The Growing Scene of Philippine Puppetry

BY KAYLA TEODORO

PUPPETRY in the Philippines is remembered for the golden ages of Batibot hand puppetry and papet pasyon’s in the black box theatre of Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas. Beyond the familiar characters of Pong Pagong and Kiko Matsing, Philippine puppetry has not developed much since.

While we have had various ventriloquists and hand puppeteers create their own characters based on international companies such as “Sesame Street” and the “Muppets,” contemporary efforts of developing puppetry in the Philippines have since been scarce.

After much research into the puppetry of Southeast Asia, I thought to myself; why don’t Filipinos have a puppetry culture that we, too, can be proud of? Something in the leagues of Indonesian shadow puppetry or Vietnamese water puppetry – something that can help us stand out in the global scene. With the plethora of artists, handicrafts, and literature that comes out of the Philippines, surely we can make something for ourselves; a culture that we can call our own.

I sat down with like-minded colleagues and decided to develop puppetry, by the Philippines, for the Philippines and together we came up with Puppet Theater Manila. Puppet Theater Manila stands for three things – to tell Filipino stories, train Filipino puppeteers, and use Filipino materials.

In 2019 I packed my bags and moved to Cardiff, Wales to study puppetry at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in order to make these three things a reality. By taking masterclasses given by the college, to attending every workshop I could possibly attend, I made sure that all my learnings were funneled back into the development of Puppet Theater Manila. Along with my partners, Marvin Choa and Benjor Catindig, we have been creating programmes to give young Filipino creatives the chance to hone skills in puppetry as well as teaching makers to step out of their comfort zones and to make puppets for themselves.

Our first foray into the introduction of contemporary puppetry to the Philippines came with the creation of a life-sized carabao puppet named Clara. We took Clara around the metro in order to see how Filipino audiences would react to her. Similarly, we also created a dog puppet named Puraw. Made from a local Filipino weave called inabel from the north of the Philippines, Puraw was able to interact with children that have never seen a puppet before. Small efforts such as these are what has allowed us to introduce the idea of puppetry to Filipino audiences

Taking cue from the National Theatre’s advertising of their show “War Horse” wherein they would tour their life-sized horse puppet, Joey, around the UK, we have been able to thrive through street performances and improvised puppeteering. Puppetry engages with one’s suspension of disbelief and jogs a person’s skills in imagination. It exercises a person’s ability to interact with something that is not real and gives them an avenue for empathy. This is what Puppet Theater Manila hopes to inspire within Filipino audiences; a community wherein they can be vulnerable and enjoy puppetry for what it is.

I have learnt a lot of what I know through the guidance and support of British puppet designers and puppeteers such as Jimmy Grimes, Toby Olie, and Mei Mac. Their influence on my puppet designing and making skills are what have inspired me to grow as a puppet practitioner beyond the Philippines. Aside from introducing puppetry to the Philippines, being in the UK and working alongside British designers and makers has inspired me to tell Filipino stories to British audiences as well. With this, I have been developing a sister company to Puppet Theater Manila to help promote the telling of Filipino and East/Southeast Asian stories through puppetry in the UK. “Maya Puppet Theater” comes from the Filipino word pamayanan or community.

Through Maya Puppet Theater, I hope to create shows for all audiences that highlight the diverse culture that comes from East and Southeast Asia and to create a community of puppet professionals that want to celebrate their puppetry heritage with British audiences.

In line with this, I have been researching Filipino literature and indigenous cultures to root the practice in. With an interest in stop-motion animation, I have been able to create a puppet that was based on beloved Filipino superhero; Mars Ravelo’s “Darna.”

This reimagination of the character as a young superhero, balancing fighting crime and growing up, has allowed me to introduce a character so integral to Filipino culture to members of the UK animation community. Aside from this, I have been able to write stories that explore family dynamics in Filipino communities and how this dynamic can solve problems in the face of adversity.

A story about a young girl and her lola talks about Filipino food and the magic that lies within the grandmother’s cooking skills. While another story talks about a young Sama-Bajau boy working hard to support his impoverished family through the discovery of a mythical pearl. Stories such as these are what I want to share with global audiences as they highlight the magic of Filipino culture and the ingrained values that a Filipino has growing up. Both Puppet Theater Manila and Maya Puppet Theater will allow me to share these stories with UK and Filipino audiences alike.

Currently, I have been applying for grants and sponsorships in order to get shows off the ground and to realise stories that I’d like to tell through puppetry. Until then, I continue my pursuit in bringing puppetry to the Philippines and introducing Filipino stories to the UK. I expose myself to world puppetry and use it as an avenue to allow Filipino puppetry to thrive and to make its mark on the global scene. Who knows, we might see Filipino stories on the stages of the West End and Broadway one day, but for now I continue to create stories and inspire individuals from my own small corner of the world.

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