Lessons learned from Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?

pics by Sarah Walker, poster by Joyce Garcia

In early 2017, when Sipat Lawin and I were on tour to Castlemaine Festival with our interactive show Gobyerno, JK Anicoche and I took a morning out to have a coffee and talk about future projects. We started discussing the idea of a play – you know, an actual play, in a theatre – looking at politics in the Philippines.

In mid-2018, the first version of that show was performed in Manila. Just under two years later, in February 2020, we toured the work internationally to Arts House in Melbourne as part of the AsiaTOPA Festival.

Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands? is a big show – a huge action-musical beauty pageant. The plot follows the kidnapping of Filipino popstar Gracielle V, and the efforts of a small group of fans to track her down and rescue her. It’s a big theatrical spectacular – dance scenes, fight sequences, costumes, glamour, excess – and it’s also a sampler of Filipino pop culture, surveying the last 40 years of iconic Pinoy pop music.

pic by brandon relucio

The tour went really well – a sold out season, excellent reviews, a great audience response, and everyone involved was a real delight, from the Sipat crew to Arts House, to our Melbourne dance collaborators from House of Devine.

Behind the glossy projections and edgy fashions, the ultra-slick dance moves and remorseless entertainment, there’s a hall of mirrors where art and propaganda become almost indistinguishable. It makes for gut-wrenching, unsettling subtext.

However avowedly “not political” this show may claim to be, probably the closest analogues in European culture would be the work of Belarus Free Theatre and Pussy Riot, or Brecht in Threepenny Opera mode.

The talent, courage and urgency that fuel this all-singing, all-dancing satire of celebrity culture make electrifying theatre.

– Cameron Woodhead, The Age

Are You Ready to Take the Law into your Own Hands is as flashy, glitzy and energetic as it is intelligent, subversive and fun. It takes popular entertainment forms that shouldn’t necessarily work together, the action adventure and the glamour contest, and smashes them into each other in a delightful way that doesn’t entirely conceal how intelligent it is.

– Rob Reid, Witness

pic by sarah walker

It’s also a major accomplishment to pull a project like that off. This show had a touring party of 12, which is a lot, and it’s a full-blown multimedia extravaganza – 360 video projection, non-stop choreography (with 15 people onstage), live video-streaming, detailed lights and sound… and without showing off the budget, we did it for Very Very Cheap.

We were lucky – we were booked to fly through Hong Kong on our way to Australia, those flights were cancelled – but we were able to refunded and alternative flights. We were watching the news every day for coronavirus to wipe out the production – but through sheer luck, the outbreak didn’t escalate in either the Philippines or Australia across all of February. It wasn’t even a major news item in Australia while we were there, certainly it didn’t impact our audiences. If we’d been performing even a week later…

But it also worked so well because every single person threw everything at it to make it happen. Arts and performance venues always amaze me with how generous they are to touring companies, but on this occasion, Arts House really went above and beyond to make this show possible. Now we’ve done it once it’ll be comparatively quite easy to do it again, but that first production – that was such a risk, and Arts House really went out on a limb to make it happen.

pic by sarah walker

LESSONS I LEARNED FROM THIS PRODUCTION:

– I love watching Sipat Lawin on stage
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed myself so much on tour, and a large part of it for me was simply the pleasure of seeing the artists of Sipat Lawin back onstage. For years, the company has been presenting all kinds of participatory work, site-specific and community work, creating platforms for conversation and contemporary rituals. The work the company does is so grounded in the community of Manila. They’ve shifted a long way from their origin as a theatre company emerging out of the Philippines High School for the Arts.

But at the same time, they’re all still such theatre creatures – and they come to life on stage like no other artists I know. After touring Gobyerno to international festivals for a few years, I felt frustrated that no-one knows the secret: that Clyde Enriquez and Adrienne Vergara are phenomenal triple-threat performers. So a big motivation for creating this show was simply to give them a platform to show off their acting, their dancing and their singing.

And then Ji-ann Lachica and Bunny Cadag came on board, who I am mad fans of! And Blanche Buhia, who I hadn’t met before but who is great!

pic by brandon relucio

– I create problems, JK solves them
JK and I have worked together as writer and director many times over the years, but this felt like a real crystallising of our collaboration in a lot of respects. In particular, over the last month, as the script more or less solidified, I found myself in the role of identifying problems. Dramaturgical issues, things that weren’t quite right in the flow of the action, tonal problems…

And it felt to me that as long as I could identify a problem with enough precision, JK could solve it. If I could explain an issue with a sequence, but also, explain what that sequence needed to do in abstract terms, JK would find a way of bridging that gap. His bag of tricks seems to be bottomless – and even better, he’s so adept at using unexpected elements to solve a problem, to use lights or audio or video or text or dance or costume in really counterintuitive ways.

– This is the hardest script I’ve ever worked on
I’m credited as the writer of the show, which is an overstatement. It’s probably better to say I was responsible for the script, which was more about making sure all the material that everyone wrote was roughly balanced and connected. But it was very, very difficult.

