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The Liverpool Hope experience: Dr. Ricky Abad’s “glorious fortnight” in England

The tie-up between the School of Humanities of the Ateneo de Manila University and Liverpool Hope University (LHU) in England has been one of the new and exciting developments that have taken place in the last year.  In line with this tie-up, both schools have been exchanging instructors.

Left: Ricky with Dr. Allan Whittaker who visited the Ateneo earlier as part of the Ateneo-Liverpool Hope Exchange Program.
Right: Ricky with his host, Dr. Victor Merriman, also Head of the Drama and Dance Department, together with Merriman’s first-born, John.

Liverpool faculty member Alan Whittaker gave workshops on visual art last year, and the Ateneo’s Dr. Ricardo Abad spent two weeks at Liverpool back in November 2011.  This was accomplished with the help of the British Council, which continues to be very active in various projects with the School of Humanities. While at Liverpool, Dr. Abad observed student theater works and theater education, and gave a public lecture on “The Filipinization of Shakespeare.”

Ricky giving his public lecture on the Filipinization of Shakespeare

Dr. Abad recently shared his thoughts on his Liverpool experience with Roy Agustin of the Department of English.

Roy Agustin: You were provided with a two-week teaching program at Liverpool Hope University (LHU).  Can you provide us with more information on what you decided to pursue there?

Ricardo Abad: It wasn’t just a teaching program.  (There were) four things (that I was going to do):

o   I was to give a public lecture on “The Filipinization of Shakespeare.”

o   I was to observe whatever class I wanted.

o   I was to lecture in some classes.

o   I was to meet with teachers and discuss topics related to the theater program, theater issues, university matters, future projects under the Ateneo-LHU exchange program.

The Cornerstone Building where Ricky spent most of his time
observing classes, and meeting students along with the drama

Roy Agustin: How was the teaching experience?

Ricardo Abad: I gave a lecture in a Shakespeare class on intercultural theater, and came twice to a directing class to demonstrate rehearsal techniques.  I had a second lecture on strategies of appropriation slated but the teacher couldn’t come that day and the class was cancelled.  I also sat as an observer in three classes and participated in group discussions after each class.

All in all the classroom experiences were enriching.  The classes on community, documentary, and applied theater were relatively new to me, and opened up more possibilities for theater work beyond the stage setting. While I have done some work on these kinds of theater in the Philippines, I was not that all versed in the theoretical basis of such work.  It was fascinating to hear the lecturers lay the theoretical basis of these theater forms and connect them to the empirical theater experience.

Left: In addition to giving a public lecture, Ricky Abad observed classes at the Drama and Dance Department at Liverpool Hope. Here he poses with Dr. Brian Desmond (foreground) and students of a directing class after conducting two scene study sessions with them.
Right: Ricky with the Theater Faculty outside the Philharmonic, reputedly the Beatles’ favorite pub in Liverpool.

I also found the pedagogy illuminating.  In a three-hour class, for example, an hour is spent on the lecture and the rest of the two hours on group discussion, class exercises, and improvisation.  The connection between theory and practice is thus stressed, the importance of text analysis and conceptualization is upheld, and the skills in presentation and performance developed. 

By the time theater students reach third year, they become so skilled in improvisation techniques and more confident about their performance choices.  They are also generally active in discussions, and the teacher skillful in facilitating these discussions – never spoon feeding, never imposing a judgment, consistently allowing students to express their convictions.

Roy Agustin: How was the experience, as a Filipino traveler? 

Ricardo Abad: (As a) traveler and first-time visitor to Liverpool, it was enriching as you can glean from my classroom experiences.  But I also felt at home in LHU because the staff--from cleaning women to the vice-rector--I met were friendly, accommodating, helpful, and open. I was told by professors who have been here that they get the same friendly atmosphere at the Ateneo. 

The weather was very cold and windy, a bane perhaps for the Filipino traveler. But I found the chill bracing and embraced it.

Food was available in the campus refectory till 5pm. After that you have to get food outside, a relatively long walk from the school dorm where I stayed. You learn to stock up on food and drink and face the night winds to reach the nearest store.  Fortunately, professors took me out to dinner several times, even though we had to walk to the bar or restaurant in the cold of the evening.

I didn’t meet a Filipino so never got to speak Filipino.  I met a female graduate student who was Filipino-Irish but was more Irish than Filipino.  And she had an Irish boy friend, a redhead. 

The LHU campuses were wonderfully landscaped. Aesthetic, green, soothing.  Like walking in a park.

Many of the English, males especially, troop to the pubs after work to drink before heading for home.  I was lured to this practice by my new professor friends but couldn’t match their capacity to ingest ale.  Even when we drank at a place called the Philharmonic, an elegant pub, supposedly John Lennon’s favorite watering hole.

Left: On a side trip to Manchester, Ricky had lunch with two dance scholars who plan to do field work in the Philippines this year.
Right: Ricky with Ms. Ayrn Petal, a  Filipino-Irish doctoral student, who will come to the Philippines this September to look into the projection of  Filipino identity by inmates whose Micheal Jackson dance routine was a You-Tube sensation.

