By Giselle P. Kasilag
A UBIQUITOUS Filipino dessert, comedian Jon Santos confessed to BusinessWorld, is at the top of his list of brilliant things. But to find out what it is, he is inviting everyone of come and see the restaging of Bawat Bonggang Bagay — the Filipino translation of Duncan Macmillan’s play Every Brilliant Thing.
Indeed, he has found himself indulging in that dessert as the opening night draws near. He is nervous but clearly very excited. And in the eyes of director Jenny Jamora, Mr. Santos is definitely ready. After all, one person on stage engaging an audience for over an hour is really what one would expect from a Jon Santos theatrical performance. His decades-long career as a stand-up comedian is exactly like that. But Bawat Bonggang Bagay is anything but a typical Jon Santos show. Indeed, play is not typical in any way at all.
Every Brilliant Thing is a one-person play featuring a narrator sharing childhood experiences coping with a parent’s depression and suicide attempts by listing “brilliant things.” It is an interactive production with members of the audience expected to participate in the show.
It was first staged in the Philippines by The Sandbox Collective in 2019 and again in 2020 with Teresa Herrera and Kakki Teodoro alternating as the lead character. The company brought it back a third time last June, with both actresses returning for the company’s first post COVID pandemic production. But they also offered a twist. A Filipino version premiered with Mr. Santos as the lead.
Ms. Jamora explained that The Sandbox Collective’s managing artistic director Toff De Venecia saw an opportunity to have the piece translated after receiving requests and encouragement from peers to do so. The material had already been translated to Hebrew, Mandarin, and Arabic. It made sense to come up with a Filipino version.
“It is written in the published version that the production should adapt it to where they are. Whatever can be done to bring the story closer to you, you can do. The safeguard is, they have to approve the translator,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino, adding that award-winning playwright Guelan Luarca was an easy choice for the translation, along with Mr. Santos whom she revealed was the first name to come up when casting was considered.
The process of taking the translated material and making it ready for the stage, however, was far from easy. Every tweak they make has repercussions on the time line and the character’s history. But the challenges were worth it.
“I am a native English speaker but, always, anything in Filipino speaks to something in the depths of my soul as a Filipino more immediately. So it’s the same with this material. There is a layer lost in the distance. My spirit came closer to the story all the more,” the director explained.
“The actors are my resource. In Every Brilliant Thing, they are alone. They are actor, set, chorus, ensemble, prop! So I parse out their strengths and work with that. For this shows, it’s like molding a piece of clay. I don’t try to hammer out just one form. So if you watch Teresa, it’s very different. If you watch Kakkie’s show, it’s very different. Jon is also very different,” she continued.
While the idea of a translated Every Brilliant Thing generated much excitement, receiving the script and performing it for the first time saw Mr. Santos digging deep into his theater roots.
“It is said that a manual on How to Act does not contain much. It’s just that each one of those few things, you have to learn hundreds of times over and over and over,” he said.
“You listen for that thing that stirs your inner crazy. You look and listen and you’ll find that there are things to see and hear from the character that would intrigue you. So, I find the connection with the character. So, I found it and I deepened it by consulting with my director for a character bible and music landscape. I [the character] have a birthday. I have a zodiac sign. In my head there are certain things that made my mom behave like that. And there were certain decisions my dad made that got that into that stalemate all these years. So there is that kind of world-building.”
He also found inspiration in films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Ordinary People, and Spoiler Alert. Music was equally important in setting the stage for the different moments of his character’s life. He drew heavily on different acting devices to help him create the character.
Indeed, the outcome was a happy surprise when the curtains rose on the first staging of Bawat Bonggang Bagay. The applause was deafening. Later on, a member of the audience approached Mr. Santos and told him that he felt he was seen. Many have shared that they have started their own lists of brilliant things.
“The purpose of the material is to talk about something that is usually difficult to talk about but in a more accessible and less dark way,” said Ms. Jamora. “That is why it is good too when you get the opportunity to use comedy as the device for a topic that is so severe, serious and heavy,” Mr. Santos chimed in.
They both recognize the vulnerability of the situation, both for the actor and the audience watching. Thus, they have taken great care in creating a safe space for all. Ms. Jamora credits The Sandbox Collective’s marketing and PR team for crafting appropriate content warnings and disseminating the information so that people watching are forewarned about the content. Truly, discussions about mental health have come a long way and these measures aid in encouraging conversations without fear or judgment.
“We hope that the play does not do more or less than it should,” said Mr. Santos.
Bawat Bonggang Bagay clearly resonated with the local audience, so much that it merited a restaging so soon. The job now is to continue exploring the character and the material.
“I want for the audience to come in as their authentic selves,” said Mr. Jamora, “and leave feeling more that they can be more themselves than they ever have been.”
Bawat Bonggang Bagay will run at the Zobel de Ayala Recital Hall, Maybank Performing Arts Theater, 9th Ave. cor. 26th St., BGC, Taguig City from Sept. 15 to 24. Tickets will be available through Ticketworld or through The Sandbox Collective at 0917-152-5560.