There are some Filipinos who are putting their money where their mouth is

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MANILA, JUNE 19, 2006 (STARweek) By Raymz Maribojoc - When Niel de Mesa speaks, it is with a passion that carries his voice far across the restaurant weíre in, and turns the heads of people in neighboring tables. We are joined by several of his kids, an energetic bunch who regard their Direk with a little awe, and as much love as they can muster. Between teacher and students, there is an easy camaraderie that is regularly punctuated by laughter.

There is an intensity about the 27-year-old, especially when he talks about his kids, an almost palpable forcefulness of character possessed only by those blessed with zeal, with a rich, deep and unshakeable faith.

In Nielís case, it is a faith in the children he teaches, the scholars of the Koine Theater Foundation. Koine is a brave concept: a theater group whose profits are channeled into a full scholarship program for children from poor families. The scholars are given free classes in theater, dance, and voice, and the best of them, in turn, put their lessons to practice by joining the production of the plays that fuel the scholarship program, and teaching other scholars, as paid professionals. It is an almost impossibly self-sustaining system, and the fact that Koine has been around since 2001, and has produced hundreds of scholars, is a testament to Nielís determination, the childrenís talent, and the kindness of their audiences.

"We used to charge for our classes, a small fee that covered the basic expenses like IDs and classroom materials and attendance cards," Niel explains. "Before that, the lessons had been free, but the attrition rate of both teachers and students was so high. By having to pay for them, the students were giving more value to their lessons, and were more likely to stick with them, but eventually I thought that it was confusing our hearts. I had to make the classes free again. By then, we had found ways to choose only the most determined scholars who would value their lessons even if theyíre given absolutely free."

When I ask de Mesa about the state of Koineís finances, he leans back and answers, "Oh, itís terrible," in a tone that implies, "but what else can you expect?"

"How can the poor help the poor?" he asks. "The only way we work is by virtue of what Mother Teresa once said: Ďthe less that you have, the greater you can give.í And thatís the logic of love."

"[Koine] has never been about finances or profit, and, when I think about it, itís also never been about poverty," Niel says. "Poverty is just a matter of perspective: the people Iím helping, theyíre just broke, and broke is a temporary situation. Koineís dreamĖmy dreamĖis to shatter poverty, or at least being broke. At least, for people like my kindred."

Nielís kindred, it turns out, are the artists and the performers: those who want to sing, dance, and act. He nurtures that creative spark in the poor who, before Koine, have had very little opportunity to develop that creativity with formal training.

Nielís mother, Yvonne, now the companyís finance officer, remembers how Niel developed both his talents in performing and his empathy for poor children. "Think of a young man, along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, in the middle of a group of streetkids, sharing a Coke with them," she smiles. "That was Niel, in college."

A graduate of the Ateneo de Manila from an interdisciplinary course of communication arts and theater, Niel had long been involved in the arts, and developing an empathy for the poor. "When I was in college, I was in Tanghalang Ateneo, I was helping out in Blue Rep, the Dancers Association, the Ateneo Musicians Pool. But even as early as fourth grade, I already had a penchant for striking up conversations with people in the street. When I wanted to start Koine, some people were telling me, ĎUse your talents to make money first, then go and help the poor.í Iím not from a wealthy family, I could have used some more money to help set [Koine] up. But why should I wait? I could die tomorrow!"

And so, for the past five years, Niel has labored endlessly for the company. As actor, dancer, director, choreographer, instrumentalist, production designer, composer, arranger, writer, singer, and marketing and PR manager, he has given himself over totally to his dream. Koine is still running strong, despite its difficulties.

"The success of the company canít be measured in balance sheets. I consider the company a success because I can die right now, and Koine will still stand, and the kids can carry on with the tenets of Koine: love, forgiveness, humility and clarity."

Along with Nielís lessons about the technical side of the performing arts, he teaches his kids confidence, and self-worth. It is a lesson that is as essential as any in Koine: "Ang tawag sa atin ay mahirap, dahil gumagawa tayo ng mahihirap ng bagay," goes one of his lessons.

"But we donít wear our poverty as a badge," he explains. "We are not a charity. We are a theater troupe. When you buy your tickets, we make sure that we give our audience their moneyís worth, with a damn good show." There is a fierce and unmistakable note of pride in his voice as he makes this promise.

Back in the studio in Kamuning, the kids are making good on this promise. Today, one of Nielís top students is teaching the hiphop dance classes. Twenty-year-old KL Marcelo, a scholar from the depressed area of Tumana in Marikina, is taking a dozen of the younger scholars in Advanced Hiphop through their dance routine for an upcoming show. His youngest student, nine-year-old Abbey, keeps up with the best of them, going through a complicated series of moves with little effort. The rehearsals go by quickly, with the students easily picking up what their Kuya KL wants them to do.

