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The art of being Boy Abunda

Roel Hoang Manipon

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The house of Eugenio Romerica Abunda Jr., popularly known as Boy Abunda, in the suburbs of Quezon City is hard to miss. It stands out not because of being manor-like, but because it is splashed with artworks and quirky paintings. Inside, there is a delightful profusion of paintings, sculptures and books enlivening every nook and cranny.

Outside his house, Abunda is a famous and respected figure in the glitzy world of Philippine show business as a television host, publicist, talent manager and celebrity endorser. He is known for his interviews and talks that are smart and reflective, a fresh whiff in a field often made shallow and petty.

From the small coastal town of Borongan in Eastern Samar and the grimy streets in Manila, Abunda’s journey to where he is now is well-known and impressive. Lesser known are his several causes and advocacies, which reflect his heart and which are inclined towards marginalized, one way or the other, such as arts and culture and the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and others) community. These are reflected in his home.

Just last June during LGBTQ+ Pride Month, Abunda embellished the façade of his house with rainbow colors. The gate bore the words “Gay love is equal to all forms of Human love,” “Love Wins” and “LGBT Home.” In 2018, he published his book, Nanay’s Gay Boy, containing sentiments on LGBTQ+.
Abunda is also vocal for his support and love of the arts. These two elements have shaped him into a very interesting and unique individual. He shares his thoughts and story here (translated from Taglish):

Roel Hoang Manipon (RHM): Can you tell us your personal history with the arts and how it developed?
Boy Abunda (BA): I quit school at some point in my life because my father passed away. I loitered around Manila, not knowing where to go. I have gone through it all. I have talked about this so many times. I have narrated the narrative of my life, but that was it — I slept in Luneta, sold encyclopedia, sold shampoo until I found my way to the theater, because I had friends who belonged in a group involved in street theater.
During those days, there was one at Paco Park. They rehearsed in Intramuros until the Metropolitan Theater opened. I auditioned. I had illusions of becoming an actor. And then what happened was, I was part of the chorus of many productions of the Met until they or I discovered — I can’t remember now — that I belonged to the backstage. I became a PA (production assistant). Then, our term was assistant stage manager.

RHM: What were these theater groups?
BA: These were student theaters, from nooks and crannies, rehearsing at Paco Park, being accosted by security guards. Why the theater? I always had a fascination for the theater. I was a reader even when I was still in Samar. I would read plays. I’m a reader. Books are the closest to perhaps sex.

So, I found a way to the Metropolitan Theater. It started from there. I discovered (that I was such a horrible actor, but I pleaded with the director, “Please, give me some lines to say, such as ‘Long live, Batibot!’” so that when I invited friends, I could tell them that I was the one who will shout those lines.

It was fun. And then I worked backstage. I was an assistant stage manager until I became a stage manager and it is good to remember. I’m able to connect the dots now. I can do polished work because of my background in theater, and I’ve worked with some of the greatest names from Tony Mabesa to Behn Cervantes to Jonas Sebastian and the great directors and some of the greatest actors because we were doing musicals. We were doing original materials. We had what we called Dalubdulaan for new plays and many I have worked with were because of Tony Mabesa who used to teach at the University of the Philippines.

Yesterday, it was amusing because I was interviewed by some students about what I learned in the theater. I said, among many other things — because I loved theater life; it was very free, all were beautiful, all were moneyed. It was like no one was sad — there was a shared experience of life. It was like there was so much freedom. We had nothing but we all felt beautiful.

It was a perfect environment for a boy lost in the city trying to find his way into whatever he was looking for. I said, you know, the most important lesson I learned in theater was how to handle rejection, because when you are auditioning, at first of course you get hurt, you badmouth those who got accepted. What I learned was when I was rejected, when I was refused, when I was not taken into a play, it only meant I would have to prepare to the next audition, and if I would not get accepted, I would prepare for the next audition for another play until you find your space as a chorus member.

So, again, looking back and connecting the dots my heart was trained to not fret and not get discouraged when rejected. I just realized that yesterday — that is how I was really trained, like for example, Aurora Yumul, the actress. I met her in one audition, hard because it was in English, Oliver.

