Theater in the New Normal: Actors in Quarantine

Words by Lara Antonio 

In our best attempt at a “round-table discussion,” we catch up with theater actors Bibo Reyes, Maronne Cruz, Abi Sulit and Luis Marcelo to see how they’ve adapted to the new normal

It’s been over 150 days (as of writing) and we’re still in lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic. These unprecedented circumstances have taken a massive toll on industries all over the world, the performing arts included.

With the medium of theater necessarily entailing a stage, a live audience, and actors, theater all over the world has been put to a screeching halt. Broadway and West End are closed until March 2021. Shows in the Philippines have been canceled until further notice. Streaming services like Disney+ are now showing some of our favorite shows on their platforms for a fee. Which begs the question: is this the future of theater? And how does this affect some members of the theater community?

For the first in this series of articles, we catch up with some of the country’s up-and-coming and favorite theater actors to hear how they have been personally and professionally affected by this pandemic, and how they’ve had to adapt at home.

Bibo Reyes (Ang Huling El Bimbo the Musical, Waitress); Maronne Cruz (Sa Wakas the Musical, Waitress), Abi Sulit (Godspell, Spring Awakening, Rak of Aegis), Luis Marcelo (Newsies, the Quest for the Adarna)

Lara: At the start of this quarantine, a lot of people have been displaced and are still struggling with that – and for actors, I know it’s been hard for you guys because shows have been canceled. Most of the time you can’t go out to shoot, so I wanted to know how you guys have been impacted by this pandemic not only on a personal level, but also on a professional level? 

Abi Sulit: I decided to take a leave [from medschool] a month before, or weeks before the pandemic started. I was like, “I’m gonna go back to theater,” and then suddenly this happened. Theater schools weren’t tapping me to teach, so I said, “Di ako maghihintay, ako na lang.” So, I started teaching. I started teaching [in] March, so I can actually say na medyo na master ko na magturo online. It’s pretty hard, because I was really looking forward to going back and doing theater. 

Maronne Cruz: I actually feel like for a lot of the actors who know how to teach, they’re still able to catch up financially kahit papaano. I know the technicalities of acting and singing. But I don’t consider myself capable of teaching yet. So, in this pandemic, professionally, sobrang nahihirapan ako. There’s really not much I can do. Right now, I’m doing voice-overs, but those don’t pay until like months later.

I’ve had a lot of anxieties about it already. We didn’t just lose our jobs right now, it’s also because we’ve lost our identities, cause [for] a lot of us, this is who we are. Our passion is acting, our passion is performing. We’re just lucky we’re able to do it for a living.

Bibo Reyes: Maronne and I were going to open [Atlantis’] the Band’s Visit right when ECQ happened. It was literally our opening weekend. In the local industry, kami yung show na sakto sa opening weekend yung quarantine. 

Atlantis’ The Band’s Visit was set to open on March 13, 2020. Photo courtesy of Atlantis

I was actually thinking of taking a break from theater after the Band’s Visit. I wanted to explore doing things on camera more. I had cleared the way to being like, “Hey, I’ll try something else muna for now.” And then right when we were going to open what was going to be my last show for that meantime, the quarantine began. 

Fast forward a month into the quarantine, El Bimbo streamed. In this context, I am very lucky. With El Bimbo, the stream, and everything, I was lucky because the work I’ve been getting has been because of the exposure brought about by that. I guess I’m an outlier in our circle because I have gotten that… bit of clout that helps get my foot in the door. And that’s something that is so difficult for us. Outside of theater, within theater. It’s getting our foot in the door.

Bibo Reyes, who played Young Hector, and his castmates in some of the show’s iconic scenes. Photos courtesy of Resorts World Manila

Luis Marcelo: I was actually in rehearsals already for [Repertory Philippines’] Carousel. By that time, [the Coronavirus] was [starting to] get [in the thick of it]. We were supposed to go into choreo already… tapos syempre, physical distance tapos magcho-choreo – hindi kaya.

Watch Repertory Philippines’ Carousel cast perform “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Video courtesy of Repertory Philippines

I relate to everything that Maronne was saying earlier. It was like an existential crisis na: “I can’t do this na. Anong gagawin ko?” There wasn’t any kind of activity that I could put myself into. For most of us, it was like, “Okay ano nga ba?” There was nothing there. 

But I’m a member of Galaw.Co, the dance theater company of PJ Rebullida. I’m sort of the Business Manager now. We’ve started doing online classes siguro into the GCQ era, and that’s when I started becoming busy.  Just like Abi, I’ve started teaching. But I teach acting naman. So far, that’s where my skills are being put into.

Our passion is acting, our passion is performing. We’re just lucky we’re able to do it for a living

– Maronne Cruz

Maronne Cruz’s makeshift recording studio

Lara: Given this “new normal”, how have you guys been able to adapt? What have you had to do at home? 

Maronne: I’ve super had to adapt. I think I made a status about that! My room is not just a room it’s now like a gym, it’s a recording studio, it’s a set! I’ve had to set up a tiny recording studio in my closet. The rest is all personal well-being stuff. There [are] weights in my room now. My white wall has been turned into this modular set that I can put backdrops and take them off. Stuff like that.

Lara: Abi, you mentioned naman earlier that you’ve been teaching and I’ve seen your posts too. Can you talk a little about that? How did you get started? 

Abi: It started out with my niece and nephew, so silang dalawa yung una kong naging students. So I decided, if it’s working for a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, it can work across all ages. It’s just a matter of doing things slowly. When I teach music – because there’s a delay when I do the vocalizations – I do it first and then the student repeats after. 

