The Untold Story of PETA’s Rak of Aegis

Photography: Erickson Dela Cruz, Mio Infante

The show’s seven record-breaking seasons says it all — PETA’s Rak of Aegis has found its way into the hearts of theatergoers year after year. The musical’s success is not a fluke. Its popularity isn’t pinned on a single thing. The long-standing success of the show is also due to its relevance.

It’s no coincidence that the show’s first run was in 2014, one year after super typhoon Yolanda devastated communities across the country. It’s a story that told a Filipino struggle at that time. The musical’s protagonist, Aileen, was a young girl with big dreams of going viral. But her dreams are also a product of living amongst the vibrant folk of her perpetually flooding barangay.

Behind the curtain, it was years of advocacy work in areas very much like Barangay Venezia that led playwright Liza Magtoto and other PETA artists to assemble what would become the Philippines’ longest-running jukebox musical.

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Theater meets trauma therapy

The roots of RAK can be traced to the founding of PETA’s advocacy arm, Lingap Sining. This lesser-known side of the company is headed by Gail Billones, a senior artist-teacher who started doing advocacy work in 1994.

Photo Credit: PETA Lingap Sining Archives

Lingap Sining began as a children’s theater initiative supporting those affected by typhoon Ondoy in 2009. Billones, an expert in using theater as a tool in psychosocial relief, worked in schools and evacuation centers across Luzon to faciliate integrated arts workshops that educated kids on disaster risk reduction (DRR) and provided them a creative outlet to hold onto.

“We use creative approaches to process fear and trauma. Ang art, nagiging accessible form siya para una, makapag-express ng sarili, at pangalawa, para maramdaman [ng participants] na hindi sila nag-iisa,” said Billones. Using art and play creates a safe space for kids to share their stories and brainstorm better ways to keep them and their loved ones safe from disaster.

Their methods are grounded in psychotherapy research, targeting not only families but even barangay officials and LGUs. “[Lingap Sining ensures] na ginagamit yung sining para i-uplift yung kalagayan ng mga tao. Kailangan nating i-acknowledge na may problema, pero hindi tayo matatapos doon,” said Gold Villar-Lim, an artist-teacher for Lingap Sining. “Una, siguraduhin natin na okay ang mental health nating lahat, at higit sa lahat, kailangan din nating ipa-recognize sa estado na ang mental health ay isang karapatan — isang mahalagang aspeto sa pagbuo ng isang resilient community.”

Photo Credit: PETA Lingap Sining Archives

The Lingap Sining team conducted workshops from Tondo to La Union to Laguna as communities struggled to recover from the fast succession of typhoons. Playwright Liza Magtoto had joined the 2009 relief efforts as an annotator for the workshops, documenting psychosocial debriefings and interviewing parents in Biñan.

The experience sparked the idea for a show that would retell their stories. By the time super typhoon Yolanda hit in 2013, PETA was weighing the possibility of producing this new musical set to the tunes of Aegis.

Doon [sa relief programs namin] na-develop yung idea ng community ng ‘Rak of Aegis’. Sa Navotas, may isang sitio doon kung saan naka-stilts ang mga bahay,” said Billones, alluding to Sitio Paltok–a Lingap Sining partner community–the basis of Mio Infante’s water-entrenched set design.Ang mga tahi-tahi ng community partnership ng PETA ay naidadala namin sa stage.”

Art grounded in the truth

Three weeks after Yolanda’s wrath, Billones, Villar-Lim, and other artist-teachers joined relief efforts in Palo and Dulag, Leyte. There, Billones worked full-time for another three years to create DRR initiatives and integrate it into schools’ curricula.

On the other hand, Villar-Lim proceeded to join the ensemble of RAK’s first run in 2014. She, along with other PETA artists, engaged with the locals of Sitio Paltok beforehand.

Photo Credit: PETA Lingap Sining Archives

Ang kagandahan ng practice ng mga aktor sa PETA ay dahil lubog sila sa komunidad, ang choices [nila onstage] ay sumasalamin sa totoong kalagayan sa isang komunidad. Sa isang community katulad ng Barangay Venezia, ano kaya ang una mong gagawin kapag pumapatak na yung malalaking butil ng tubig sa bubong niyo na manipis?” she said, highlighting the importance of “sincerity and conviction” in PETA’s work.

Hindi mo maabot iyon kung hindi mo nakita yung nangyari sa character — ano yung pinagdaanan niyang problema, paano niya na-solve, kung sino yung tumulong sa kanya,” she continued. “Dahil sa experience ko bilang community organizer, na-rerealize ko na yung mga tao doon, iba yung response nila at trauma nila [kaysa sa aking karanasan]. That transforms the stage into something that is more realistic, na lapat sa kalagayan ng lipunan.”

Sure enough, many elements of RAK were snapshots of PETA’s advocacy work, translated for the stage. For instance, Kapitan Mary Jane embodied local government officials who were able to learn from their mistakes and vulnerabilities.

Kim Molina as Aileen in Rak of Aegis; Photo Credit: Raffy Yllana/ PETA

But instead of limiting its plot to the struggle of an individual, RAK connects the dots. This is a story about the entirety of Barangay Venezia: about how a locale, bracing its shoe-and-sandal industry, rose above calamity.

Lingap Sining understands that such displays of resilience have yet to be seen in all Filipino communities, especially with the sudden impact of the pandemic and other social issues. “Hindi pa tayo tapos. Hindi lahat ng communities ay resilient. ‘Yan yung struggle na hinaharap natin ngayon lalo na’t iba’t ibang klaseng disaster na ang meron tayo,” Villar-Lim said.

After its three-year campaign in Leyte, the arm has done work in human rights education and youth leadership, helping those affected by the war on drugs and armed conflict. Now, online activities, talks, and workshops are held on Lingap Sining’s Facebook page to encourage youths to create and express themselves from home.

PETA hopes to champion the strength of the Filipino community and uphold its movement towards resilience in dealing with natural and man-made disasters alike.

As Villar-Lim notes, “As an actor, it’s important to know that you have a responsibility to represent your characters. There are situations unseen or invisible to the public that you, as an actor, are responsible na ikwento. Iyon ang mahalagang bitbit namin sa paggawa ng RAK. Hindi lang naman siya tungkol sa baha, o sa pagsikat ni Aileen. It’s really about how the community braves through their struggle.”

Hindi naman isang heroine na magaling kumanta ang magliligtas sa lipunan. Ang magliligtas sa kanya ay yung mga tao na willing ma-involve, willing kumilos, at hindi mag-iintay para sa gobyerno,” she continued. “True enough, iyan ang kwento ng RAK.”

Correction: The original article wrongly stated a seamstress in Leyte as inspiration for the role of Aling Merci. It has now been edited, as the character was based on Biñan footwear makers.
Nicole Datlangin: Theatre kid caught between STEM and the arts. Stage-director-in-training. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to stay updated on her latest content and projects.
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