Shakespeare in Bilibid: Passport to Freedom

November 13, 2018
Ricardo Abad

For six Sundays in July and August 2018, three theater artists –Nicolo Magno, Tata Tuviera and on one occasion, Ateneo Fine Arts Visiting Professor Ian Maclennan – joined me at Camp Sampaguita, Bilibid Prison to give a series of workshops that would culminate in a staging of a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Pyramus and Tisbe scene, to be precise, in Rolando Tinio’s translation, with songs and dances to add to the merriment.  It was going to be the Camp’s offering for Buwan ng Wika.

Main Gate of the Medium Security Camp
Our actors were young men, aged 19-23, who are serving their sentences in a unit called Special Classes for Children in Conflict with the Law (SC-CCIL), its facilities housed in Camp Sampaguita, also known as the Medium Security Camp, about two kilometers away from the Maximum Security Prison. Over 70 juveniles, as they are called, populate the SC-CCIL, about 35 agreed to enlist in the theater project.  All but one had no theater experience, and the one who did attended a theater workshop in the Camp a few years back. 

The choice to do a comedy came from the inmates and the prison staff.  Two years ago, under the direction of Ron Capinding, we staged a devised piece entitled Tumbang Preso, a dramatic presentation featuring the inmates’ words of retribution and hope, with a completely different cast, many of whom have already been set free in 2018. This time around, the prison staff that felt a comedy would offer a welcome change, a chance for the inmates to learn a different kind of presentation.  And so, with funds from RolePlayers, Inc., a training company, and my Ateneo HS’62/Coll’66 Class, we slowly brought a bit of Shakespeare to life. 

Institutional Challenges
Challenges, both institutional and human, met us along the way – and more than the usual number faced by a typical theater group.  We had to secure an entry permit; get approval for whatever stage materials and food we brought in; leave mobile phones, laptops, USBs, and other electronic equipment at the gate; forego cigarettes and lighters; and carry no more than two thousand pesos in our wallets.  One guard then frisked us and another rubber-stamped our forearms with the purple seal of the Bureau of Corrections (BUCOR). 
Inside the compound, we blocked scenes in a classroom or a small yard as the performance venue was only available the day before the actual show.  Each time, we could only rehearse until 3 p.m. to give inmates time to finish their duties and eat dinner before they return to a building that gets locked at 5 p.m.  Internet use is limited and could not be relied as a way to contact prison officials (much less the inmates) outside rehearsal time.  Dispossessed of our gadgets, we relied on the SC-CCIL staff to take photos and send them to us with the advice not to post shots which show the faces of the detainees.

We managed working with these constraints, largely with the help of SC-CCIL staff members.  They handled the request for permits, informed us about prison protocols, and helped relay messages to actors. They even went to market to buy food for lunches that the detainees themselves cooked, served, and shared with us. Theater-making in Bilibid would have been impossible without the aid of this staff.
Human Challenges
The students themselves posed another set of challenges. Most of the juveniles, for example, could neither read nor write.  To get around this, we relied on peer support with the literate ones helping the “no read-no write” ones to memorize the lines assigned to them.  We also incorporated a lot of dance and movement, drawing on the juveniles’ skill in street dancing, an ability affirmed by their victory in a recent camp-wide cheer dance competition.  We also made use of popular songs, already memorized by the inmates, as part of the performance text.

The young actors pose with us after a mask exercise
Most of the detainees also needed a boost in self-confidence.  Perhaps because of their tough socioeconomic backgrounds, their deference to prison authority, and their lack of affirmation from significant others, most of them hesitated to speak up, express themselves, move freely, or improvise in the initial weeks of the workshops.  The exercises Nicolo and I chose, notably mask work, dwelt more on building the imagination, on creatively using the body, on developing awareness of co-actors as preludes to text work.  Discernible improvements in comfort and confidence appeared over time. 

Ian Maclennan giving a briefing on Elizabethan dance

To maintain their focus, and to supplement our once a week meetings, we sought the assistance of the SC-CCIL to “block off time” during weekdays for students to review blocking, memorize lines, practice songs, and clean the choreography. This assistance made the process of prison theatre-making easier to pursue. It is work done not only between the facilitators and students, but also with staff members who would also serve as additional coaches, disciplinarians and managers.

