Words by Ida Del Mundo | Photos by Pat Mateo
On stage, there is a wide variety of roles for women – from the ingénues like Christine Daae, to the vamps like Roxie and Velma, the strong-willed Elphaba, and everyone in between.
Behind the scenes, the theater world is full of equally multi-faceted, talented women who make each production possible.
Considered one of the premier theater actresses today, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s career has been a series of happy accidents and lucky breaks—fueled, of course by natural talent and a true thespian’s discipline.
“My joining theater was purely accidental,” Menchu confides. When she was in second year high school, a friend suggested she audition for Repertory Philippines’ The King and I. Without any preparation, she and her brother Raymond decided to go. “Lo and behold, auditions meant singing live on stage, which I had never done in my life,’ she says, laughing at the memory.
Raymond, who was part of a choir, landed the part of Louie. Menchu got her first rejection. “I was too old to be a child, too young to be a wife,” she says.
On the opening night of the show—it was at the CCP, 1977, she recalls clearly, “I sat in the theater— very cliché— [the] curtain opens, the performance unfolds, I fell in love”
Right then and there, Menchu vowed she would be part of Rep’s next show, Fiddler on the Roof; from then on, she knew that theater was her calling.
“I knew that this was the profession I wanted to be part of. People ask me all the time what I would be if I weren’t in theater—I have no idea!”
When she first started, Menchu shares, “I didn’t know stage left from stage right!” She credits her mentors Baby Barredo, Zeneida Amador, Freddie Santos, Enchang Kaimo, and various vocal coaches and dance teachers for helping her improve at her craft. “They took us under their wing and with a lot of patience, guided us through it. I tried as much as possible to immerse myself in my profession. And take as much as I could to grow as an artist”
The veteran actress says, “When I joined Rep, [had no ambitions to be a leading lady. I was happy in the ensemble, I was happy in the chorus, but I guess Baby Barredo and Zeneida Amador saw something in me, so they shoved me into roles I was not ready for. But they supported me and that’s how I got my training — literally failing on stage and learning from it. I’m not ashamed to say that because it taught me a lot. It taught me how to survive, it taught me how to persevere, it taught me how to be disciplined.”
Menchu continued to act, going from the perpetual ingénue, to more adult roles. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she got the opportunity to direct West Side Story. “It was Audie who threw me that and I said ‘I can’t direct’ He said, ‘Menchu, you know this musical, you’ve played Maria. I think you’re the perfect director. Then I fell in love with directing,’
Then, Joy Virata told Menchu that she was planning to retire and wanted her to take on the position of Associate Artistic Director of Repertory Philippines. “It took me two weeks to decide, and then when I took the plunge, I loved it,” says Menchu. She has since become Artistic Director for Resorts World, while actively performing.
“I was lucky that I was pushed by people. I’m lucky that I have people who gave me these opportunities to move on and do other things that I didn’t know 1 had in me,’ she says.
Now a mentor herself, Menchu has taken many young talents under her wing, “They come to me for advice when they get a role. I work with them, I give them a lot of insight on how to break text, how to create characterizations and I’m so proud when they are able to achieve it,” she says. “I love it because I can see that they’re so dedicated, they’re so passionate. I like working with people like that. I like seeing me in them—-starting out, absorbing everything”
I knew this was the profession I wanted to be a part of. People ask me all the time what I would be if I weren’t in theater — I have no idea!
Anna Santamaria was working at an international airline when she first decided to take a summer acting workshop. The Manila office was about to close, so she had some extra time on her hands.
“I started watching theater when I was young,” Anna says. Among the plays she watched, she remembers Annie starring Lea Salonga. “I’ve always been fascinated by theater, but I never took workshops,’ she says.
At her first workshop in 2007 with Repertory Philippines, she met Robbie Guevara, who quickly became her mentor, along with the esteemed Baby Barredo.
She quickly fell in love with theater. “Performing is what I love to do,’ she says, though she admits that in real life, she is quite shy.
Catching the theater bug, she decided to pursue it for a few more months, which later stretched into a year. “My friends and family would tell me, ‘Okay, that’s enough. Time to go back to work,” she laughs. “Little did I know that I would still be here now!”
A turning point in her theater career came when the workshop Anna attended with Rep worked on A Wedding Singer. They loved it so much that they wanted to produce it. However, it didn’t fit in Repertory’s plans for the season. So, Robbie, Anna and Santi Santamaria formed a core group and decided to produce it on their own, what eventually led to the beginnings of 9 Works Theatrical in 2009.
“Initially we said we’ll just do shows that we really love, not necessarily ona regular basis,” shares Anna. But the response from the audience was better than expected and 9 Works went on to regularly mounting more plays including Rent, Sweet Charity, The Last Five Years, and American Idiot.
I’ve always been fascinated by theater, but I never took workshops
Anna is 9 Works Theatrical’s Company Manager. “But it’s more than that,” she says. Just like many of those who work in theater, she takes on various roles, wears many hats on and off stage.
She adds, “In my previous corporate job, I was the only girl and same here in the 9 Works core.’ As a woman, Anna says she brings to the team a more detail-oriented perspective. “I make sure that everything is nearly perfect,’ she says.
Anna says that she is proud to have found her path in the performing arts, where there are many well-respected female leaders.
She says that creating their own company did not create competition or conflict with Repertory Philippines. “On the contrary, I think that we complement each other. We all know each other — it’s like one big
She adds, “The audience is usually not particular about the theater company, but if they see a show and they love, they are more likely to come back and watch another show. So you’re contributing to the success of all
the companies. We’re all working together.”
