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Creating a culture of puppetry in the Philippines

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Puppet Theater Manila created Clara, a life-sized carabao puppet made using indiginous materials like piña, rattan, and hemp to introduce this style of puppetry to Filipino audiences. Photo courtesy of KAYLA TEODORO

The Philippines’ history of puppetry is very young, dating back to the 19th century. It took almost another century for Filipino puppetry to revive through the Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas, founded by the national artist Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio in 1977.

“In the early ‘70s, Lola Amel had the opportunity to visit puppet theaters in Asia, particularly in Japan and Indonesia. She fell in love with Japanese bunraku,” said Lapeña-Bonifacio’s daughter, Dr. Amihan Ramolete. Bunraku is one of Japan’s oldest forms of puppet theater, where three performers act with half-life-size dolls to a narration and musical accompaniment by a shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese lute). “While watching the shows, she said to herself, ‘One day I will bring this artform to the Philippines,’ not really having in mind organizing or establishing a group,” said Ramolete.

Around the same time, in 1969, “Sesame Street” premiered in America. After slowly making its way to Filipino audiences, Lapeña-Bonifacio realized that, apart from “Sesame Street,” there was a lack of Filipino children’s stories and entertainment. She took it upon herself to change that.

“What she did first was write plays for children in Filipino, and then when she was invited by the Department of Speech and Drama — now the Department of Speech Communication and Theater Arts in UP — she decided to stage “Abadeja, Ang Ating Cinderella” based on a Visayan folktale, and she wanted to use puppets for the production,” said Ramolete. "After the production, the members of 'Abadeja' continued to visit Lapeña-Bonifacio. Those visits inspired her to form Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas,” said Ramolete.

Teatrong Mulat uses puppets for all of their shows. While they do not have a regular season as of writing, they have been doing yearly performances of “Papet Pasyon,” a puppet retelling of the Passion of Christ, since the ‘90s. During the pandemic, they live streamed the 2019 and 2020 shows along with “Prinsipe Bahaghari.” “[‘Prinsipe Bahaghari’] was the thesis production of my daughter, who is also part of the group. It was written by Vlad Gonzalez, but she conceptualized a design and directed the production,” said Ramolete.

While they experiment with different materials, like rattan and paper mache, most of their puppets are made using wood sculpted by craftsmen from Paete. Ramolete said, “We ask them to carve the head, hands, and the feet. We get them back, and then we put them together — put on the clothes, [and] the rods. We do the finishing touches to the puppets. They’ve been our carvers since Teatrong Mulat started, actually! Well, the original sculptor has passed on, but his son is now the lead sculptor.”

In 2013, they visited cities in Visayas, like Tacloban and Cebu, to teach those affected by Typhoon Yolanda how to process their feelings through puppetry. “It’s also one way of them trying to make sense of what happened,” said Ramolete. “It’s interesting because there was an area where the puppets showed destruction, while there was another group [who] showed life in the puppets, mga trees ganyan. 'Yung mga doon as destruction, sira-sirang bahay. Makikita mo din how they still feel about it and and kung ano ‘yung tumatak sa kanila.”

Puppetry is often associated with children. Just as Ramolete and Teatrong Mulat used the art form to help them process their trauma, many grow up watching shows with puppets, like the aforementioned “Sesame Street.” Filipino children, particularly those who grew up in the ‘80s to early 2000s, had “Batibot.”

“Yung ‘Batibot,’ nagsimula yan bilang ‘Sesame!’ — a co-production between Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) New York atsaka, at the time, Philippine Sesame Street Project,” said Bodjie Pascua, who played Kuya Bodjie on the show.

From 1983-1984, “Sesame!” aired in English with locally produced segments in Filipino. When the co-production arrangement between CTW and the Philippine Children’s Television Foundation (PCTF) ended in 1984, the PCTF moved to create their own version of the show — one that was no longer bilingual. “[When] ‘Batibot’ started airing 100% Filipino na siya, from beginning to end. [It was] an hour long show, daily, sometime in ‘84,” said Pascua.

