

Magical, indeed: This sala is also a stage.

Over the weekend, the Philippine Drama Company, which Rogers founded in 1984 and of which she is now artistic director, staged two plays: Panhik-ligaw (Felizardo Habito’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s A Marriage Proposal) and Dahil Sa Anak by Julian Balmaceda.

Panhik-ligaw is about the courtship of an asthmatic bachelor and his childhood friend. The two never get around to discussing their romantic prospects because other things—land, dogs, her overbearing father and a nosy housemaid —always get in the way.

The play was directed by Gaby Castillo and starred Kenn Cayunda, Jake Alejandrino, Cef Valderrama and Sam Lim.

In Dahil sa Anak, an obstinate father refuses to allow his son to marry a girl he has sired a child with just because the girl is the daughter of a laundrywoman. A well-meaning uncle advises the lovers to use reverse psychology on the old man. They then claim they don’t want to get married and that the girl does not want to be part of an arrogant man’s household. The old man now says there must be a wedding. Everybody is happy.

The play was directed by Cayunda and starred Danny Escasa, Claude Despabiladeras, Castillo, LA Caguioa, Chrissie Legaspi, Krix Untalan and Paula David.

Yes, all these took place in the living room. White monobloc chairs were laid out for the 20 or so guests that afternoon. Two hardworking electric fans attempted to ease the heat. Cast members threw their lines at each other and sometimes addressed the audience in an intimate setting called “sala theater” that Mrs. Rogers pioneered in the Philippines.

After the curtain call—except of course, there was no curtain—members of the audience, cast and crew alike partook of sandwiches and puto: A real breaking of bread, a breaking of barriers between actor and spectator.

***

kaSALAn is part of the company’s vintage theater season where plays are staged in Tagalog “to remind our younger generation that Wikang Pilipino is truly a beautiful language that must not be replaced by pop language, Engalog or Taglish,” according to Mrs. Rogers.

She herself has been in the business for many decades. At age 11, the girl Naty Crame starred in a school operetta called Cinderella in Flowerland.

She majored in English at the University of the Philippines when it was still a vast tract of “talahib.” She graduated in 1946 and then worked briefly as a stewardess for Philippine Airlines. It was there she met her husband Joe, a pilot, whom she married the next year.

Mrs. Rogers then went on to Stanford University to get her masters degree in speech and drama—and promptly returned to the Philippines to teach at the Philippine Normal College and to act. She appeared as Leonor in Severino Montano’s The Love of Leonor Rivera and then as Paula in Nick Joaquin’s A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. She set up various drama organizations at St. Scholastica’s College and the University of Santo Tomas graduate school. In 1983, she started conducting drama workshops for children. Soon, she founded the PDC in—where else?—her sala.

She also traveled extensively. Her sojourns resulted in a book called “Classical Forms of Theater in Asia”.

In 1994, she was given the highest CCP Award in Theater; a few years later, she was named one of the Philippine Centennial Awardees in Culture and the Arts. In 2008, at the centennial anniversary of the UP, Mrs. Rogers was given a lifetime achievement award.

***

It is with this same willingness to open herself to her audience that Mrs. Rogers received me in her bedroom where she has surrounded herself with books, photos and other memorabilia from her long and fruitful career.

At her age—Miss Naty will be 90 in December—she is more enthusiastic than ever about making drama a household event—literally, hence her sala concept.

“The purpose is of course to entertain, but also to extend the education of all: the old, the middle-aged, the young.

She also says that theater is all about the actor. Whether it is in a sala, on a stage, or under a tree, a good actor will be able to deliver and connect with the audience.

Miss Rogers has lived a long, full life doing what she loves—and does—best. She is both a pillar and an inspiration.

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