On 12 March 2020, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced a lockdown of Manila to stop the spread of COVID-19. The cities, provinces, and islands of the Philippines remained under various levels of community quarantine for the remainder of the year. Under the strictest lockdown measures, known as Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), no one aged below 21 or over 60 years was allowed out, a curfew was implemented between 10pm and 5am, and only one person per household, carrying a quarantine pass, was allowed to go out for essential items (Bainbridge & Vimonsuknopparat; Ratcliffe & Fonbuena). The policing of these measures was strict, with a heavy reliance on police and military to enforce health protocols (Hapal). In early April, Duterte warned that violators of the lockdown who caused trouble could be shot (Reuters). Criticisms concerning the dissemination of information about the pandemic were exacerbated when on 5 May, 2020, Filipinos lost an important source of news and entertainment as the country’s largest media network ABS-CBN was shut down after the government denied the renewal of its broadcast franchise (Gutierrez; “ABS-CBN”; “Independent Broadcaster”). The handling of the pandemic by the Duterte government has been characterised by inaction, scapegoating, and framed as a war on an existential threat (Hapal). This has led to feelings of frustration, anger, and despair that has impacted and been incorporated into the artistic expression of some Filipino creatives (Esguerra, “Reflecting”).
As they did in the rest of the world, social media platforms became a vital source of entertainment for many facing these harsh lockdown measures in the Philippines in 2020. Viral forms included the sharing of videos of recipes for whipped Dalgona coffee and ube-pandesal on TikTok, binge-watching KDramas like Crash Landing on You on Netflix, playing Animal Crossing on Nintendo Switch, and watching Thailand’s Boys’ Love genre web series 2Gether: The Series on YouTube. Around the world, many arts and cultural organisations turned to online platforms to continue their events during the COVID-19 pandemic. #RomanceClass, a Filipino community of authors, artists, and actors who consume, produce, and enact mostly self-published English-language romance fiction in the Philippines, also turned to these platforms to hold their community’s live literature events.
This article analyses this shift by #RomanceClass. It contends that, due to their nature as an independent, born-digital literary organisation, they were able to adapt swiftly and effectively to online-only events in response to the harshness of the Filipino lockdown, creating new forms of artistic innovation by adopting the aesthetics of Zoom into their creative practice (for example, name tags and gallery camera view). This aesthetic swiftly became familiar to people all over the world in 2020, and adopting digital platforms encodes within it the possibility for a global audience. However, while #RomanceClass are and have been open to a global audience, and their creative innovations during the pandemic have clearly been informed by transcultural online trends, this article argues that their adoption of digital platforms and creative innovations represented a continuation of their existing ethos, producing material explicitly intended for a Filipino audience, and more specifically, their existing community, prioritising community connection over any more expansive marketing efforts (McAlister et al.).
The Live Literature of #RomanceClass
The term #RomanceClass refers to a biblio-community of authors, readers, artists, and actors, all involved in the production and consumption of English-language romance novels in the Philippines. #RomanceClass began online in 2013 via a free writing class run predominantly on Facebook by author Mina V. Esguerra (for more on this, see McAlister et al.). As the community has developed, in-person events have become a major part of the community’s activities. However, as a born-digital social formation, #RomanceClass has always existed, to some extent, online. Their comfort in digital spaces was key to their ability to pivot swiftly to the circumstances in the Philippines during the lockdowns in 2020.
One of the most distinctive practices of #RomanceClass is their live reading events. Prior to 2020, community members would gather in April for April Feels Day, and in October for Feels Fest for events where local actors would read curated passages from community-authored romance novels, and audiences’ verbal and physical responses became part of the performance. The live readings represent a distinctive form of live literature – that is, events where literature is the dominant art form presented or performed (Wiles), a field which encompasses phenomena like storytelling festivals, author readings, and literary festivals (Dane; Harvey; Weber; Wilson). In October 2019, we interviewed several #RomanceClass community members and attended one of these live reading events, Feels Fest, where we observed that the nature of the event very clearly reflected the way the community functions: they are “highly professionalised, but also tightly bound on an affective level, regularly describing [themselves] as a found family” (McAlister et al. 404). Attendance at live readings is capped (50 people, for the event we attended). The events are thus less about audience-building than they are community-sustaining, something which they do by providing community comforts. In particular, this includes kilig, a Filipino term referring to a kind of affective romantic excitement, usually demonstrated by the audience members in reaction to the actors’ readings.