Roy Agustin: What were the highlights of the trip for you, both in and out of LHU?

Ricardo Abad: Several.  Almost a highlight a day. But let me name a few key ones.

a) The public lecture was pivotal. I did it on the third day following my arrival. It made the LHU community aware of where I was coming from, why I was invited there, and what possibilities any future exchange will bring.  In an email to Dr. Marlu Vilches, Dr. Victor Merriman said:

...Ricky's lecture last night on “The Filipinization of Shakespeare: The Ateneo Experience” was a triumph in every way. It was brilliantly conceived and executed with an erudition lightly worn and with irrepressible passion and charm. The opportunity it presented for faculty and students to encounter, not only a highly developed and still-evolving theatre practice from another culture, but the institutional history of our cherished partner university and the social history of the Philippines was beyond price. Thank you most sincerely for facilitating Ricky's visit to us.

The lecture attracted an impressive variety of interested people, including visitors from universities in Manchester and Leeds, Dr Keith Paterson, our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pillay and Dr Nirri Pillay.

Isn’t this a thrilling reaction, Roy?  And from British theater professors!

But that’s just one highlight.

b) The discussions with the drama faculty, notably with Dr. Merriman and Dr. Desmond. Dr. Desmond and I email each other these days and that’s a gauge of how well we connected in LHU. (Thrice he invited me to his home for dinner.) The topics of these discussions ranged far and wide, theoretical and practical, personal and political.  But they were all such stimulating conversations--ones I never get to do much here in the Philippines because while many are doing theater, very few have a strong grasp of the field’s theoretical anchors, much less write or research about them.  Beyond these, the professors shared with me their PowerPoint lectures, notes, books, and the like. 

c. Talk about future projects. If all goes well, the Ateneo-LHU exchange program will see these: a joint Ateneo-LHU Master’s Program in Creative Practice, a lecture series here at the Ateneo on Community Theater given by LHU professors, a Shakespeare play with Ateneo actors directed by an LHU professor, and Ricky Abad going to Liverpool as part of an international team of directors to direct episodes of The Mystery Plays, to be done on the streets of the city.  Let’s cross our fingers this pulls through. LHU’s Drama Department is looking for funds for this one.

Roy Agustin: How has the experienced enriched you, as a teacher and as a scholar? 

Ricardo Abad: To sum it up, let me cite you the thank you note I sent LHU the day I returned to Manila.

To LHU Vice-Rector Gerald Pillay
From Dr. Ricardo Abad, Professor, Ateneo de Manila University, November 5-18, 2011

It was a glorious fortnight at Liverpool Hope early this November.  And it wasn’t only the supportive reception to the public lecture which made it so--a reception that renewed the convivial path I’ve taken in doing intercultural theater.  It was too the stimulating interactions I had with the Creative Campus faculty, especially with those in the Drama, Dance, and Performance Studies Department, and with their students as well.

These meetings broadened my perspectives of how theater can intervene in society and culture, not only in the Philippines but in the global scene as well.  Done in offices and classrooms, or while chilling out in a pub, dining in a deli, walking the streets of Liverpool, or standing in awe at magnificent cathedrals,  the discussions also enabled me to connect many dots in theater practice and gave me insights into ways the miracles of theater can be better taught to students and professionals alike. 

And these found a center in a campus that feels to me like a holy shrine whose caretakers give its inhabitants (and pilgrims like me) a place to reflect and imagine in peace, to find warmth on wintry nights, and to feel a welcome spirit upon arrival, departure, and all the in-betweens.

Thank you Liverpool Hope University, British Council Philippines and the Ateneo de Manila University for making me -- to paraphrase Francis of Assisi -- an instrument of this exchange. Where distances once yawned, we have begun to build bridges and will continue to build more.

It was indeed a glorious fortnight at Liverpool Hope in early November. So glorious that a luggage left over in Amsterdam after a re-routed flight back home didn’t tarnish one bit the memory of a truly splendid visit.

Left: Ricky and life-size statue of John Lennon
Right: A farewell dinner in a Lebanese resto with host Dr. Victor Merriman and his family along with faculty members of Liverpool Hope’s Drama and Dance Department.

Roy Agustin: Would you recommend the experience?  Why? 

Ricardo Abad: Yes! Three reasons: 

a) There’s so much to experience and learn – for both parties. 

b) Because we Filipinos are valued, we get to value ourselves more. 

c)  Both institutions will be enriched, especially in the Humanities, and not only in theater arts or literature. 

The third is the most important.  The exchange is not to benefit individual persons but institutions.  And already I’ve used a bit of what I learned in LHU (specifically, acting and directing processes) when I directed “Fireflies” for Tanghalang Ateneo and Ateneo Fine Arts earlier this month. The rave notices we got for that production are tangible evidence of the institutional benefit of this exchange. And if I add that I gave a workshop in India on physical theater (which I also picked up in Liverpool), then the benefit can also transcend the Ateneo and reach the international scene as well.