In the next studio, in Basic HipHop class, another of Nielís best students is instructing her fellow scholars. In front of a large group of children is a slip of a girl, a quick, slight dancer named Nympha Gonzales, all of twelve years old, from the railroad area in Tayuman, Tondo. "All right, watch what I do," she announces to her classĖmany of them older than she isĖand then leads them through the steps. She handles her class deftly, her authority boosted by her obvious skill and confidence in her abilities. Later, she complains to KL, laughing, "All my students are giving me a headache!" which is something one doesnít expect a twelve-year-old to say.

Before Nympha and KL and the other stewardsĖthe position in Koine given to scholars deemed good enough for faculty positionsĖit was Niel doing all the teaching, in all the classes.

"The guyís energy is just amazing," says Kenneth Keng, one of Nielís actors. "I donít think Iíve ever seen him not doing anything." Kenneth describes what itís like to work with Nielís scholars. "The first time, itís a strange experience. Youíre on stage, and thereís a kid in the control booth, doing lights and sound. Your stage crew is made up entirely of children. And these are professionals, I tell you. When I was backstage panicking because there was something wrong with my costume, thereís a kid going Ďokay, calm down, breathe slowly, letís figure this out.í To have a kid tell you that, thatís really something," he laughs.

It is the plays that provide lifeblood for Koineís efforts. Koine is the only theater in the country that stages short, original one-act plays every week, for the whole year. Many of the plays are written by Niel, and many have drawn raves from theater-goers. In 2002, Nielís play Subtext won the prestigious Don Carlos Palanca Award. In the year after that, another of the plays he had written, I Laugh You, won third place. Because Subtext has been running regularly since 2002, it is probably the longest-running play in the Philippine theater scene today.

"These kids, they will amaze you," Niel says. " I have seen them and their tenacity to work for this mission, to help other kids. They inspire other kids better than I can, because they set an example. In the Olympics, athletes break records all the time, which tells everyone else that it is possible to get better. Because of these kids, the next generation of kindred can strive higher, and higher, until it all becomes a system.

"And these kids are loving, caring people. I can leave a dozen of them in a room with a small meal, and not have to worry about anyone not eating, because I have taught these children to be sharers, and that, I think, is one of the most important things I have taught them."

Koine has been reaching out to the places where those lessons are needed most. Grace Sacbibit, 13, is from Payatas, recruited in one of Koineís "mission-stations."

"I was invited to dance with the people [from Koine], and I was shy, at first. But I danced anyway, and signed up. Now, I like working on the lights in the plays," she giggles. Grace, Kennethís "kid in the control booth", is one of his best technical people, Niel swears.

The mission-stations began last year, and Koine has been to depressed areas like Payatas, Smokey Mountain, and Wawa, in Montalban, like missionaries traveling to far-flung areas to preach. Only, in Koine, they dance.

"I just gather some of the children who are around, and then I play music loudly, and I start to dance. I turn my back to the kids and danceĖthose who start dancing behind me, they are kindred. Water seeks its own level, and itís the same with performers. The kindred cannot be denied their kindred. Those who are namby-pamby about it, they canít, they wonít go the extra mile for their performance. We train kids for free, but all I ask from the scholar is this: that they go the distance. You have to work as hard as you can for your performance."

The candidates have the option to audition for a scholarship in the studio. There arenít any talent shows, there is only this: jogging. The kids will jog a very long distance, and there is only one rule: donít stop.

"Those who stop, or give up, or complain, donít join us. Itís simple, but very effective," according to Niel. "When you jog and start to get tired, there are voices in your head telling you to stop, that you should quit. Iíve been hearing those voices all my life: ĎStop, you have no money left in the bank.í ĎStop, people are betraying you left and right.í But I persevere, the kids persevere, and that determination is what makes Koine work."

It is also that determination, that rock-hard belief in the abilities of these children, that has earned Niel that childrenís love. "My life now is of little consequence," de Mesa says. "I know that if I die tomorrow, these kids can, independent of me, be loving, and inspire others to be loving. We love everyone who goes through our door, no matter how poor. Some scholars have stolen from us, some people have betrayed us, but still we keep on going. We keep going so people can see us, and then they have no excuse not to forgive, or to love, even in the face of betrayal.

People have turned their backs to us before, but we never turn our backs on others. Some of the people we help may be cracked or flawed, but that cannot stop us from loving them. That message of love is what we want to get across to everyone, what we want to inspire in all our scholars. When are we going to stop giving? Never!"


Visit Koine at the 2nd floor, FORAB building, 121 Kamuning Road, Quezon City. Those interested in watching their shows, or in joining their childrenís scholarship program, or finding out more about Koine can call tel 410-4485 or 0916-5251038.

Posted on Jun 19, 2006, 9:04 PM
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