Before “Batibot”, Pascua had no experience working with puppets. “I remember 'yung very first day of taping sa 'Batibot,' my very first day on a set of a children’s show with a gigantic puppet called Pong Pagong. Naka-10 takes ako bago inapprove ng direktor 'yung take. ‘Yung aking adult actor brain, it took a while bago maka-aadjust na itong puppet na ito ay kailangan naniniwala ako na ito ay tunay na higanteng pagong pero six years old siya,” said Pascua.

“Batibot” had two main puppets, Pong Pagong the giant turtle and Kiko Matsing the monkey, inspired by the Filipino fable, “The Turtle and the Monkey” (“Ang Pagong at ang Matsing”).

Kiko Matsing operated similarly to Elmo and Cookie Monster, where he appeared behind a table with only his head and torso visible to the audience. He had two puppeteers: the main puppeteer used one hand to move his head and another hand to move one arm, while the second puppeteer maneuvered the remaining hand, coordinating their movements. Pong Pagong was like Big Bird, larger than the actors and appearing with a full-body. Within Pong was a single puppeteer, whose face was positioned at Pong’s neck while his left hand, outstretched, would manipulate Pong’s mouth to “speak.”

The first studio of “Batibot” was in one of the office spaces in the former University of Life, more commonly referred to as ULTRA.

“‘Yung experience din ng puppeteer ni Pong — nakakaawa’t nakakatawa,” said Pascua. “Sa States, sa ‘Sesame Street,’ ang ginagawa nila — 'yung scenes with puppets nakalubog 'yung floor tapos 'yung supposedly ground level ng mga live actors medyo mataas nang konti para magka-level 'yung mga artista atsaka 'yung puppet. Pero doon [at their first studio], hindi pwede gawin kasi mababa 'yung kisame, so 'yung mga puppeteer talaga nasa ilalim ng mesa.”

He demonstrated how the “Batibot” puppeteers had to contort their bodies, often bending their necks while stretching their arms out to the ceilings, in order to manipulate the puppets while remaining unseen.

“Si Pong lang 'yung may freedom na nakatindig siya, pero ang problema naman niya, mainit ang lugar kasi nga hindi kaya 'yung air-conditioning,” said Pascua. “'Yung ulo ng puppet, detachable. Pag init na init na si Deo [the puppeteer], tatanggalin 'yung ulo, paypaypayan — may taga paypay. Tapos isusuot na naman 'yung ulo.”

Another difficulty Pong’s puppeteer had was the lack of vision from within the puppet. “Hindi niya magamit 'yung sarili niyang mata pag nasa set siya kasi ang harap niya isang TV monitor. Nakalito yun kasi imagine 'yung camera nasa harap mo, pag 'yung kamay mo papunta sa kanan, doon sa monitor pumupunta siya sa kaliwa. So imagine mo 'yung adjustment ni Deo!” said Pascua. “Tapos, 'yun 'yung pinaka mata niya so kung wala siya sa doon eksena, kung off-screen 'yung character niya, wala siyang makita.”

Alongside filming the show daily, the cast performed live shows — also daily — around the country. These shows gathered large crowds of Filipino children, which surprised the cast.

“Taping the show, wala kaming kaalam-alam ‘yung effect namin dun sa the world out there. Nung naglilive show na kami especially pag kasama namin si Pong at si Kiko — si Pong lalo na. Si Kiko kasi hindi nakakapaglakad 'yan until gumawa sila ng version ni Kiko na may paa,” said Pascua. “Parang rockstar kami — ang wild!”

"Batibot" had four seasons, running from its original premier in 1985 until 2002. After "Batibot" ended its run, both on-air and live shows, the blossoming Filipino culture of puppetry had fallen quiet once more.

