I first met Tita Bibot because I was such a big fan of Repertory Philippines, the only theater company in the Philippines that regularly produced foreign plays in the English language (the others would come later, including my exposure to collegiate theater in UP, where one of my plays would later be produced). Plays were performed at the Insular Life Theater then, a venue whose air-conditioners were so efficient that we had to rent blankets when we watched a show. Big musicals were staged at the Rizal Theater, which used to be where Shangri-la Makati now stands.
I decided that I wanted to be an actor, or a playwright, or anything to do with the theater. The magical power of make-believe was as potent to me then as it is to me now. I joined one of the summer workshops when I was a bit older (where I first met Rickey!) and was exposed to the horrible reputation that preceded Zenaida Amador. I was told that she was possessed of a foul temper, threw chairs and hit people in such a way that provoked lawsuits. I was suitably scared, but perservered, auditioning and landing a role in my first musical.
In my fantastic role as a member of the chorus, I was tasked to be part of a tableau, a still moment in the play's first act. I was one of two people carrying a pole which supported the weight of a third actor. During the scene, Tita Bibot became engaged in conversation with one of the production crew and left all of us frozen. Time slowed and crawled like a dying crab. I then made the mistake of scratching my nose.
"Putang ina mo!" Tita Bibot screamed, rushing towards me, her face purple with rage.
In front of the entire cast and crew she bit my head off, calling me all sorts of things, and concluding with "And to think that I thought you had potential!".
I wanted to die, to sink into the deep recesses of the stage, away from what I thought were cruel eyes and snickering faces. Instead, after Tita Bibot stormed away, I found myself surrounded by my fellow actors, smiling with sympathy.
"Consider that your baptism, Dean," one of them said. "Welcome to Rep."
I began to appear in small parts, always giving my best to the woman who told me in a furious rage that I had potential. She got to know me better and found me amusing to talk to because I did not tend to cower much (but my God, anyone would cower in the face of her wrath). One time, during the run of "Arsenic & Old Lace", she would put me to the test.
She played a murdering spinster and I had the role of one of her old gentlemen victims. Our scene was supposed to be short. I would enter her house, exchange brief pleasantries, be offered and accept a cup of arsenic-laden tea and die. Instead, Tita Bibot drew on the small talk, forcing me to think quickly and adlib answers to various questions that clearly were not in the script, such as how were things in my hometown, what places did I pass on my way to her house. For an instant, I was terrified, then...I acted. I made things up and played along so well that the audience had no clue what they were watching was make-believe. For a moment, I toyed with the notion of refusing the deadly cup of poison, but that would derail the entire production. After that show, Tita Bibot came up to me and said, "Pretty good."
I would end up working for Rep in the following years. I started with marketing and writing the programmes. Then, when Tita Bibot discovered that I had won a pair of Palanca Awards, she asked me to write, direct and edit the Rep TV show for Channel 5. I told her that I had never written, directed or edited for television before. She turned to me and said, "You're a smart man. You'll work it out." And work it out I did, learning the format of TV scripts over the course of a day, writing my first script in two hours, and taking a crash course in directing the hard way - on location with my cameramen and crew. The editing machine was quite a challenge. Once I realized that I could do all those special effects, I went wild. I remember Tita Bibot reviewing my first episode and telling me to re-edit it. "You have too many things going on," she said, perhaps bothered that whenever she was on, I would make her face bounce, spin and glide. I was a rich man during those days, being paid for 3 jobs by Rep - I realized that TV does pay.
After a while, my interests turned in other directions and I slowly began to skip watching Rep plays. Sporadically, I would buy a ticket for a special show like "Les Miserables", but my days as a season ticket holder were over. From time to time, I'd visit and give Tita Bibot a kiss. "Are you coming back to us?" she'd ask at first. I'd tell her "No" and explain what was happening in my life.
And now she's gone but not forgotten. When her lifeless body was carried out of her house, the act was greeted by thunderous applause and cries of "Bravo, Bibot! Bravo!" by the hundred actors and actresses who were there to give their teacher, mentor, mother and monster honor - because she demanded, in the stern voice that characterized her all her life, "No tears."