The Extra Virgin Lab Fest, the first of its kind to happen here in Cagayan de Oro, unfolded at the Rodelsa Hall last December 4 to 7, 2019. Organized in partnership with the Cultural Center of the Philippines and NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts), it featured nine untried, untested, unstaged plays written by Mindanaoan playwrights.
I was fortunate enough to have been a part of the festival as a director of one of the featured plays. For the audiences, EVLF was a journey to different worlds as the playwrights told stories that made everyone laugh, fear, cry, love – and yes – learn.
For me – for my co-directors and artists and I, the festival was a dream come true. I have long wanted to have a play festival that featured original stories by local playwrights. I wanted something like the play festival I was once a part of back in the 80s. I wanted a play festival that would showcase the extraordinary talents of Mindanaoans. And the Extra Virgin Lab Fest was all these and more.
To give you an idea of how much theater means to me, allow me to give you a background story that dates back to the early 80s.
Growing up, my sister, cousins, and I were exposed to musicals. We watched movies like The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Showboat, Carousel, and Kiss Me Kate, among others.
On TV, I preferred watching variety shows over anything else (except for Flordeluna, Anna Liza, and Lovingly Yours, Helen). So, it wasn’t surprising when, in 2nd year high school, I started getting interested in musicals – and in theater in general. That was also the time when my mom, Ma. Soledad “Chic2” Fortich, won the Palanca Award for her 3-act play Reyna Elena.
The following school year, my interest in theater was further strengthened by the week-long interschool play festival that my mom and her friends at the Bai Lawanen Jaycees organized. Our school, Liceo de Cagayan University High School, participated in the playfest and our female lead was hailed as one of the two best actress awardees.
In 1984, we joined again and staged New Yorker in Patag, a Binisaya adaptation of New Yorker in Tondo by Marcelino Agana, Jr. We didn’t win any awards but we went home with happy and contented hearts because we were able to connect with the audience who watched our play. I remember the feeling of fulfillment. I was beyond proud that we were able to put up something that made people laugh and cry. From then on, theater became a major part of my life.
Coming Home to CDO
My love affair with theater continued and even strengthened through the years, especially after we moved to Metro Manila. I was fortunate enough to have watched several plays staged by Repertory Philippines, Trumpets, PETA, and Tanghalang Pilipino.
When I came home to Cagayan de Oro in 1997, I looked forward to becoming a part of and supporting the theater community in the city. Sadly, though, there wasn’t a lot of action in the local scene.
Over the years, however, the local theater community started to come alive again. In the meantime, I tried to instill the discipline, dedication, and passion I learned through theater to my students at Philippine Southfield School. I even held regular weekend workshops for my drama club members.
By 2005, my students and I got the chance to work with the Pasundayag group headed by Mozart Pastrano (and Honey Aguilar). They helped train my students in the various aspects of theater. We were able to stage the Greek comedy Lysistrata towards the end of the school year. That was the turning point for me.
In 2008, I decided to finally go back to theater and became involved in the local production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.
The Extra Virgin Lab Fest
Nowadays, one of the major things that keep me busy is our theater group, Oro Teatro Bulawanon. We’re a small group but we do our best to come up with plays at least once a year. We’ve staged The Vagina Monologues here in CDO since 2013. Likewise, we’ve done other productions, the most memorable of which is our staging of my mom’s Palanca-winning play Reyna Elena.
Last year, however, was a big step forward for us as we got invited to stage a play at Kampo Juan in Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon. In addition, I was asked to direct one of the plays featured in the Extra Virgin Lab Fest. Some of our members became part of the festival, as well, either as an actor or production staff. This, for me, is one of the major reasons why I treasure my EVLF experience.
For me, the Extra Virgin Lab Fest is a validation that we are on the right path; that we are doing something good. Time and again, I have asked myself if everything I/we have sacrificed is worth all the challenges that come our way in every production we stage. The EVLF finally gave me an answer: YES.
The EVLF made me – and all the others involved in the festival – realize that I am a valued member of the local theater community. It gave me a family – one that welcomed anyone who had unequaled passion, dedication, and love for theater and the arts. No one felt out of place, even the first-time actors and production staff. Everyone was treated equally; everyone was made to feel important. Best of all, everyone freely shared their time, thoughts, and experience/expertise with the group.
It isn’t easy mounting a festival that involved nine playwrights (from different parts of Mindanao), nine directors, over 50 actors, and production staff from different groups and schools/universities in CDO. But, like what our Festival Director Hobart Savior said, nothing is impossible if we work together and give our best. The Extra Virgin Lab Fest is a treasure I will forever keep. It gave my fellow artists and I a community, a home, and a family.