Saturday, June 11, 2016

Thinking inside the black box

It’s very exciting for artists to see an empty space,” said Ed Lacson Jr. after recounting the diverse, if not divergent productions that came to life at the barely one-year-old Power Mac Center Spotlight, where he serves as theater manager.

The 400-sqm. black box theater was built to complete Ayala Land’s hip lifestyle and entertainment district Circuit Makati and complement the 1,500-seater performing arts theater soon to rise within the development. “A black box is basically an empty space that any artist can use, whether for performing or visual arts. It’s a canvas that they can transform however they want to,” explained Lacson. “Its difference from a proscenium type of theater is the seating, which can be adjusted in whatever configuration you want.”

And like the blank page, the limits of which are defined by the writer, Power Mac Center Spotlight has been utilized by creative minds in various disciplines. Other than the expected plays and musicals, the venue has hosted talks, product launches, even Christmas parties in the past. Power Mac Center Spotlight has seen artist Christina Dy celebrate her birthday with a live performance; poet Juan Miguel Severo recite verses to an army of spoken word and OTWOL fanatics; and the Manila Symphony Orchestra play unplugged.

“There’s no limit to the type of event; we even had a graduation,” added Lacson. Small and flexible, a black box theater inspires freedom while allowing intimacy — something that both performer and audience relish. Its very structure invites experimentation and forces attention that even Filipino rock band The Black Vomits chose to stage their modern rock opera The Gray Ground here.

At The Gray Ground rehearsals
Created by writer, artist and The Black Vomits bassist Igan D’Bayan, The Gray Ground follows Jan, who’s in the throes of writer’s block while desperately writing a literary masterpiece; and features a song cycle described by D’Bayan as “the band members’ love letter to the rock opera and the concept album.”

“To be honest, I wanted to stage The Gray Ground in a bar or in a small dingy space — with beer, eerie green lights, and patient ears. The play, for lack of a better word, is more dialogue-­driven and our music moves the story forward. But once I started developing the protagonist Jan and rethinking the Kafkaesque, Lynchian, Black Mirror-­like world that he lives in, we decided to stage the play in a proper black box theater, a decision that led us to Circuit Makati,” shared D’Bayan.

“The venue is a tabula rasa,” he continued. “It’s up to director Bianka Bernabe, stage designer Marco Ortiga of The Crucible, Ruel Caasi of TWA (The Working Animals), and the students of the College of Saint Benilde (CSB) School of Design and Arts to transform Power Mac Center Spotlight into Jan’s weird and wonky world. Ayala Land and Circuit Makati were very open to our ideas and have been really supportive.”

“We’re supporting The Gray Ground because it’s a unique project,” said Mel Ignacio of Ayala Land. “And we also like it when the students are involved. CSB is very near; it’s the community that we want to cater to. We want the people to stay, live, work, and play in Makati. We want the people in the area to know about the venue and that’s what Igan’s show can do.”

How the team behind The Gray Ground will make the workings of a writer’s (blank) mind a compelling drama and at the same time bring rock opera into the local audience’ consciousness, we have yet to find out. But Lacson couldn’t wait for the ride: “I was looking at their designs. It was very forward, very avant-garde. They have a mosh pit together with the regular seats. I think it’s an exciting way to use the space.” he said.

“If we had a proper budget, we’d aim for something like Faust (2006) — something ordinary infringed by something gothic with lots of shadows, masked figures and supernatural reds,” shared D’Bayan. “Now, it’s more of an ‘imagined space.’ If we do our jobs, the audience­ members would really be transformed into the Gray Ground, with an area code between everywhere and nowhere.”

It’s easy to say the opposite of Lacson’s previous statement and still be right: It’s very scary — frustrating? unappetizing? — for artists to see an empty space. And this dichotomy between emptiness and creation, sharing (if not coming from) the same space is what makes Power Mac Center Spotlight and The Gray Ground quite a match. As D’Bayan explained, “What The Black Vomits will present in The Gray Ground is just one story swimming in a sea of stories. But in our tale, the devil is a blank computer screen for a man suffering from writer’s block — and space is where the next story is coming from.”

—Originally published in The Philippine STAR

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