New San Francisco theatre company ‘Chikahan’ aims to tell authentic Filipinx stories

Idealism in the age of quarantine is a crazy dynamic.

Spurred by racial protests throughout the nation in 2020, artists everywhere began to rethink what is possible, equitable, necessary and just. There was time to ponder, dream and wonder how things can be better by those who claimed a life in the theatre as their calling.

And none delved deeper into their power than Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) artists, ready to flex their collective muscles as theatre companies everywhere were forced to adjust to a new normal.

Three Bay Area Filipinx artists see a region rich with their people and believe it’s time to build something new. In essence, as they spent a year staring into the void of empty performance spaces, they are now attempting to turn on a ghost light.

The Chikahan Company is the brainchild of Krystle Piamonte (she/her/hers), Alan S. Quismorio (he/his/siya) and Ely Sonny Orquiza (he/him/his). The company is focusing on telling authentic Filipinx stories as well as building an incubator and training ground for artists to delve deeply into all elements of a professional experience. Each of the three artists serve as co-artistic directors for the fledgling company, a group actively working on their debut show in October. Bay Area playwrights Conrad A. Panganiban and Lauren Andrei Garcia have been commissioned by the company for that first production, an exploration of Filipina healthcare workers in the American healthcare system. Orquiza will direct.

Despite the trying circumstances of sheltering-in-place and the loss of real, human contact, the time away was an opportunity for the trio to engage and act upon their own idealism.

“Shelter-in-place was an incredible opportunity for us to kind of sit down and really think of ways to initiate a conversation, just start this company as a group,” said Orquiza. “We were able to really start crafting ideas and philosophies, and there was this desire and need to be visible, to have our stories represented.”

This representation was motivated in part by a project that Orquiza curated in June of 2020. The Living Document, a record of narratives which brought forth 600 examples of white supremacy in the Bay Area theatre community in its first 72 hours of going live, landed hard and made a huge impact on BIPOC artists throughout the region.

Quismorio is one who was greatly impacted by the days of reckoning for Bay Area theatre.

“I think the zeitgeist of last year and the call for more equity that came from anger just grew and exploded,” said Quismorio. “When Ely spearheaded this document, I went to him and Krystle and just said, you know what, we’ve been talking about starting this company for a while now, should we do it? I was ready to go.”

Companies that showcase Filipino artists are not new to San Francisco. Asian American Theatre Company, which began in the early 1970s with a space on Arguello Street, featured world premieres from playwrights such as Jeannie Barroga before closing near the end of the 20th century. Teatro ng Tanan (TnT) was founded in 1989 yet ceased operations in the early 2000s. Most recently, Asian American company Ferocious Lotus has also provided opportunities for Filipinx performers and creatives.

Overwhelmingly, many Filipinx artists who cut their teeth in the Bay Area have done so at Bindlestiff Studio, the San Francisco company founded in 1989 by Canadian puppeteer and director Chrystene Ells. According to their website, Bindlestiff engages heavily with cultivating theatre practitioners, and is “the only permanent, community-based performing arts venue in the nation dedicated to showcasing Filipino American and Pilipino artists.”

For the trio, the natural progression of that cultivation is something that Chikahan, slang for chit-chat or gossip, will aim to provide.

“We have a lot of talented individuals that come from Bindlestiff, and they may hit a glass ceiling in the Bay Area and don’t know where else to go,” said Quismorio. “Often, these artists may go out to New York or Los Angeles and then find that they are not as equipped as their peers.”

A dearth of talent is not the issue, according to Orquiza. It’s all about opportunity. Gatekeeping at the highest levels of theatre means that a small percentage of creatives have a say in who works and who doesn’t, which Orquiza believes takes away an artist’s ability to thrive.

“There’s also a lack of mentorship opportunities that can provide artists with the tools and resources to succeed,” said Orquiza. “Often times, the invisibility of our experience in a narrative has been overshadowed or overlooked.”

Piamonte, an equity actor herself, and her co-artistic directors believe that Chikahan can address those gaps for Filipinx artists, ready to actively change the narrative and bring greater visibility to regional stages. According to 2017 census data, the Bay Area is home to around 500,000 Filipinos, a representation of about 12 percent of the entire Filipino population nationwide, which is north of four million.

“We really want to explore the different stories in our community and to show everyone that we are not a monolith, our stories don’t exist in a bubble,” said Piamonte. “I think our experience is so unique compared to Filipinos in New York, the Midwest and Southern California. We want to explore all those different stories.”

The idea of telling authentic stories is one that Orquiza is also passionate about.

“As a queer Filipino artist, I always sense the dearth of Filipinx American and queer stories, and I’ve always wanted to see an intersection of that on our stages,” said Orquiza. “There’s a lot more as well. There are deities and gods and goddesses within our cultural knowledge that have not yet been brought to the surface. There are lots of possibilities, and the Filipino imagination is so wild, wonderful and beautiful. The Chikahan Company will have the opportunity to dive deep into that, bring that into the world and birth those ideas for the American theatre.”

Building a company takes money, lots of it, and the group was granted a major assist. PlayGround, the playwright incubator and hub for the Bay Area theatre community, selected Chikahan as one of nine recipients for their 2021 “Innovator Incubator” participant grant. The award provides Chikahan use of PlayGround’s non-profit status to fundraise, as well as expertise from their staff and artistic director. The full suite of those services totals around $50,000. In addition, each of the individuals, including playwright Panganiban, also received a Ca$h grant from Theatre Bay Area.

For Piamonte, working with fellow Filipinx artists on a funded project that will bring some semblance of equity to the Bay Area’s theatre community is inspiring.

“It’s been years of circling around the conversation. Although we are grateful for places like American Conservatory Theater and the Magic Theatre for having done shows that center the Filipino experience, it just isn’t enough and I feel like our voices still weren’t being heard.

“With the great awakening of theatre last year, it feels like the right time to take agency of our stories and start another company to provide more space for Filipino American artists to create. If white theatre companies can be aplenty, why can’t we have that too?”

Online: The Chikahan Company on Facebook

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