It was not a Metropolitan Theater production, but this was the community of actors I dealt with, I went around with. You’re talking about Mars Cavestany, Divina. You’re talking about Buddy Palad. Even the stage managers, (such as) Ed Murillo, were in our batch. We worked with the iconic Jay Valencia Glorioso and Spanky Manikan and the great Angie Ferro. I worked with them in True Genuine Women. I was assistant stage manager. (It was) directed by Tony Mabesa. That Aurora Yumul, we auditioned for Oliver, I really said to her, “Are you good?” We’ve become very good friends today. She asked, “Why?” “Because I will depend on you, because this is our audition. If you are not good, and it is only me…”

I’ll never forget that experience. So, I made a lot of life friends in the theater. I somehow partly discovered… it’s a process. I mean, who I was and the beginning of my purpose, the realization of my purpose in life. Theater is great, and it has not stopped. My love affair with theater may have diminished in a way because I am now in television, but it never disappeared. Weekends? I am in the theater. I watch anything I can. My exposure to theater and original materials is still there. As I’ve said, I met my former president of ABS-CBN Charo Santos in a play directed by Mel Chionglo, Ibsen’s Nora. From the classics to the original plays to the musicals of Tita Conching Sunico, that was my exposure, plus of course, the streets, theater of the street, where I came from.

RHM: So you spent many years at the Manila Metropolitan Theater?
BA: Because I was lost in Manila. When my father died, I really did not know where to go. That was where I met the great Conching Sunico. That was where I met Floy Quintos. That was where I met my life friends.

RHM: Do you feel strongly about the restoration of the Metropolitan Theater?
BA: Of course. That is an understatement. I feel very passionate about it. Whenever I pass it by it, I think, “My God, I hope it will be restored. That is where I started. That is where I became aware of many things. That is where I began in many important ways. Even though I am blindfolded, I can find my way around the Metropolitan Theater. That is how intimately I know that theater.

ABUNDA says his vision is to be like Europe where the arts is on the streets.

RHM: It once housed a male strip bar. Is that true?
BA: It was the first gay bar, according to some stories. It became a hangout, a boxing arena, a home for the homeless, a gay bar, when Met was opened. The gay bar was near the fire station. The story is, when we were holding office at the Metropolitan Theater, people from my home province stayed at the Mehan. You know Mehan Garden was famous for many things and it extended to so many places around the city hall. The address of their letters — because they stayed outside — was through me, the theater. If you started at the Metropolitan Theater, you know Ata, who owned a cart where we ate before and after rehearsals, gathered around until dawn because we really did not have any place to go. All of our illusions, all of our dreams, all of our laments, all of our joys, all of it we told each other. It was home for a young gypsy like me.

RHM: You own a lot of paintings and sculptures. How did you hone your taste for the visual arts?
BA: At the Metropolitan Theater, we had an art gallery, and also the Philippine National Bank. That is where I was exposed to the visual arts. I had no knowledge on who they were. That is where it started. I loved reading books and I was inclined to the arts, so I got to know Renoir, Picasso, the classics and even local artists. I met some of them such as Frederico Alcuaz, who was already staying at the Hilton.

RHM: You are a reader. What kind of books do you read?
BA: Right now, I am reading the book of Michelle Obama, Becoming. I’m very eclectic, I don’t have any particularly inclination. Of course, I enjoy political series. In a book, I read over and over and over especially when I went back to school. My Master’s was in communications. PhD was in Social Development. Inevitably your readings turn towards development, transformation, change. I have serious readings, but I also enjoy… the books I go back to are Gabriel García Márquez. I am not really into fiction. I would speed-read, especially when I am about to watch the movie. I am not into that. Any other genre, I read, especially now. I’m involved in marketing; I am involved in branding. I teach public speaking. My readings are vast and varied. Last night, I was given a book. I was asked by one of my writers, MJ Felipe, ‘Do you already have Michelle?’ He knows that I like Michelle’s style of public speaking. I like her rhythm, the sway of her words. So, he gave me the book. But on my bedside, I am reading, for example, the Blue Ocean Strategy, coming from the Red Ocean. In the house, there is a book in every corner. Wherever I am, I have something to read.

RHM: I heard that you support writing workshops, such as the Lamiraw Creative Writing Workshop.
BA: I am Waray. We need to take care of our region’s literature. I have been supporting Lamiraw for along time and I am so happy it is able to produce a lot of writers. I’ve been supporting it for many, many years now. I really feel there’s a need for us to strengthen efforts not just developing, but archiving, developing new writers, remembering. It is very important. Remembering our narrative, our story as a region, as part of a nation. It is important to be part of a nation but because of our archipelagic state, it cannot be avoided that there would be different and unique stories that contribute to a national narrative.

RHM: Are there any other advocacies that you espouse?
BA: Many. Especially now, I have LGBT materials that I support. There is anthology that is being worked on. I bought something. I commissioned a place. I commissioned my dearest friend, Floy Quintos, to write a material. We haven’t started but Floy finished it. The book, libretto and music are also finished. I bought rights to another play of Vince de Jesus. Those little things, any little help I can extend to anybody in the theater. One time, there was exhibit by my friends, Len Ag Santos, Susan Africa, Frank Rivera. I was not able to attend, but I bought 10… It is amusing. My office is full of their paintings.