While the in-person component is very important to the live reading events, they have always spanned online and offline contexts – the events are usually live-tweeted by participants, and the readings are recorded and posted to YouTube by an official community videographer, with the explicit acknowledgment that if you attended the event, you are more than welcome to relive it as many times as you want. (Readings which contain a high degree of sexual content are not searchable on YouTube so as not to cause any harm to the actors, but the links are made privately available to attendees.) However, the lockdown measures implemented in the Philippines in 2020 meant that only the online context was available to the community – and so, like so many other arts communities around the world, they were forced to adapt. We tend to think of platforms like Zoom as encoded with the potential to allow people into a space who might not have been able to access it before. However, in their transition to an online-only context, #RomanceClass clearly sought to prioritise the community-sustaining practices of their existing events rather than trying in any major way to court new, potentially global, audiences. This prioritisation of community, rather than marketing, provided a space for #RomanceClass authors to engage cathartically with their experiences of lockdown in the Philippines (Esguerra, “Reflecting”).
Embracing the Zoom Aesthetic: #RomanceClass in 2020
#RomanceClass’s first online event in 2020 was April Feels Day 2020, which occurred not long after lockdown began in the Philippines. Its production reflects the quick transition to an online-only co-presence space. It featured six books recently published by community authors. For each, the author introduced the book, and then an actor read an excerpt – a different approach to that hitherto taken in live events, where two actors, playing the roles of the romantic protagonists, would perform the readings together.
Like the in-person live readings, April Feels Day 2020 was a synchronous event with a digital afterlife. It was streamed via Twitch, and participants could log on to watch and join the real-time conversations occurring in the chat. Those who did not sign up for a Twitch account could still watch the stream and post about the event on Twitter under the hashtag #AprilFeelsDay2020. After the event, videos featuring each book were posted to YouTube, as they had been for previous in-person live reading events, allowing participants to relive the experience if they so desired, and for authors to use as workshopping tools to allow them to hear how their prose and characters’ voices sounded (something which several authors reported doing with recordings of live readings in our interviews with them in 2019).
April Feels Day 2020 represented a speedy pivot to working and socialising from home by the #RomanceClass community, something enabled by the existing digital architecture they had built up around their pre-pandemic live reading events, and their willingness to experiment with platforms like Twitch. However, it also represented a learning experience, a place to begin to think about how they might adapt creatively to the circumstances provoked by the global pandemic. They innovated in several ways. For instance, they adopted mukbang – a South Korean internet phenomenon which has become popular worldwide, wherein a host consumes a large amount of food while interacting with their audience in an online audiovisual broadcast – in their Mukbang Nights videos, where a few members of #RomanceClass would eat food and discuss their books (Anjani et al.). Food is a beloved part of both #RomanceClass events and books (“there’s lots of food, always. At some point someone always describes what the characters are eating. No exceptions”, author Carla de Guzman told us when we interviewed her in 2019), and so their adoption of mukbang shows the ways in which their 2020 digital events sought to recreate established forms of communal cohesion in a virtual co-presence space.
An even more pointed example of this is their Hello, Ever After web series, which drew on the growing popularity of born-digital web series in Southeast Asia and other virtual performances around the globe. Hello, Ever After was both a natural extension of and significantly differed from #RomanceClass in-person live events.