The young actors getting ready for a dress rehearsal

Camp Sampaguita’s Visiting Area served as our performance venue.  We placed platforms on both ends, hung a backdrop of blue cloth on one end, stationed a drum set on the other end, and used the center aisle as additional stage space. Tata Tuviera fashioned colorful costumes and ingenious props, a novelty for the first-time actors, as well as chose the songs for the leads to lip synch.  We performed at 1:00 p.m. with no additional lights, and among those who watched the half-hour show were Bureau of Corrections officials, our guests, and inmates from other units of the Camp. One of our guests, the journalist Luz Victoria de Leon, wrote her reaction on Facebook:

What a show...The actors in the play were enthusiastic, lively and thoroughly into Shakespeare's love story of Piramo & Thisbe. The all-male cast were comically costumed to transport us to a fantasy place of theater. Thank you Prof Ricky Abad, Ateneo trainors and Bilibid admin for this encompassing memorable experience.

The two lions get ready to perform The Lion and Tisbe waiting for their cues

The rest of the audience shared de Leon’s enthusiasm. They particularly relished the scenes when the Lion dismembered Tisbe’s forearm to snatch her scarf, when the despondent Piramo repeatedly stabbed himself to death, and when the despairing Tisbe seduces Piramo’s corpse in the vain hope of restoring him to life.

The actors portraying The Wall The actors portraying the Moon and the Stars

After the show, performers were each awarded a Certificate of Achievement for completing the project. They can use this certificate as proof of good behavior when their cases are reviewed for a possible reduction in sentence.  It’s a passport to freedom.  Sadly, none of the detainees’ friends or relatives were present at the show to witness this accomplishment.  Not surprising, an official revealed, since the juveniles rarely, if ever, received visitors. Our Sunday visits, the official also told us, help to compensate for this loss.

What we’ve learned, in the main, is that theater, or more specifically the kinds of bonding or contact that theater generates, makes a difference in transforming the lives of prisoners, or persons deprived of liberty. Asked what he learned from doing theater, and a bit of Shakespeare at that, one actor sums up what the others also say: “Kaya ko palang humarap sa maraming tao; di ko akalain na magagawa ko iyon, yung magsalita at magpatawa.” Another actor added: “Sana makabalik kayo.  Ang sarap matutong magsalita ng tama at kumilos sa iba’t-ibang paraan.”  And still another: “Iba ang disiplina sa teatro.  Kailangan talagang magsama-sama ang lahat para makabuo ng palabas.”

Bernardo Lopez, a classmate who first put me in contact with Bilibid, observed similar effects after Tumbang Preso two years back.  Writing for the Ateneo website, he said:

After the resounding curtain call, the cast was asked to say something. Everyone eagerly raised their hands. The transformation was awesome. From extreme shyness, they were suddenly talking with pride and confidence. Many had a common message – that they were surprised at themselves that they could talk in front of an audience with candor, something they had never done before… Now they were proud of and believed in themselves.

Pyramus stabs himself thinking that Tisbe has died Tisbe finds Pyramus and thinks he’s asleep

The literature on prison theatre affirms these self-discoveries. Theater engagement gives inmates a perspective on their lives, an opportunity to develop skills in self-expression, in handling emotions, and in working with others. It is also a chance to escape from the humdrum and loneliness of prison life. Some studies even show that participants in Prison Theater are less likely to return to prison after release.

Officials of the Bureau of Corrections – notably Supt. Carmencita Bravo and Acting SC-CCIL Director Christian Cruz, have witnessed these transformations.  Both are convinced of the power of theater to reform and rehabilitate juveniles.  They also seek to lessen the stigma associated with being a prisoner by having the juveniles perform for the larger public.   Indeed, arrangements are now being made to have the detainees perform at the Ateneo late this year.  It is a project devoutly to be wished.  “Sana matuloy ito,” said one inmate, “para malasahan man lang, kahit ilang oras man lang, ang lasa ng kalayaan.”

BuCor officer Ramil Rodriguez and the facilitators led by Dr. Ricky Abad

After the show, as the juveniles were packing their costumes backstage, an inmate sat alone in one corner of the visiting area and looked at his certificate.  I do not know if he knew how to read.  But he looked at his certificate a long time, deciphering the words, imagining perhaps it was the diploma he never had.  He had one now, so to speak, a symbol of what he was able to achieve, and it felt wondrous.  He smiled, gazed at the prison gate, and thought, I guess, that had just taken one step to set himself free. 
Many Filipino theater artists have done theater in Bilibid over the years.  We continue their work. Together, we offer hope.