Filipino puppet culture today

Currently, Filipino puppet groups and puppeteers are still few and far in between.

Said Ramolete, “The reception from the adults is not as enthusiastic as the kids. For me, one way of being able to promote and sustain [puppetry] is to look at puppeteers as professional artists. I think if we’re able to professionalize the group, meaning having people do full-time work as puppeteers, then I guess that would help in promoting the art form more and being able to do more activities.”

There are even fewer Filipino puppet makers.

“When I spoke to [Lapeña-Bonifacio]’s daughter, she said there weren’t very many puppet makers so they were asking if I could do a workshop with them [on] making puppets,” said Kayla Teodoro, a young puppet maker. “You kind of have a gap between people who make glove puppets, which [are] the Muppet-style puppets, and the youth now, which is me trying to introduce puppetry to the Philippines. To really introduce puppetry to the Philippines by telling Filipino stories using Filipino materials and teaching Filipino puppeteers — that’s something that I wanted, as dramatic as this sounds, to devote my life to. I want us to be competitive in the global puppetry scene.”

This drove Teodoro to resurrect Puppet Theater Manila in 2018. Puppet Theater Manila was initially a puppet group formed by young puppeteers, with Marvin Choa at the helm. “The idea was to make puppeteers professionalized in Philippine theater,” said Choa, who started foundations of Puppet Theater Manila in the late '90s.

Choa started puppeteering when he was in high school, where he also worked as a Sunday school teacher for his church. “I was looking for ways to teach kids storytelling — 'yung hindi normal na storytelling. I tried different ways like acting, ganyan. Then I remembered when I went to a birthday party when I was in elementary, I was amazed [by] puppets. I started research and yun! I tried puppetry.”

He learned to puppeteer by attending different workshops. His first was a special one on bunraku, hosted by the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He then attended workshops by the Iskul Bus Puppet Group and Trumpets.

“[Trumpets] had a show called Mr. Noah’s Big Boat. I told them I’m a puppeteer, I trained, so sort of nagtuloy-tuloy na with theater companies na I do puppetry,” said Choa.

Since then, Choa has gone to work on several other shows, like the local production of “Avenue Q” as the show’s puppet master, and the TV series “Encantadia” as the Yoda-like character, Imaw.

“Filipinos are fascinated with puppetry. For me, nandiyan lagi the audience. It’s just we have to create shows for them,” said Choa.

Through Puppet Theater Manila, Teodoro and Choa, along with their third partner, Benjor Catindig, hope to push the Filipino puppetry to evolve, and to reintroduce the Filipino audience to puppetry as a multifaceted artform.

They started by creating a life-sized carabao puppet made using indiginous materials like piña, rattan, and hemp. “Her name is Clara and we took her around Metro Manila just to introduce her to Filipino audiences and to see how people would react to that kind of puppetry,” Teodoro said.

When she and Choa saw such positive reactions, they pushed forward in establishing the collective by holding workshops for younger audiences, mainly aged 6-12. They taught them how to make the puppets themselves and how to puppeteer them. “Muppets and Sesame Street [are] not bad things — it’s like a foundation of puppetry — but we wanted to show kids that there’s more to it,” she said.

Teodoro, who has worked on a puppet for the stage play adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” is currently studying puppet making in Wales. She makes it a point to bring what she learns back to the Philippines. “When I’m in the Philippines two to three months of the year, I teach my makers how to make the puppets. [On] my last trip to Manila, I made a dog puppet, his name was Puraw,” she said.

Puraw is a life-sized aspin made out of foam and inabel.

“I took [Puraw] to Boracay, where I introduced the dog to lots of kids on the island [who had] never seen something like that before so they were super excited to interact with the dog and play with the dog,” said Teodoro. “I was also able to teach the kids how to puppeteer the dog eventually. It’s slow, of course. When you’re trying to start a culture, it starts really small and then [it will] hopefully get bigger.”