Usually, April Feels Day and October Feels Fest feature actors reading and performing passages from already published community books. By contrast, Hello, Ever After featured original short scripts written by community authors. These scripts took established characters from these authors’ novels and served as epilogues, where viewers could see how these characters and their romances fared during the pandemic. Like in-person live reading events – and unlike the digital April Feels Day 2020 – it featured two actors playing virtually side-by-side, reinforcing that one of the key pleasures derived from the reading events is the kilig produced through the interaction between the actors playing against each other (something we also observed in our 2019 fieldwork: the community has developed hashtags to refer specifically to the live reading performance interactions of some of their actors, such as #gahoates, in reference to actors Gio Gahol and Rachel Coates). The scenes are purposefully written as video chats, which allows not only for the fact that the actors were unable to physically interact with each other because of the lockdowns, but also tapped into the Zoom communication aesthetic that commandeered many people’s personal and professional communications during COVID-19 restrictions. Although the web series used a different video conferencing technology, community member Tania Arpa, who directed the web series episodes, adapted the nameplate feature that displayed the characters’ names to more closely align with the Zoom format, demonstrating #RomanceClass’s close attentiveness to developments in the global media environment.
Zoom and other virtual co-presence platforms became essentially universal in 2020. One of their affordances was that people could virtually attend events from anywhere in the world, which encodes in it the possibility of reaching a broader, more global audience base. However, #RomanceClass maintained their high sensitivity to the local Filipino context through Hello, Ever After. By setting episodes during the Philippines’ lockdown, emphasised by the video chat mise en scène, Hello, Ever After captures the nuances of the sociopolitical and sometimes mundane aspects of the local pandemic response. Moreover, the series features characters known to and beloved by the community, as the episodes function as epilogues to #RomanceClass books, taking place in what An Goris calls the “post-HEA” [happily ever after] space. #RomanceClass books are available digitally – and have a readership – outside the Philippines, and so the Hello, Ever After web series is theoretically a text that can be enjoyed by many. However, the community was not necessarily seeking to broaden their audience base through Hello, Ever After; it was community-sustaining, rather than community-expanding. It built on the extant repository of community knowledge and affect by using characters that #RomanceClass members know intimately and have emotional connections to, who are not as familiar and legible to those outside the community, intended for an audience with a level of genre knowledge (McAlister et al.; Fletcher et al.).
While the pandemic experience these characters were going through was global, as the almost universal familiarity with the Zoom aesthetic shows, Hello, Ever After was highly attentive to the local context. Almost all the episodes featured “Easter eggs” and dialogues that pointed to local situations that only members of the targeted Filipino audience would understand and be familiar with, echoing the pandemic challenges of the country’s present reality. Episodes featured recurrent themes like dissatisfaction with the government’s slow response and misaligned priorities, anger towards politicians exacerbating the impact of the pandemic with poor health and transportation policies, and recognition of voluntary service and aid rendered by private individuals.
For example, the first episode, Make Good Days, an epilogue to Mina V. Esguerra’s novel What Kind of Day, focusses on the challenges “essential worker” hero Ben (played by Raphael Robes) faces as a local politician’s speechwriter, who has been tasked to draft a memorial speech for his boss to deliver in honour of an acquaintance who has succumbed to COVID-19. He has developed a “3:00 habit” of a Zoom call with his partner Naya (Rachel Coates), mirroring the “3:00 habit” or “3:00 Prayer to the Divine Mercy” many Catholic Filipino devotees pray and recite daily at that specific hour, a habit reinforced through schools, churches, and media, where entertainment shows allow time for the prayer to be televised. Ben and Naya’s conversation in this particular 3:00 call dwells on what they think Filipino citizens deserve, especially from local government officials who repeatedly fail them (Baizas; Torres). They also discuss the impact that the pandemic has had on Naya’s work life. She runs a tourism and travel business – which is the way that the two characters met in What Kind of Day – which she has been forced to close because of the pandemic. Naya grieves not just for the dream job she has had to give up, but also sympathises with the enormous number of Filipinos who suddenly became unemployed because of the economy closing down (Tirona).
