Filipino artists imagine the future of theater at Tokyo Festival 2021

Published October 7, 2021, 1:51 PM

by John Legaspi

Artists from the Philippines, Japan, and Indonesia come together for a must-see stage production both on-site and online

Look through the western skies, as that song goes, and you’ll find theater fans giddy Elphaba to see flying high again, Christine singing to the Phantom, and the sun rising on Pride Rock. Broadway and the West End have, after a year of silence due to the pandemic, turned on their marquees and opened their curtains to welcome audiences back to the magic of the stage. Sadly, the same cannot yet be said of the local theater scene. Filipino plays and musicals remain solely as a virtual experience, leaving production crews, ushers, staff, and thespians out of the theater up until today.

A glimpse of ‘フレ フレ Ostrich!! Hayupang Die-Bow-Ken!’ (Kazuyuki Matsumoto)

Armed with lessons from the challenges brought by the global pandemic, artists and creators are already looking at how live performances will be in our post-pandemic world. And with the continuous rise of digital platforms, hybrid theater—a form of performance straddling both the online and offline venues—is an example of the theater arts has been kept alive for the modern times. One of the first to take this leap is Filipino director, scriptwriter, and filmmaker James Harvey Estrada.

Together with international collaborators from Japan and Indonesia, James reimagines a piece for the Tokyo Festival 2021. Following the comprehensive urban arts festival’s theme of “A Blink in History,” they revisited his piece titled “フレ フレ Ostrich!! Hayupang Die-Bow-Ken!” for this year’s presentation.

“This work/performance came from years of research in Japan. I was part of Asian Performing Arts Farm Lab in 2019 and was chosen in 2020 to present a work-in-progress piece for the exhibition,” James tells Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “This year, the work will be part of the Tokyo Arts Festival line-up. I’m so excited to show this because of how tedious the process of making was.”

co-directors Naosuke Aokid and (in Zoom meeting window) James Harvey Estrada (Kazuyuki Matsumoto)

Months of discussion via Zoom meetings took place before the project came to fruition. Many might see working with artists from different nations this time with a certain level of difficulty—from language barriers and understanding cultural context to working in different time zones. That’s true for James as well, but those challenges added a depth of beauty to the piece as it weaves a tapestry of Asian culture and context. He even described the process to be almost like a long-distance relationship, something you put time and effort to connect to wherever you are.

“The title of the performance is ‘フレ フレ Ostrich!! Hayupang Die-Bow-Ken!,’ which is a mixture of English, Japanese, and Tagalog words,” he says. “This is a collaboration of Asian artists to create a performance work of togetherness. This is inspired by the story that I wrote, which was intended to be a a straight play with a title ‘Ang Mga Nawalang Panaganip Sa Panahong Isinilang Ang Guya Na Isa Lang Ang Mata.’ It was hailed from a report about a one-eyed kid (a young goat) born in Ilocos. It is a story about a dictator’s love for his land, the fictional Bayan na Damo.”

One of the ostriches in the play (Kazuyuki Matsumoto)

In the play, a prophecy said that the young goat will bring misfortune to the land. Its ruler, A-mat, orders his guards to find and kill every last pregnant goat. Ygme, a goat keeper, and Yna, a pregnant goat regarded by Ygme as family, flee town to escape the dictator and his men. While on the run, Yna gives birth to Tartaros—a baby goat with one eye—just as prophecy foretold. Special elements of the performance are ostriches, inspired by the two escaped ostriches who ran around parts of Manila in August 2020. In the play, the ostrich serves as a symbol of freedom in the coronavirus-stricken country, per the director.

Mei Yamanaka (Kazuyuki Matsumoto)

“フレ フレ Ostrich!! Hayupang Die-Bow-Ken!” is co-directed by Japanese performer and choreographer Naosuke Aokid and theater director Masashi Nukata who is also a musician and composer. Featured in the play are Japanese dancer Mei Yamanaka, metal vocal artist Robi Rusdiana from Indonesia, and two Filipino artists Bunny Cadag and Ulap Angelo Chua.

In the spirit of hybrid theater, the play will be performed on Social Asia Theater (via Zoom) and on-site at Minami Otsuka Hall. “The viewing experience for this work will be different because some may watch it at the performance venues and others online, and there is participation involved,” James explains. “Maybe there will be a time after the pandemic that plays and theater works will be available to be seen both online and on-site. I’m excited for that possibility to enrich the audience experience and how artists express themselves.”

If there’s a lesson James is bringing home from this work, it would be the thinking that “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.” It is, he says, fun and inspiring that during the time people are asked to distance themselves from each other, art pulled them in to connect and create bonds while, ultimately, telling a story. “I learned to received and respect ideas to achieve this Theater of Togetherness,” he adds.

“I want to think more of the future of performing arts in Asia or even the world, I want to research more about the possibilities and how performances can shape our communities,” James continues. “I’m hoping for a better future in performing arts with the use of technology.”

“フレ フレ Ostrich!! Hayupang Die-Bow-Ken!” show will run from Oct. 6 to 8, 2021 for free. Signup at to watch the show.