What I did, which was new, was doing ensemble singing online. I started A Chorus Online last July, it was just an idea: I miss singing with a group of people, and I think it’s possible to sing with a group of people [online]. My co-teacher [and I] pre-recorded [all the parts]. I pre-recorded the girls, she pre-recorded the boys. For example, if you’re a soprano, I will send you a soprano track — meaning the track that has the alto, bass, and tenor — so your ear training is still there because you still get to hear everyone else’s voices, and you have to learn how to harmonize with that recording. Their homework is to send me what they learned in class and then we put it all together.

A Chorus Online’s cover of You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hansen. Video courtesy of Abi Sulit

Luis: I teach acting. So [my] focus is more on monologue and song interpretation. I didn’t want to do dialogue, which really relied on interaction, because of the internet reliability and latency. So I just wanted to focus on one person. At the same time, it’s still reliant on what you see and the people you’re talking to online.

Luis Marcelo with his Galaw.Co students

I teach technique based on Meisner, and so far, it’s been going pretty well. I feel like this is something I’d actually want to teach live given the chance. Iba rin yung hindi na monologue eh. Yun yung feeling ko sayang na opportunity, but even then, with just what they’re doing, nakaka-proud din. I’m happy I’m able to share that and to impart those with other people. It’s fulfilling in a way.

Bibo In terms of adapting, for me, it’s a lot of the audio-video recording. For those gigs I was lucky to get early on, it involved singing also. So obviously it wasn’t live singing, I had to get used to recording myself singing.

A shoot that I did for the webseries, “Love Me Hater,” the production was really, really kind and really, really good to work with… They send the equipment to the actor and then the talent is the one that sets everything up and all of that. They even sent a tutorial video. It was really for dummies. So because of that experience, lumevel up ako when it comes to the technical aspect of recording myself.

Watch Bibo Reyes (and Ang Huling El Bimbo co-star) Gab Pangilinan in Connect’s webseries, Love Me Hater. Video courtesy of ConnectPodcast

Lara: So that’s more on a personal level – but speaking as an actor – and based on all of the things you’ve already tried – how do you think other actors must now have to adapt to this new normal? 

Maronne: As actors? I think it largely depends on how the entertainment industry is adapting right now, and depending on how much they want to still pursue [acting]. There are online shoots for commercials. You can keep leveling up your “shoot from home” material. And then you can VTR better so that you can either book shoots-from-home or actual on-location shoots, which I actually don’t think should be happening even! 

You can also move on over to voice-overs, which is what I’m doing. I’ve also seen a lot of actors pursue streaming. I’m not sure how the income works. There [are] different platforms: Facebook, there’s Twitch, there’s YouTube if your channel is popular enough you can monetize. There’s KUMU as well, which a lot of my friends are making a not-bad profit off of because they have very watchable content so they get lots of diamonds. 

Maronne’s Cosplay YouTube channel. Video courtesy of Maronne Cruz

Bibo: Going off of something Maronne said, this is going to be hard to hear and hard to say honestly. But in terms of the actor, one thing that we’ll really have to come to terms with is that the industry didn’t really [serve] us na nga prior to this. More so now, they’re not going to [serve] us. Location shoots shouldn’t really be happening now. But they’re happening.

I did a shoot for a short musical film, where we had green screens sent to us so that they could post-process what we were shooting semi-properly. Would it be too much for brands, for whoever is behind [the scenes]… to maybe consider not shooting location stuff and just working with what we have? Kasi we’re adjusting, we’re not holding rehearsals with each other. We’re doing everything online. 

Luis: You really just have to put yourself out there online. One way or another, whether that’s teaching or that’s streaming or something. Personally, that’s a bit [difficult] for me. I mean I’m used to teaching, so I went into that. We have so many actor friends who have gone into KUMU. I think even some of the shyest people that I know of, they’ve started [streaming] because they needed the income. 

And Bibo is right, the industry never really served us so well before. So now, you really have to have your sariling sikap. [So] you earn, [so] you find a way to make a living and hopefully do it in the same industry as well.

And that’s something that is so difficult for us. Outside of theater, within theater. It’s getting our foot in the door.

– Bibo Reyes

Lara: Just the fact na “sariling sikap” – not everyone has the right equipment at home. 

Abi: Ako I agree. To be honest, ang worry ko kasi is like – diba tayo some of us are – I don’t want to say naman privileged, but parang blessed to have this; we can talk online. But I always feel for those [who can’t] – paano yung mga bata na hindi makaaral online? Like teaching, theater is a niche. Even teaching online is also a niche now because not everyone can do it. 

Maronne: We’re a third-world country and damang-dama how it affects [us]. And we see how it affects our fellow actors. I think it’s a little sad to say, but it’s the reality [that] if you’re not privileged, like, say all of us in this call right now, you’re really gonna have to put your career as an actor behind you right now. Wala kang choice. It’s dependent on the media, and if you don’t have the means to make the media, wala talaga. Ang hirap talaga

Luis: When Maronne was talking about how you know it’s either you can do it or you switch professions, it just brought up yung mga nag-popost online, some of our friends na parang “Oh, I guess this is the time to say goodbye for now.” – Oh wow, when will I be at that point?

At least for the last few years that’s what I’ve thought to myself: “I’ll keep doing this. I’ll keep doing this.” And then now that the opportunity really isn’t there so much, parang okay yun nga, “Am I still an actor?”

Catch the next part of the series where we continue this roundtable discussion on theater in the new normal