Category Archives: Philippines

Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio

AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO (4 April 1930 – 29 December 2020) has dedicated her lifetime in search of and in propagating literature and theater forms reflective of Asian and Philippine roots. Well-respected in the Philippines and other countries, she has taught, inspired and encouraged women and young artists in the fields of literature and theater.

She pioneered in the study of Philippine Zarzuela in Bulacan publishing THE “SEDITIOUS” TAGALOG PLAYWRIGHTS: EARLY AMERICAN OCCUPATION and cited by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Encyclopedia as “the first book on Philippine Theatre.”  This study inspired seven researches on Philippine Theater in various regions by members of the U.P. Department of English and Comparative Literature and other books on drama.

She started writing plays for adults in the 1950s but the lack of storybooks in Filipino and educational shows in the 1970s, a time when she was raising her own child, made her decide to concentrate on writing for children. She was one of the first writers to introduce and promote children’s and Asian literature. Due to her exposure to Asian theater forms, she was inspired to introduce the various forms to the Filipino audience through her Japanese-inspired plays like Ang Paglalakbay ni Sisa (The Journey of Sisa) and Si Juan at ang kanyang Madyik na Sombrero (Juan and his Magic Hat). Theater scholar and Asian Theatre Journal editor Kathy Foley recognizes her as the one responsible for the Asianization of Philippine theater.

She also introduced six plays for children, all based on Philippine folktales, in her book, ANIM NA DULANG PILIPINO PARA SA BATA (Six Filipino Plays for Children) published in 1976. She has written significant plays such as ABADEJA: ANG ATING SINDERELA (Abadeja: Our Cinderella), SITA & RAMA: PAPET RAMAYANA (Sita & Rama: Ramayana in Puppetry), and DALAWANG BAYANI (TWO HEROES) which introduce Filipino audiences to Philippine and Asian sensibilities. PAPET PASYON (THE PASSION PLAY IN PUPPETRY) is the Philippines’ 1st senakulo for children, premiered in 1985 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and continues to be staged every Palm Sunday.

Her exposure to various theater forms in Southeast Asia and Japan inspired her to introduce the art of puppetry to the Filipino children. After the successful staging of Abadeja: Ang Ating Sinderela in 1977, she established TEATRONG MULAT NG PILIPINAS. Her main goal was to awaken the Filipino children to the beauty and richness not only of their own culture, but of still unfamiliar Asian cultures. She chose the word “mulat”, which means to open, to awaken her audiences to the Philippine and Asian stories and theater.

Fascinated by the Indonesian wayang golek (rod puppet) and wayang kulit (shadow puppet) and the Japanese bunraku (a puppet manipulated by three puppeteers), she infused Asian and Philippine designs to the puppets, costumes and other art works. She has collaborated with established and young artists in the creation of Mulat’s puppet shows. She discovered a prominent woodcarver in Paete, Laguna, Justino Cagayat (and later on his son, Paloy) who agreed to carve the puppet heads, hands, and feet for the various puppet shows of Mulat. In its 43 years of existence, Mulat has been recognized as a pioneering puppet group not only in the Philippines and Southeast Asia but in other parts of the world. All these efforts have resulted in the creation of a new Puppet Theater Tradition in the Philippines.

In 1985, she established UNIMA-Pilipinas or the Philippine Center of the international puppet organization UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) to help promote puppetry in the Philippines and introduce Philippine puppetry to the world.

AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO is an educator, artist, and a mother who has nurtured young artists. Similar to the Asian tradition of passing on one’s knowledge to a family member, she has influenced her daughter, Amihan, son-in-law, Raymund, and two grandchildren, Aina and Roel, to join her in popularizing the art of puppetry.

After the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991, AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO wrote to Nissan Motors Japan to request for a van that could be used for outreach performances particularly in the provinces affected by the eruption. The donation by the NISSAN ROREN Worker’s Union proved to be valuable since it gave the opportunity for Mulat to travel to various places. Mulat has effectively extended meaningful educational children’s theater to various preschools, grade and high schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through puppet-making workshops and/or performances.

