Two weeks in the wet season for Karnabal, for what? For why?

It’s coming up on midnight on a cold winter Thursday in Melbourne and I’m curled up by a heater, just the way I like it. And I’m a little ragged, so much so that I’m reduced to playing Grouper and A Broken Consort and this one Burrows song over and over. But it’s been a good two weeks, I think.

karnabal443 image by bunny cadag

At the end of May I sprinted out of Melbourne for a fortnight in Manila to take part in the Karnabal Festival. It was my second time, since I helped produce the festival’s international program in 2015. And I shouldn’t have gone, I shouldn’t have gone – I can’t even begin to explain to you all the ways in which it was a bad idea. I’ve got commitments here, I’ve got deadlines, I’ve got (maybe most importantly) no money, why was I going to Manila to perform at an experimental arts festival?

But it was magic and I don’t regret anything. You don’t regret things like this, I figure. You pay for them  – one way or another you pay for them. But no, no, don’t regret.

Karnabal is Sipat Lawin’s extraordinary festival of experimental Filipino performance – a laboratory of new and developing work by Manila-based performers, and a dedicated stream of international collaborators. Sarah Salazar and Ninya Bedruz put the thing together, curated by Sarah, JK Anicoche and Eisa Jocson. It was a burst of activity across a whole range of different platforms, smeared across Diliman – all through and across Teacher’s Village in QC.

Two weeks of festival life, which entailed: staying in the new Sipat HQ on Magiting Street – JK, Eisa and Alyx’s new house, which was host to a swarm of international guests, volunteers, anyone and everyone passing through. You wake up in the morning, already sweltering hot, the sound of trike drivers and water sellers in the street. And then breakfast, and then people are beginning to move, gather, rehearse, the day is underway. Long conversations, chats that veer into lunch, or a shared trike ride, or sneaking off to the teahouse on Maginhawa to work and write, and then heading back to Mapagkawanggawa to the Papet Theatre, the festival hub, to start seeing work.

karnabal446 image by clyde enriquez

The heat, the heat all day, except when it rained, and then brief respite – except sometimes the rain came down so hard it drowned out the performances altogether, as when Tassos, Chris and Issa had to stop their performance on the last Sunday so we could attend to the monsoonal rain pelting the rooftops below us. And then art, performances, conversations, more people, more good chats, and winding up at TomatoKick or Flying House, through until 1 or 2am.

I always found myself leaving the late night parties early, walking home, and that’s one of my favourite times of day in Manila – between midnight and 4am, the streets quiet and cool, but not empty – never empty – and the conversations sleepier, more peaceful.

And then the next day, again. And again, for two weeks.

karnabal445 image by bunny cadag

The work was killer. Holy shit, I don’t even know how to say. For me, the standard was way up from last year. Issa Lopez. Chris Aaronson. Clyde Enriquez. Sarah Salazar and Detsy Uy. Teresa Barrozo. Bunny Cadag. Isab Martinez. Adrienne Vergara. Ninya Bedruz. Ness Roque. Daniel Darwin and Perky Parong. Kollab Company.

And the internationals this year were also brilliant. It was magic seeing the international guests from last year return and deliver on their proposed projects in really exciting and unexpected ways. Chikara Fujiwara – oh man, Engeki Quest. Riki Takeda. Natsuki Ishigami. Nikki Kennedy. And Tassos Stevens, rolling across from London, landing in the thick of it and not even batting an eyelid, knocking out two workshops and a full new show in a matter of ten days or so.

Me, I was there to do Foreignoy, the work I started late last year and which so far comprises of a song&dance number and a little bit of scrap writing around it. I didn’t really have the time to go much deeper in my research, so it was more a case of just trialling new material and seeing what came of it.  I had two shows, so I tried two totally different tacks.

karnabal444 image by bunny cadag

The first was a spoken word piece, essentially. I was butting up against the inevitable dead end of trying to write about identity politics, white guilt, privilege, all that stuff that still exists, partly because of who I am, partly as a hangover from Kids Killing Kids. I knew it wasn’t getting me anywhere, but I couldn’t write around it, so I had to write through it. And digging deeper and deeper into that, the end result was a slightly insular work where I was digging in my own head for my motivations – why do I even want to create work at all? The theme under it all was desperation.

So yeah, I got naked in Black Soup and talked the audience through what a white body looks like. (I’m not very hairy for a caucasian, but I think, white dudes are generally more hairy than filipinos? Sa tingin ko.) The only image I have of the show is Bunny’s shot that I just linked to above, but as soon as I took my underwear off someone came racing in from outside with their ipad up ready and filming, so I guess there’s footage out there somewhere. Thank goodness.

karnabal448 image by rina atienza

The second show, I threw all that out and handed the entire show over to the audience. I got them to reenact an episode of Eat Bulaga, complete with Tito Sotto, Ryzza Mae, Lola Nidora, AlDub, a round of Hakot Pa More, Pinoy Henyo and Foreignoy. It was loose as fuck and super chaotic and I had a lot of fun.

And that show opened into my hosting Strange Pilgrims, Sipat’s beautiful open mic event, which ran through until 3.30am on Tomas Morato, and closed with Shing Shing Taberoarrr smashing out a violent set and me collapsed on a table outside watching through the window. Lot of feelings, lot of feelings.

And then Monday, on a plane again. Touched down to a message from an Australian, ‘You in my country on my coast!’, and, I guess I am.

karnabal447 image by brandon relucio

Now it’s straight into my research residency at Carlton Connect with Jordan, we’re presenting the results of our work on future scenarios next week in the form of a police procedural set in 2050 about the murder of a boy band member entitled CrimeForce: LoveTeam. And then Best Festival Ever opens in Arts House on 6 July. And then… what? I don’t even know.

The tricky thing is, what do you do with something like Karnabal? I’ve written this down, but how do I quantify it? How do I make it add up to something? I saw rad art, I had good conversations, I performed new work, I got sick then got better again, now what?

I don’t know. I never know.