AKTOR PH: Recounting the tales of the storytelling frontliners

Story by A.L. and E.R.

The industry once filled with lights and cameras now dims with little to no action.

Amid one of the toughest lockdowns in the world, the country’s beloved cinemas have gone dark, local theaters have barred their doors and production studios have emptied.

Sa industry namin, andaming kailangang gawin,” shares actress Chariety Landayan, whose freelance acting career has been hampered by the pandemic. “Andaming test and papers na kailangang ayusin para lang makapagshoot … kaya hindi na muna tinutuloy ang mga production.”

The pandemic took the spotlight by storm, bringing the once-lucrative entertainment industry to a standstill. As the hope of ever returning to the stage and the silver screen runs dry, entertainment workers scramble to make ends meet.

Nawalan kaming lahat ng trabaho,” recalls actress-singer Agot Isidro. “Dahil itinuring kaming non-essential may feeling [kami] na parang, ‘Anliit pala [namin] sa mundong ito.’”

For many household names like Isidro, the health crisis not only precipitates the risk of unemployment, but also brings discussions about entertainment workers’ rights and representation to the table.

With lockdown restrictions easing in the ‘new normal,’ the country’s most celebrated actors joined forces to reclaim the stage and step into its limelight as a collective.

At the frontline, AKTOR: The League of Filipino Actors takes the lead in this dialogue, proving while actors are often leashed to the art of showmanship, they remain unconstrained and relevant within the bounds of social reality.

Storytellers turned policymakers

In May 2020, a group of local artists began combining efforts to form AKTOR, an organization that champions and protects the rights and welfare of the entertainment industry’s actors, creators and collaborators.

Idled by the lockdown, AKTOR founding members Cherry Pie Picache and Agot Isidro pondered over humanitarian approaches to cultivate the growing community of actors during the pandemic.

“These new [safety] protocols were coming out, and we felt slighted because we weren’t invited to the table,” AKTOR president Agot Isidro reveals. “We wanted representation for everything that’s happening in the industry.”

At the time of the protocol’s premature release, filmmakers quickly slammed the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the Department of Labor and Employment’s joint memorandum for its policymaking process that, quite ironically, did not involve any consultation with producers, guilds or actors.

AKTOR member Geraldine Villamil asserts that in a production, actors are mainly at the frontline, “[We’re the first] to remove our masks, so mas mataas ‘yung risk of exposure.

With issues on filmworkers’ health and occupational safety bubbling to the surface, local artists reckon that their ‘roles’ expand beyond the fourth wall of the entertainment industry. The willpower of the country’s celebrated actors insists that aside from being seen, they want to be heard.

“It became so apparent that the actor didn’t have a voice. And it’s so ironic, because at the end of the day, the last person to get on the set is the actor,” actress Frances Ignacio says.

To amplify their voices, AKTOR board members actively participated in drafting the guidelines issued by the Inter-Guild Alliance, a community-based network representing various guilds from the entertainment industry.

Extensive discussions with health experts and guilds heeded actors’ call for better working conditions amid long-standing labor issues in the country.

‘Second takes’ at recovery and livelihood

At the onset, the pandemic has brought almost every institution to a halt. The busy and itinerant entertainment industry was not any safer to this adjustment.

Social distancing and prohibitions on mass gatherings placed traditional shooting last on the entertainment industry’s list of priorities. Months of re-airing old television shows became worn-out bandaids unable to heal the bullet wounds of artists who struggled to put food on the table.

We don’t have remuneration (financial compensation) for [re-aired programs] because hindi ‘yan stipulated when you sign a contract — sole ownership na ‘yan of the network,” Ignacio says. “Kung may clause na gano’n, may income pa sana ‘yung mga artistang hindi makatrabaho.”

Through innovation, however, the storytelling landscape began to change. The entertainment industry found refuge in emerging virtual platforms, and work slowly resumed as dramatic readings, concerts and cinemas migrated online.

While these new methods help create art in TV and film amid the pandemic, the same can’t be said for other mediums.

Among performing arts industries, theater struggles the most in surviving the pandemic. Lockdown protocols are making it difficult for the medium to keep its head above water — and without live audiences filling concert halls, theater is on the verge of sinking.

“For TV and commercial actors, there’s flexibility because they can appear online or on TV with a lock-in setup,” says freelance actress Macey Ramos. “Not for theater.”

The communal experience of theatrical art and the stringent restrictions on physical contact are proving to be irreconcilable. This is a struggle shared with the rest of the live stage performance industry workers, freelancers and actors from across networks.