She is also a visionary, wanting to have a place for children. Mulat received requests from schools to come over to UP and watch a puppet show. They were accommodated in various auditoriums in the UP Campus. For smaller groups, she built a small puppet theater in the garden next to their cottage in Mabini St. with a seating capacity of 50. When the family transferred to Teacher’s Village in 1989, she used their garage for an audience of 75. In 1993, she and her husband purchased an old house, still in Teacher’s Village, and converted the 1st floor to a puppet theatre with a seating capacity of 100 and the 2nd floor to a museum for puppets, dolls and masks. With much determination, she acquired a grant from President V. Ramos, which was implemented during the term of President Joseph Estrada, to build a three-storey building on the lot. Hence, the establishment of the AMELIA LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO TEATRO PAPET MUSEO–the very first children’s theatre and puppet museum in the Philippines.

Malaysian professor and theatre critic Krishen Jit dubbed LAPEÑA-BONIFACIO as “The Grande Dame of SE Asian Children’s Theatre” since “there is no puppet master in Asia that has so successfully synthesized the myriad and rich puppet traditions of the region towards a construction of a pan-Asian  contemporary theatre form and content… a shining example of a completely committed theatre person dedicated to excellence and innovation.” 

For her exemplary intellectual achievement and distinctive contribution to the development and promotion of the art of puppetry in the Philippines, the University of the Philippines recognized her as the MOTHER OF PHILIPPINE PUPPETRY (2010)  and was conferred the title National Artist for Theater, the country’s highest recognition for artists, in 2018.

Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio with MULAT puppeteers.


Puppetry in the Philippines

The Philippines has little local puppet tradition to draw on. During the late 19th century, there were shadow play performances called carrillo which means “small cart.”  Carrillo is also known as potei, kikimut and titire in Pampanga (a province in Central Luzon). 

The higante (giant), which is similar to the mascots or big puppets, lead the procession during the Higantes Festival, also known as the Feast of San Clemente, celebrated every November 23 in Angono, Rizal. San Clemente is the patron saint of fishermen. Leading the procession are three higantes—father, mother and child—with the body made from bamboo, the head from papier mache.  The costumes are bright and colourful, and the hands are always on the waist. Each higante is controlled by one person who is inside the body of the higante.

Photo from WikiPilipinas [1]

In the late 1930s, film actor-director Manuel Conde introduced ventriloquism through his puppet Kiko. At present, Kiko is owned by Jun Urbano, also a ventriloquist, an actor and a film director.

Manuel Conde, National Artist for Film [2]

Kiko (left) was Manuel Conde’s puppet.  In this photo, he is manipulated by Mr. Shooli, one of Mr. Jun Urbano’s characters. Mr. Urbano is the son of Mr. Conde. [3]

Puppetry became popular with the introduction of Jim Henson’s “Sesame Street” in the 1970s. 

Groups inspired by the muppets were the Alsa Balutan Puppet Group Inc. (founded by Tessie Ordoña, 1976), National Media Production Center (headed by Lolit Aquino, 1978) which later became the Black Theater of Manila and now known as the PIA (Philippine Information Agency) Puppet Theater, Roppets Edutainment Production Inc. (founded by Danny Liwanag, 1987) and the Quezon City Public Library Puppeteers.  

Puppet Enggoy is the PIA Puppet Theater’s host of the segment “Alam Mo Ba?” shown on the Facebook page of the Philippine Information Agency and PIA Puppet Theater and in their Youtube channels. [4]

The Anino Shadowplay Collective (founded in 1992 by students of the Philippine High School for the Arts) specializes in shadow puppetry while Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas (founded by Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio, 1977) ventures into rod and shadow puppetry and the bunraku technique. 

Anino Shadowplay Collective’s Manong Pawikan (Older Sea turtle) (Photo from Anino Shadowplay Collective)

Puppets from Teatrong Mulat show Ang Paghuhukom (The Trial). (Photo from Teatrong Mulat collection)

Another group that practices the art of bunraku is the University of the Philippines Center for International Studies (UPCIS) Bunraku Ensemble led by Dr. Jina Umali. Members of the ensemble are given the opportunity to undergo intensive training with the women puppeteers of the Naoshima Onna Bunraku in Naoshima, Japan.

UPCIS Bunraku Ensemble members perform Ebisu Mai, UP Diliman, 2014

 Ventriloquism, or the art of ‘throwing one’s voice’ was made popular by ventriloquists  Ony Carcamo and Wanlu. They perform with their puppet or known as a ‘dummy’.  Ony and Wanlu are founding members of the International Ventriloquist Society IVS Philippines, an association which aims to professionalize the art of ventriloquism in the country.