Being in Manila, presenting Symposium Royale

Sipat Lawin’s Meila Romero and JK Anicoche at Symposium Royale

This week back in Manila, hanging with fellow playwrights Sam Burns-Warr, Georgie McAuley and Jordan Prosser, my co-writers of Battalia Royale. Since last rolling to the Philippines with these guys, we’ve adopted the collective name of Too Many Weapons, which is a good name (albeit already taken by a Texan hardcore outfit, but we can share). Anyway, we’ve come back to Manila for two reasons:

1. To attend the third season of Sipat Lawin Ensemble’s Battalia Royale, which is on at Museo Pambata, previewing TONIGHT. Things are getting pretty exciting on this front, we attended a rehearsal at the abandoned school in Cubao the other day, and yesterday morning I even did a 7.30am radio interview on FM radio in Mandaluyong with Isab Martinez and Meila Romero. Battalia Royale is a site-specific interactive performance, an adaptation of Koushon Takami’s pulp thriller Battle Royale, in which a class of high school students are kidnapped and forced to fight one another until only one is left alive.

Battalia Royale image from Theaterati.

This has been one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with in my life, and a culmination of conversations with director JK Anicoche starting back at the beginning of 2009, so it’s pretty extraordinary to be finally here to see it happen.

However, as well as attending the show, we came here for a very specific purpose:

2. To present Symposium Royale. When Battalia Royale premiered in February this year, the audience response was way out of proportion to anything we (the playwrights or Sipat Lawin) had anticipated. There was fan fiction, fan art, fan tumblrs and a fan club, as well as over 2,600 live participants at six shows. And the audience response at the shows themselves was above and beyond anything we were prepared for – shouting, screaming, cheering and general chaos. Sipat Lawin constructed an extraordinary experiential work, but still – it was properly out of hand. The scale of audience reaction was enough to get the show coverage on international news services including Reuters, BBC, Al-Jazeera and CNN. Meanwhile, the critical reaction from bloggers and professional reviewers ranged from extremely positive to thoroughly dubious – what was the point or value in presenting this hyper-violent work on stage? Were we making a point or just ‘getting our kicks watching kids destroy each other’?

As the writers, Sam, Georgie, Jordan and myself had lots of thoughts in response to these questions, but no clear answers. Three out of the four of us have not even seen a full performance of the play, so we had no proper idea of the experience from an audience perspective. Nevertheless, we were fascinated by what had happened and we wanted to know more – as well as to stand behind our work and answer any criticisms personally.

So with that in mind, we presented a forum at the Cultural Center of the Philippines entitled Symposium Royale. To an audience of more than 40 we discussed the background of the play, the process of creating the work, and highlighted some of the more interesting reviews and fan responses to the work. Then we held an open discussion asking artists and audiences alike for their opinons on the work, what they took from it and whether they thought the portrayal of violence was justified, or how the production fit into a Filipino context.

We had a range of fascinating responses. Battalia Royale fan club (should we call them that?) Class Love provided an insight into why they had created their own alternative class in the Battalia Royale world. One gentleman explained how the experience had evoked memories of a hostage situation, and how it had revived his sense of urgency in being involved in peace advocacy. A number of people described attending the work over a number of different nights and how their understanding and appreciation of it had changed and evolved over different runs. Several theatre artists helped us place the work in the greater context of recent Pinoy theatre. Overall, the experience was pretty extraordinary and humbling.

Sam and I chattin.

One thing that Symposium Royale hammered home was how lucky we are to be associated with a group like Sipat Lawin Ensemble. My association with Sipat goes back to their first production in 2009 of my script To Heat You Up And Cool You Down (alongside Bent) at the Penguin Cafe in Malate. I was blown away then by their skill, dedication and uncompromising creativity. That respect has grown exponentially with every subsequent partnership.

It’s also a very particular kind of pleasure to be back here working with Jordan, Sam and Georgie. I met Sam when I was in my final year of high school and he was in his first, when Jackal and I assistant directed in the Radford College Junior Drama production Three Who Would, which Sam was featuring in. Sam then exchanged some of his early scripts with me, as well as featuring in some early Boho works including w3 w3lcome the future (2003). Jordan I met when I was running the WET Season at Belconnen Theatre in 2007 and provided Radford College with a drama prize (which Jordan won), curating and producing a work by one graduating drama student. This is a creative relationship which has gradually grown and blossomed, to the point that we are now living together (with the excellent Georgie McAuley, also a Radford graduate) in a 10th floor apartment overlooking Rizal Park in Metro Manila.

The moral of this story is, treasure your collaborators. Life is very long, and over time, amazing opportunities will arise to do things with the right people.