Trying to create a performance that’s so rooted in Filipino context make sense for an international audience while making it meaningful for a Pinoy crowd too: it felt like playing both sides of a chess game where both players follow different rules. And what became clear through the season in Melbourne was that this show doesn’t work when it’s 90% there, or even 95% there – it needs to nail it, or else it’s going to fail badly.

We were in real trouble back in October, at the end of the last development – Emily Sexton from Arts House and Saddiah Boonstra from AsiaTOPA came across to watch our sharing and they were incredibly positive, but there were some fundamental problems with the tack we were taking, and it was going to sink like a stone in front of an Australian crowd. And I didn’t know how to solve it.

This is the only process I’ve ever been involved with where I’ve thought, ‘I need more white people in the room’. I was the only international eye on the material, and I lost all my objectivity, and I no longer knew what Australian audiences would or wouldn’t connect with, or how to make sense of it.

Thankfully, Hadley read over the script and cracked it, pinned down the central idea which let us put a new lens on it and gave us a way to frame the material for westerners. And thank christ, it worked, because the first time we put it in front of Australians was on dress rehearsal night.

pic by brandon relucio, wtf is jk wearing here

– There’s a pleasure in withholding
Even if we’d tried, we couldn’t explain all the cultural nuance or political context in the play for a western crowd – and it would have been exhausting and boring for everyone if we’d tried. So we tried going the other way – having translated the script into english, we translated certain portions of it back into tagalog – effectively making those parts inaccessible to the Australian audience.

That way, we hoped, people would understand that they couldn’t understand – that there were things in this story that were out of their reach, and that was fine.

This is not a device I’ve ever tried before, or even seen used that I could recall, so it was a total gamble – but it worked.

– One of the pleasures of Filipino performance is excess
The first production of Are You Ready in Manila in 2018 went for nearly 4 hours – with no interval, and with the audience on their feet for most of it. Theatre in the Philippines is longer, bigger, more emotional, in every way more than theatre in Australia.

For the Melbourne show, we had a hard time limit of 90 minutes – so how are you going to capture that excess in that timeframe? Containing that excess risks diluting it. But it’s very hard for western audiences to cope with an epic durational Filipino work, with those huge emotions. We get tired, we get bored, it starts feeling all the same to us.

(Conversely, it’s worth remembering that western theatre often reads to Filipino audiences as short, bland and boring.)

For example, in the original Manila performance, Ienne’s religious homage was 27 minutes long. In the Melbourne version, it was a mere 7 mins. But it was heartbreaking to lose all that material, partly because from my perspective, the longer that sequence went, the funnier it got.

pic by sarah walker

– I don’t know what western audiences saw when they saw those scenes
I genuinely don’t know whether the Melbourne audience experience would have been improved by recognising all of the myriad references and details in Bunny’s performance as Malaine, or whether the strangeness of it was its strength.

– Without the execution of the spectacle, the show wouldn’t have worked
I’ve seen (and done) lots of theatre in Australia that gestures towards spectacle, but this one really had it. Choreographer Jared Luna made it BIG.  Lighting designer Roman Cruz, video artist Joyce Garcia, cinematographer Brandon Relucio and sound designer J Laspuńa made it feel like an immersive cinema experience. Sigmund Pecho’s stage management, with the help of Kirby Vicente and Rod de los Reyes completely tied it together. The dancers of House of Devine came in with such energy and precision.

I think the concept and the script of the show were pretty smart (of course I’m gonna say that). But smart doesn’t make for a good night out – I don’t necessarily book a show because I want to see something smart. What I want, deep down, is to see something beautiful, colourful and reckless – and then to have a thin veneer of smart layered over it so I can tell myself I’m still a sophisticated theatre-goer. That’s what Are You Ready is for me – a gloriously decadent spectacle with just a little smattering of Clever as spice.

pic by sarah walker

– Acting opposite Adrienne Vergara is HARD
In my one scene with Ienne-Ienne, I had to literally bite my cheek every night to stop myself laughing. Eventually the inside of my mouth was in genuine pain because I’d been chewing it so hard, so I had to develop other strategies, like counting backwards in my head while she was talking, or else I was guaranteed to lose it and laugh.

Don’t get me started on trying to write scripts for her. She is brilliant and merciless.

– I want to do it again
Please, someone book us to do the show again. I promise, Sipat Lawin will make your theatre explode with light and heat.

pic by sarah walker


So it’s 13 March, and obviously everything is in shutdown due to the virus. I’ve got a couple of gigs upcoming that are now either cancelled or on hold, and everything is very fluid. Hope you and yours are keeping well.

Couple of quick links on the topic of the virus:

The Atlantic posted a good piece answering the question ‘What does social distancing mean?’

If you want some good commentary from an epidemiological perspective, chronyclecovid19 is doing a great daily briefing newsletter.

For the keeping of your soul in these turbulent times:

Julia Johnson just released a stunning new single ‘Breathe Him In’ – soothe your heart for 3 mins.

And most exciting of all, my partner Rebecca Giggs book Fathoms is now available for pre-order!
In the US!
In the UK!
In Australia!

!!!