For Sylvia Lichauco, the performing arts was something that she had always loved, but she was never able to pursue. “The ban on ballet came when I was six-years-old,” she says, nipping her interest in dance in the bud. “The ballet ban, which lasted for 10 years meant that if you [studied] in a Catholic school, it’s indecent and you can get expelled if you are dancing in tights, leotards, and with boys. So all the Catholic schools had to stop the ballet lessons. If you were from a Catholic school, you had to quit.’
When her father became ambassador to England, Sylvia had her fill of ballet. “I learned to charge tickets to Covent Garden Opera House on the credit card of my dad. I went as often as I could,” she laughs. “I saw so many beautiful ballets and operas, and theater. I was 16 and I just soaked it all up. It became a part of me.’
Later on, when Sylvia had children of her own, she immersed them in the arts and sports when they were living in the US, but none stuck with ballet.
When they moved back to the Philippines in 2.008, Sylvia started to bring children from her neighborhood to watch shows for free. “I started working in the Sta. Ana community, so I took children by the bus load to whatever they gave me tickets for,’ she says. She would take the kids to watch productions of the Philippine Ballet Theater, Ballet Philippines, Ballet Manila, PETA, Resorts World, and more. “I was doing what I used to do with my own children, but with children that I didn’t know.’
Sylvia recalls, “They liked it so much that I said, I better find a way to teach them. So I start a summer arts program in a foundation I had started called Lola Grande Foundation.’ The group held a six-week summer camp with 200 children, teaching them acting, singing, visual art and dance.
When you make people dream and see something beautiful, uplifting, memorable, compared to their difficult lives, you open something in them
Eventually, the camps focused on developing young ballerinas. Of the participants she says, “Four went to Ballet Manila, two to Philippine Ballet Theater.”
Sylvia then served as president of Philippine Ballet ‘Theater for a year and a half. “I’ve learned a lot, I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve been able to uplift our image with a hundred percent increase in audience, better publicity. I hope they’ll continue to grow,’ she says. Sylvia continues to make more ways for young children of underprivileged backgrounds to be exposed to the arts. “Whether it’s glee club, or a theater group, or dance, you can influence them and help shape them into future leaders and responsible citizens. The discipline, the teamwork, all those things you learn will serve you for life,” she says.
“When you make people dream and see something beautiful, uplifting, memorable, compared to their difficult lives, you open something in them. They’ll dream—and it might not be about dance—it’s just to be somebody else they never thought they could be.”
She adds, “In each of us there is an artist. We may not be an artist by profession, but we all have a bit of artistry in us.” While Sylvia was not able to hone her skills as a dancer when she was young, she has made it her life’s mission to bring the arts to children all over the country.
Teresa Barrozo is shy and soft-spoken. In fact, she says, she often prefers not to speak at all. But, she does speak loud and clear through her music.
‘The University of the Philippines Composition Major did not graduate, but she credits the UP College of Music for shaping her aesthetics and philosophy in music, especially through the exposure she got to contemporary Filipino music.
Across the street from the conservatory, Teresa would often hang out at the film institute. She was interested in composing music for film and started doing thesis work. Eventually she got her big break, doing music for her first full-length film, Tirador, directed by Brilliante Mendoza.
“His perspective on sound and music was a big influence on my own,” she says. For Teresa, sound and music is just one element, one entity. “Sound is musical, and music is sound. That’s why I like collaborating with sound designers in film. These sound designers are my co-composers.”
Eventually, Teresa got into theater. It was not planned but perhaps she was destined to find her way into theater. Her switch was brought about by hugot—she laughs about it heartily now. “I didn’t want anything to do with filmmaking, so I did a 180° turn,’ she says.
Entering the new field, she collaborated with her friends from Sipat Lawin Ensemble. “The bulk of what I know came from actors. Learned how actors think, I learned about subtext,” she says.
While she did continue to do film work, Teresa became immersed in theater, appreciating how sound and music becomes another character, a “co-actor” on stage. “As I collaborated with dancers and theater actors, I realized that they also use the sound to trigger themselves. They take the sound and music in and then they give it out as truth. If the sound is used correctly, it can help bring out the truth in what they are doing”
Now, Teresa continues to learn more about her field. Beyond composing for film and theater, she is now interested in exploring music as an art form in itself.
I realized that [dancers and theater actors] also use the sound to trigger themselves. They take the sound and music in and then they give it out as truth
THE POWER OF WOMEN
As women who have paved the way and continue to do important work in their fields, Menchu, Anna, Sylvia, and Teresa acknowledge the importance that women have in the performing arts scene.
“I look up to a lot of women artists who are strong and capable. I see how they are still soaring despite struggles,” says Teresa. “There’s no big difference in the industry whether you are male or female, pero mahalaga sa akin na merong babaeng sa industriya, lalo sa technical karamihan lalaki. 1 feel that it is important that women are represented.”
Both Anna and Menchu hope that, as women and leaders in the performing arts, they will be able to keep on producing performances of good quality to inspire more Filipino audiences.
When asked about her role as a woman in the performing arts scene, Sylvia’s answer is simple: “Art needs to be nurtured. We are natural nurturers.”
Menchu adds that she hopes they can nurture and grow a supportive audience as well. “We need an audience to keep theater alive. So I hope people come to watch. We want to transport you and show you that there is beauty in art and art can do so much—it can inspire you, it can change you, it can make you grow as a person. It makes you a better person.”