RHM: As NCCA’s arts ambassador, are there more things you like to do?
BA: It is still very lacking. I should do many things but this is part of the contradictions of life. Because now I have a voice, I can use my voice, but I should be able to go around. It is because of the limitations of my schedule, but I’d like to be able to go around and tell my story, my relationship with the arts, my relationship with the seven arts. Some are deep, some are not, some funny, some sad, but that personal narrative is very important for children to hear, that the seven arts, that culture is not unreachable. I always said to the National Commission that culture can be a viable business. It is not only for display. It is also that, until I became the director of public relations of the Metropolitan Theater. The fight is still the same. This is so niche. We will eventually get there but it has been overtaken by movies and television. But you can see the influence of theater in the level and quality of work of people who were trained in theater.

RHM: What dream do you have for the arts and culture in the nation?
BA: Of course, my illusion is to be like Europe, that the arts are in the streets. Of course, they are in the museums, but they can be encountered on the streets because I still go by the definition that culture is the story of life. Culture is evolving. It’s a narrative of a people. That dance is about how maidens pick flowers. You cannot take that apart.
My dream is that I hope we can find culture on the streets, in homes, and that there is no doubt that we can live it and remember. For me, I don’t want to be obsessed with ours but there are many beautiful things about our past that great people have preserved, that give inspiration for us to move forward. Because I don’t think as a nation, as a people we can ever go forward — this is very social development — if you do not embrace your past. That is imporant, good or bad, but there are lessons you learn from the past. I am not saying that culture is the past, I am not saying that arts represent what had happen, but it started from somewhere. How did it come to be? Why did it become like this? How did this sound get to be like this? How did this dance come to be? Those origin stories are important in order to move forward.
My dream also is to really have — whose proposal is it — that we really have a Department of Culture, so that it can have its own mandates, its own money. It is not ancillary. It is not an attached agency. Hopefully, it will be attended to. But it’s going to be a journey, and I think that there are so many achievements by people in the arts. We have to give credit to who are working in institutions involved in whatever forms of art.

RHM: This is your 10th year as NCCA arts ambassador.
BA: It is still not enough, but we are going somewhere because what I have — I don’t claim to know much about everything — but I have my story, and that is what I want to share, because I came from nowhere and I became familiar with many things in the world of arts that are slowly built and the stories are funny. It is amusing that I and Floy started very young in the theater. He was with UP. He was a playwright, and now he is one of the most celebrated Palanca-award-winning playwright. He is a life friend. We were in the same department. Eventually, you see, I handled the PR department of the Metropolitan Theater. The journey really started with my illusion of being an actor. You know, Madeleine Nicolas messaged me about a play. I auditioned. I said to her, “I’m good, am I not?” These are my friends. I haven’t seen them in years.

RHM: What are your thoughts on the conservation and restoration of the Metropolitan Theater?
BA: Of course, you have to be faithful also but at the same time give your limitation, but do what is right. But we also have to study what to do. Don’t be afraid to debate on what is right. What will we do after? I know some people are pushing for creative reuse. There are also those who push for preservation. Because Metropolitan Theater was established in an area where in the middle of a paseo (promenade). That area in front of the Post Office was a promenade; it was a flower garden on the side before the DepEd. It was a riverbank, so there was no traffic. That is where the Metropolitan Theater started, to my knowledge. This was a different time. How do you keep the Metropolitan Theater alive for a long time? Sustainability is another thing we have to discuss without having to desecrate it as a theater. It is not good that you revive it, and after a few years it will close down. Definitely, it will be like a museum with offices.

One of my dreams is that it will be a habit among children to visit museums. It is growing. I don’t think we have to be pessimistic about things. We must acknowledge that there are more now. I have friends already who would say, whenever I go to a place abroad, the first building I visit, aside from a church, is a museum.

It will be beautiful when it reopens. We, the first graduates of Metropolitan Theater, will be the tour guides. Tony Mabesa got angry with me because I was absent last December. I love him very much. He should be a National Artist. Tony’s contribution to theater is very big. Not only as director but also as a teacher of theater. Of course, we the younger ones were terrified of him but you learn from the master. He was our artistic director when the Metropolitan Theater reopened in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Chito Roño directed the first children’s play, Munting Alamat, but it was part of the season. It was the opening production. Many people have been through it. Me, my gratitude is great towards the Metropolitan Theater.

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