Before the pandemic, actor Raffy Tejada could juggle starring in shows and films while directing plays at the De La Salle University Harlequin Theater Guild. Now, he’s left to balance his regular job as a theater mentor without any additional income from his freelancing gigs.

Kung freelance actor ka, kung wala kang assignments, wala kang kíta. Kaya meron din akong regular job,” Tejada shares. “At kaming mga artista ay sinanay sa Philippine Educational Theater Association na maging mga guro rin.”

To many freelance artists, the lack of projects poses a threat to their livelihood, and oftentimes necessitates finding alternative sources of income. Such is the case for actors Macey Ramos and Frances Ignacio, whose acting careers are supported by other ventures.

Ang artista sa ‘tin, a dime a dozen; nobody is indispensable,” Ignacio remarks.

Bearing witness to her fellow filmworkers’ suffering during this pandemic was a tormenting role for award-winning actress Angeli Bayani. Unfortunately, there are no second takes nor script edits for this tragedy — this is the reality of the COVID-19 crisis.

There were people who would message us or my friends, asking for money,” Bayani shares. “Ito ‘yung mga maliliit na freelancers na walang ipon at all, at humihingi [ng pera].”

With the pandemic indefinitely taking the spotlight, actors ask themselves, how must the shows go on?

One act at a time

Even with limitations on acting work, artists are using creativity to fuel other working opportunities.

Kailangan mo iequip ‘yung sarili mo para maging isang epektib na indibidwal,” Tejada says. “[As creative artists], hahanap ka ng paraan kung papaano ka mabubuhay, at sanay kami diyan.

Artist communities began discovering hidden talents and rekindling old hobbies turning them into alternative sources of revenue. Between developing new skills and becoming ‘plantitas,’ selling home-cooked food became a unifying activity for the nation’s storytellers.

Sabi namin, ‘Kwento tayo.’ Bakit ba siya nagbebenta ng embutido o apple pie gamit ‘yung recipe ng nanay niya?” Ignacio says. “Para mas may personal touch, may kwento sa likod — like acting.

Thus, AKTOR Tindahan was born.

The business initiative created by AKTOR treasurer Mylene Dizon functions as a virtual food park where entertainment workers sell goods for a cause. Ranging from desserts and snacks to other servings, AKTOR Tindahan brings various delicacies and local cuisines to the table, like chicken wings, ramen, smoked longganisa, laing and sinantolan.

AKTOR finance manager Villamil shares that, aside from generating income, the venture was meant to uplift the artistic community.

Nagkaroon ng sense of purpose na you’re helping others [while earning],” says Villamil. “More than financial income, the mental and emotional aspect of it is also important.”

Several months of being stuck at home prodded many actors to reevaluate their self-worth, leaving others to fall into despair and dejection.

Sanay ang artista na lumabas, magpakita, magperform,” Isidro shares. “[At dahil] wala kang audience, wala kang ginagawa … feeling mo ‘di [ka] pala kailangan sa mundong ito.

The crisis dug out the vulnerability of actors’ emotional stability. Mental health awareness webinars were laid out to convene AKTOR and illuminate each others’ way out of hopelessness, weaving a community that cares and reaches out for actors as a sector.

Stepping into the real scene

While advocating for its members’ holistic health and working benefits, AKTOR also upholds the integrity of creative expression by being vocal on national issues that endanger freedom of expression and information.

When we formed AKTOR, naisip naming ma-dignify ang mga tao,” AKTOR vice chairman Ron Capinding says. “Nagre-react kami sa pagsasara ng ABS-CBN at sa Anti-Terror Law … kasi malaki ang kinalaman noon sa atin. Dapat at least natanong tayo roon.

In May 2020, ABS-CBN ceased airing, leaving 11,000 employees in the pit of increasing unemployment during a pandemic. Despite being cleared from allegations of tax evasion and anomalies in labor conditions, the media giant failed to secure its franchise.

“We’re part of a global village,” says Angeli Bayani. “We’re ruled by empathy, by compassion, so it’s actually painful for us not to speak out on behalf of other people. By virtue of our work … you will take a stand in however form.”

For many actors, freedom and education remain the cornerstones of artistic creativity. The enriching experience of learning about social issues shapes them to be well-rounded, empowered nation builders.

If you hinder the ability or even the chance to express your art, para kanino pa ako, or the actor or even the industry itself ‘di ba,” Isidro expresses.

AKTOR’s formation and movements provide a profound outlook on the plight of Filipino actors and prove that they are not just dispensers of emotions on screen and on stage, but also influencers of truth and change.

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