Philippine theater began just like any other genre of literature—with precolonial indigenous drama. These constitute rituals, verbal jousts or games, and songs and dances praising their respective gods. Eventually, when the Spaniards came, these indigenous dramas were discarded and were changed into mainly two categories: the comedy or komedya and the zarzuela or sarsuela. These were dramas that were used to capture the imaginations and hearts of the Filipinos, whom the Spaniards have just colonized. Aside from providing entertainment to the people from the pueblos (and also capturing their affection), these also serve as teaching tools for the religion that they brought with them, which is Christianity.
Before the stage plays began though, there were also predramatic forms present in Philippine theater before. There were loas, declamaciones, and oraciones (or declamations and orations) that usually involved only one person and were not as dramatical as a stage play. They were usually done during the arrival or installation of a holy relic in the country back then.
Eventually, the komedya was developed into different kinds. One of the most popular ones is the moro-moro, which are plays that depict the lives, loves, and wars of Moors and Christians. Two more kinds, indigenized by the Filipinios, are the comedia de capa y espada or secular comedy and the comedia de santo or religious comedies. Some of these comedies are still found in the country, namely, Parañaque City and Iligan City.
The zarzuela is a type of theater that is musical in nature—it is both spoken and sung. The first zarzuela in the Philippines was staged in 1878 or 1879 and was written by Francisco Asnjo Barbieri in 1855, entitled Jugar Con Fuego (Play with Fire). Even Jose Rizal wrote his own zarzuela, entitled “Junto Al Pasig” and was staged in 1880. In 1893, because of its popularity, the Teatro Zorilla was inaugurated as the home of zarzuelas. Of course, Filipinos also indigenized the zarzuela and called it the sarswela. It became a mix or music, prose, dance, dialogue, and a discussion of contemporary subjects.
Nowadays, Philippine theater has changed Big and incorporated many modem elements to keep it relevant to its growing audience. It still attacks Idea contemporary issues and portrays the real lives of Filipinos here and abroad. But it also went back to some of its roots such as music and dance. More recently, Liza Magtoto’s Rak of Aegis and its unprecedented success showed that Filipinos are still craving for plays that feature not only contemporary and important issues, but also fun, music, and dance.
The playwrights’ group called Writer’s Block has been actively inviting young playwrights to also have their unpublished plays staged in a professional setting, namely, the Cultural Center of the Philippines or CCP. These playwrights have been annually staging the Virgin Labfest, an avenue for new playwrights to submit their plays and have them staged with professional directors, actresses, and props. The event has also revolutionized modern Philippine theater because not only does it open up the stage for braver and more current issues, it also keeps Philippine theater alive and relevant. Now, every year, the Virgin Labfest attracts a diverse group of audiences and the plays that are part of it run to a sold-out crowd.