Hello, Ever After draws together the political realities of living in the Philippines during the pandemic with the personal, by showing the effects of these realities on characters like Ben and Naya, who are well-known to the #RomanceClass community. #RomanceClass books encompass a wide variety of protagonists, and so the episodes of Hello, Ever After were able to explore how the lives of health workers, actors, single parents, students, scientists, office workers, development workers, CEOs and more could be impacted by the pandemic and the lockdowns in the Philippines. They also allowed the authors to express some of their personal frustrations with living through quarantine, something they admit fueled some parts of the scripts (“Behind the Scenes: Hello, Ever After”).
#RomanceClass novels like What Kind of Day all end happily, with the romantic protagonists together (in contrast to a lot of other Filipino media, which ends unhappily – for more on this, see McAlister et al.). Make Good Days and the other episodes of Hello, Ever After reflect the grim realities of pandemic life in the Philippines; however, they do not undercut this happy ending, and instead seek to reinforce it. Through Hello, Ever After, the community literally seeks to “make good days” for themselves by creating opportunities to access the familiar comfort and warmth of kilig scenes. Kilig refers to a kind of affective romantic emotion that usually has a physical manifestation (Trinidad, “Shipping”; “Kilig”). It does not have an equivalent word or phrase in English, but can be used as a noun to denote a thrilling state of excitement or as an adjective to describe moments or scenes that evoke this feeling. Creating and becoming immersed in kilig is central to #RomanceClass texts and events: authors attempt to produce kilig through their writing, and actors attempt to provoke it during live reading performances (something which, as mentioned above, was probably made more difficult in the one-actor live readings of the fully online Aprils Feels Day 2020, as much of the kilig is generated by the interactions between the actors). Kilig scenes are plentiful in Hello, Ever After. For instance, in Make Good Days, Naya asks Ben to name a thing he hated before the pandemic that he now misses. He replies that he misses being stuck in traffic with her – that he still hates traffic, but he misses spending that time with her.
Escapism was a high priority for many people and communities creating art during the 2020 lockdowns. Given this, it is interesting that #RomanceClass chose to create kilig in their web series by leaning into the temporal moment and creating material specifically revolving around the lockdown in the Philippines, showing couples like Ben and Naya supporting each other and sharing their pandemic-caused burdens. Hello, Ever After both reflected the harsh reality in which the community found themselves but also gave them something to cling to in the hardest days of lockdown, showing that kilig could be found even in the toughest of circumstances when both characters and community members found themselves separated.
As a community which began in a digital space, #RomanceClass was well-positioned to pivot to an online-only environment during the pandemic, even though in-person events had become such a distinctive part of their community outputs. They experimented and innovated significantly in 2020, producing a range of digital outputs, including the Hello, Ever After web series.
On the surface, this does not seem especially unusual: many arts organisations innovated digitally during the pandemic. What was particularly notable about #RomanceClass’s digital outputs, however, was that they were not designed to be marketing tools. They were not actively courting a new audience; rather, outputs like Hello, Ever After were designed to be community-sustaining, providing the existing audience comfort, familiarity, and kilig in a situation (local and global) that was not in any way comfortable or familiar. We Will Be Okay is the title of the second Hello, Ever After video, an epilogue to Celestine Trinidad’s Ghost of a Feeling: a neat summary of the message the episodes offered to the #RomanceClass audience through these revisitings of beloved characters and relationships.
As we have discussed elsewhere, #RomanceClass is a professionalised community, but their affective ties are very strong (McAlister et al.). Their digital outputs during the pandemic showed this, and demonstrated again the way their community bonds are reinforced through their repeated re-engagement with their texts, just as their pre-pandemic forms of live literature did. There was kilig to be found in revisiting well-known couples, even in depressing circumstances. As the community engage together with these new epilogues and share their affective reactions, their social ties are reinforced – even when they are forced to be separated.
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