Creating a Philippine Puppet Theater Tradition

In 1977, Professor Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio was invited by the University of the Philippines Department of Speech and Drama to present one of her plays. Originally a playwright for adult audiences, Professor Bonifacio decided to present Abadeja: Ang Ating Sinderela, a puppet play based on a Visayan folktale about the Cinderella-like Abadeja. It was performed in cooperation with DULAANG UP and UP Repertory Company. After the December shows at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater, members of the cast continued to meet and visit Professor Bonifacio in her Faculty Center office. Moved by the enthusiasm and spurred by her own long-standing dream of forming a children’s theater group, Professor Bonifacio founded TEATRONG MULAT NG PILIPINAS (1977). “Mulat” means to open, to awaken; hence a theater to awaken the children to the beauty and richness not only of their own culture, but of still unfamiliar Asian cultures.

The group was formally introduced to the public in June 12, 1978 at the Quirino Grandstand with the help of the late Mr. Doroy Valencia, a patron of the arts. In its early beginnings, the group presented plays with puppets, with actors and with mixed puppets and actors.

In 1979, in celebration of the International Year of the Child, the group was invited to the 1st International Workshop on Living Children’s Theater in Asia in Tokyo, Japan and the Asian Puppet Festival in Tashkent, Russia. It was the time that the group decided to concentrate on Asian puppetry—adopting the techniques of the Indonesian wayang golek (rod puppet) and wayang kulit (shadow puppet) and the Japanese bunraku (having two to three puppeteers manipulate a puppet and the use of black outfit for the puppeteers). In 1983, in celebration of the University of the Philippines’ Diamond Jubilee, it hosted the 2nd International Workshop on Living Children’s Theater in Asia. In 1989, the TEATRONG MULAT NG PILIPINAS FOUNDATION, INC. was registered as a non-stock, non-profit organization.

Teatrong Mulat averages a hundred performances a year with an audience of fifty (50) to a maximum number of 1,000 children and adults. It has performed in varied places--theaters in the University of the Philippines, schools, plazas, hospitals, orphanages--in Metro Manila, Luzon and the lahar-covered areas and in the Visayas.

The group has represented the country in various international puppet/theatre festivals and conferences held in Japan (1979, 1980, 1991, 1999, 2001, 2004) Russia (1979), Malaysia (1985, 1986, 2001), Indonesia (1989, 2014), People’s Republic of China (1986), Taipei (1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 2006), South Korea (1993, 1996, 1997, 2003), India (1990), Pakistan (1998), Thailand (2002, 2005, 2013, 2014, 2017), USA (2011), Vietnam (2015, 2017) and the Philippines (1983).

MULAT also conducts workshops for kids and educators. Under the auspices of UNICEF, MULAT conducted puppet workshops for day care workers affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2015.

Teatrong Mulat has presented 17 children’s plays, with actors or puppets based on Philippine or Asian folktales. The popular ones include Abadeja: Ang Ating Sinderela (Abadeja: Our Cinderella, premiered in 1977), Ang Paghuhukom (The Trial, 1978), Papet Pasyon (The Passion of Jesus Christ In Puppetry,1985) the centennial piece, Dalawang Bayani (Two Heroes, 1996/2012), and Sita & Rama: Papet Ramayana (Sita & Rama: The Ramayana in Puppetry, 2004).

Teatrong Mulat now has its own theater (in progress) at 64 Mapagkawanggawa St., Teachers Village West, Quezon City — The Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Teatro Papet Museo (ALB Teatro). MULAT received a grant from the President’s Social Fund as approved by former President Fidel V. Ramos and implemented by former President Joseph E. Estrada. Aside from a puppet theater, the ALB Teatro features a display of miniature toys; rod and shadow puppets from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Turkey, marionettes from Burma, India, Germany, France and China, hand puppets from Japan, Austria and Sweden; puppets from the defunct TV show “The Luvvets”; a water puppet from Vietnam.

In recognition of Professor Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio’s efforts in promoting Philippine stories and Asian puppetry and eventually creating a Philippine puppet tradition, the University of the Philippines’ Department of Speech Communication and Theatre Arts conferred her the title “Mother of Philippine Puppetry” in February 2010.

Teatrong Mulat celebrates its 40th year this 2017!

Words by Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete. Learn more about her research in Puppetry in the Philippines: A Case Study of Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas.
All photos are from the MULAT Collection unless otherwise stated.