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A return to theater in the new normal

By Joy Virata, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 07, 2021 5:00 am

Four days? I looked at the screen where the company manager Ayam Barredo had posted the production schedule. I’d have four days to block, choreograph, do technical rehearsals, and shoot The Great Christmas Cookie Bake-Off — Rep’s Theater for Young Audiences’ (RTYA) first production in the days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This may not seem such a great undertaking to some but, besides two forgettable appearances in the movies eons ago, I had no exposure to the film industry, I was dependent on my grandchildren for technical advice — and I was 85 years old!

When it was obvious that COVID-19 was not going to go away anytime soon and the prospects of opening theater, especially for children, became dimmer and dimmer, I knew we had to do something.

I had been directing Rep’s Theater for Young Audiences for almost 30 years and it usually took from six to eight weeks to mount a production. Four days?

Actually, I brought this predicament on myself. When it was obvious that COVID-19 was not going to go away anytime soon and the prospects of opening theater, especially for children, became dimmer and dimmer, I knew RTYA had to do something.

Theater workers needed jobs and children who were stuck at home needed something to entertain themselves besides video games, repetitive cartoons and mind-numbing material on television. Something different. RTYA couldn’t just die. We had to try.

So, it was time to switch gears. I had to learn to function in the “new normal.”

I searched on Google and found that there was, indeed, material being written for children’s theater in this new online medium. After reading through maybe a dozen synopses and listening to music samples which fortunately were available online, I chose one which I thought would resonate with a young audience.

It was The Great Christmas Cookie Bake-Off by Rick Hip Flores. It was a musical, it was about baking cookies, it was about eight young chefs vying for a prize; just over an hour long, it had simple dialogue, catchy music, it was funny, and it had subtle messages of love, family, generosity, honesty and, best of all, the spirit of Christmas. It was owned by a streaming platform called Broadway On Demand.

I sent the script to Cara Barredo, who had conducted a lot of Rep’s children’s workshops, and Mindy Perez-Rubio, Rep’s president and CEO, for their opinion. Understandably there were huge questions about budget and risk. Fortunately, Mindy approved the project. 

Without the possibility of a live audition, Cara and I drew up a shortlist of actors whom I had worked with in children’s theater for years and whom I knew I could depend on to work independently. They sent their audition videos based on the “sides” and song excerpts sent to them. I chose the cast.

 The cast: (Clockwise, from top left) Jill Ita-as, Jep Go, Becca Coates, Luigi Quesada, Steven Hotchkiss, Tim Pavino, Justine Narciso, and Rachel Coates.

The budget allowed me 13 Zoom rehearsals. In acting for children, body language is just as important as spoken or sung dialogue. With Zooming, all I could see were their faces; I just had to trust their skill as actors. I had always been particular about articulation. The children had to understand what was going on.

With the fluctuation of our collective internet connections, I never knew whether it was their faulty articulation or a faulty connection. Since there could be no “live” music rehearsals, each actor just recorded his or her voice and sent it to Cara who was, besides being my assistant director, also the musical director. She in turn turned them over to the sound technician. 

As I watched them work I thanked the Lord for my excellent, dependable and talented actors. Under less-than-perfect conditions, they passed with flying colors.

With a floor plan of Ed Lacson’s set and a script in front of me, I staged the whole production in my mind, wrote down stage directions, and conveyed them to the actors via Zoom rehearsals. I hoped they would memorize them along with their lines.

After 13 days, from what I could tell from the Zoom rehearsals, the actors had their characters, songs and lines down pat. After everyone had their PCR tests, we went into a “bubble.” Carefully guarded by our safety officers, we spent two-and-a-half days rehearsing at Mindy’s vacation home. 

Joining our Zoom rehearsal are Cara Barredo, Becca Coates, Joy Virata (top row), Jep Go, Hans Eckstein, Tim Pavino, Carla Guevara Laforteza (second row), Jill Ita-as, Justine Narciso, Rachel Coates, Luigi Quesada (third row) and Steven Hotchkiss, Arnel Carrion, Jamie Wilson (fourth row)

Day One, we did the choreography, which had proved impossible via Zoom; we went through the blocking using chairs within the limited rehearsal space; had a couple of “stop-and-go” rehearsals (stopping for corrections); and ran the show using the backing tracks (minus ones).

On Day Two, we ran through the show as many times as we could.

Day Three, we traveled to the Onstage Theater in Makati and had the first rehearsal onstage with the actual set, including baking equipment and ingredients. (This took time because none of the actors were bakers; they had been given the recipes and procedures and tried to fit it all into the dialogue.) We had a first look at costumes, and did dress and tech rehearsals. 

Day Four, the actors put on their costumes early in the morning and had their hair and makeup done; we started shooting. Treb Monteras and his Silver crew took over. We finished close to midnight.

As I watched them work I thanked the Lord for my excellent, dependable and talented actors — Becca Coates, Tim Pavino, Jep Go, Rachel Coates, Luigi Quesada, Steven Hotchkiss, Justine Narciso, Jill Itaas, Carla Guevarra-Laforteza, Jamie Wilson, Arnel Carrion and Hans Eckstein. Under less-than-perfect conditions, they passed with flying colors.

So, when all is said and done, I hope The Great Christmas Cookie Bake-Off will bring a little bit of cheer into homes this Christmas season.

The Great Christmas Cookie Bake-Off streams from Nov. 12 to Dec. 12. Tickets can be booked through Broadway on DemandTicketWorld , Ticket2Me  or call the Rep Box Office at 0966-9054013.