When In Manila, you are sure to hear singing. The Philippines is famous for being a country in love with music. It is unsurprising then that theatre, particularly musical theatre, is alive and well in the Pearl of the Orient. From Broadway imports to local productions, the stages of Metro are filled every night with people spinning the stuff of dreams. But for every dreamer treading the boards, there is a person in the audience who hopes to do the same. And while auditions–the dark door through which every actor must pass–are often few and far between, for actor hopefuls there is another solution.
Summer workshops are a popular option for those who would like to explore an actor’s life. Of these, 9 Works Theatrical’s Stage Camp is a relative new-comer. The company made its famous debut with its local production of the Broadway hit RENT, and since then, it’s added all-star musicals like Sweet Charity and The Wedding Singer to its roster of productions. Stage Camp is its yearly workshop offering, imbued with the same vibrant, risk-taking energy that has made the young company a success. With classes for kids, teens, and adults, Stage Camp promises that anyone can try their hand at wowing a crowd.
This year’s batch of Adults’ Camp graduates was ready to do just that. Their June 2 finale performance, dubbed Here Right Now: A One Night Only Cabaret, was not the traditional production of a full musical that most workshops might choose. Instead, director Topper Fabregas envisioned a lively musical revue: a choice, he explained, that would give each of his students an opportunity to strut their stuff and show just how amazing they could be. When I caught him backstage at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, he was practically brimming with nervous excitement. “I’m so proud of these kids.” he said, before laughing when he realized that many of these “kids” were the same age or older than their energetic young director.
As a theatre kid myself, I was drinking in the backstage energy with envy–summer classes had prevented me from joining a workshop myself. Still, I love musicals, and musical revues provide ample opportunity to discover songs I may not have heard before. Director Topper promised an eclectic mix of songs from off-Broadway and smaller productions, choosing not to “bore the audience with songs that they’ve heard before.” “We hope there will be plenty of YouTube searches after tonight.” he told me, before he he had to rush past and deal with some last-minute preparations. “I’m super anxious,” he confessed before he went, “Not for them, because I know they’re amazing and they’ve worked really hard and I’m sure they’ll be awesome, but just for the whole show–I want it to be a great one for them and I want them all to have fun.”
Backstage pass: Snippets of the cast preparing for Here Right Now
In the dressing rooms, the same excited/nervous/anxious energy reigned as the would-be actors were busy getting ready, though many could not resist posing and grinning when they saw my camera approach. When I asked for interviews, the grins became wider as many volunteered their friends. After lots of laughter and cajoling, I had my four subjects: Hiyesmin Lao, Jurmane Lallana, Franco Ramos, and–to my surprise, as I hadn’t expected to see a familiar face–an old friend from my Rep Philippines summer acting workshop days, Lance Yeung.
My first “victim,” Jurmane, was a first-time musical performer, though he’d performed in school productions before, “as a class requirement, for English” he explained. He’d been referred to Stage Camp by the very Filipino method of a “friend of a friend of a friend,” and as his schedule permitted it, Jurmane took the plunge. “I’m feeling a combination of nervousness and excitement,” he confessed, to which many of his thirty-odd workshop mates sounded out their agreement. I couldn’t keep him long–the show was less than an hour away–so I asked him what people considering Stage Camp should know. With a huge grin he responded, “People should make time for something like this.”
He wasn’t only one with a stellar review for their summer experience. Sweet-faced Hiyesmin was just about to start work, and had, after lots of online searches, chosen to jump on the Stage Camp bandwagon as her last chance to embrace the stage before she entered the corporate world. No stranger to theatre, Hiyesmin had performed in high school productions before, but it was her–admitted–first time in this sort of format. “I’m super nervous, and my voice is making it worse as it’s being so stubborn right now, but we’re all friends here and we’re giving each other medicines and helping keep each other up.” she said brightly, alluding to another fact of theatre that I missed: learning from the theatre family. It was what Hiyesmin would miss too–“My most memorable experience was…every day. You learn a lot: from the directors, your workshop-mates, everyone. To anyone thinking of joining, you must go for it.”
Friends and theatre family: The girls of Stage Camp, Adults Camp
Lance had the same gung-ho spirit. I’d last seen him two summers ago, essaying the part of Monsieur Thenardier in our workshop production of Paris 1832. I remembered him as the Class A6 (our adults’ class) heartthrob, and even embarrassed him a little bit in front of his fellow Stage Camp “campers” when I relayed a mock “marriage proposal” one of the girls had posted on his dressing room mirror back when he and I were students together. Despite the fun I was having at his expense, Lance still thought me his friend enough to answer a few questions about his most memorable workshop experiences. “The moments with my classmates…” he said, gesturing to them, “and…my crush.” At the sound of this, the men in the room started hooting and cat-calling, and I almost didn’t hear Lance explain why Stage Camp would be so memorable: “You get to learn a lot and meet a lot of new people, and you’ll have super-fun memories with each other.”
The boys are all right: the boys of Stage Camp, Adults Camp ham it up for the camera.
Apparently so, because as soon as I ended my interview the boys of Stage Camp immediately decided to let me catch some of those super-fun memories on camera, posing goofily in the middle of their preparations. After they’d had their crazy camera moment, I cornered my last interviewee, Franco, who recognized me as the tiny Gavroche from his viewing of Paris 1832. Franco, like Lance, was a Repertory transplant who’d been invited to Stage Camp by his friend and duet partner, Nicole. He enjoyed the more self-exploratory part of theatre: “I really learned a lot from the exercises where we had to explore ourselves and our creativity and our mental and physical awareness…so for those who might join, a survival tip: be prepared to get out of your comfort zone.”–a sentiment echoed by Director Topper Fabregas and Assistant Director Anthony Tarossa Ong when I managed to get them for a brief interview.
Once all the interviews were done, I thanked Franco. “I can’t wait to do well,” he confessed after. Judging from the energy in the room, I told him I was sure they all would.
I was right. As the lights went up on Here Right Now’s first number of the same name, I was blown away by how the thirty-three strong cast (a huge cast, by any account), sounded. The number, which was taken from the musical adaptation of the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore hit Ghost, was new to me, but after hearing the Stage Camp version, I did just as Director Topper predicted and YouTubed it after the show. (To be honest, I liked the Stage Camp version better.)
It was a stellar introduction to what would be an amazing show. Over the next hour-and-a-half (it felt like thirty minutes, really), I was treated to songs from pop to Broadway to show-tune standards, with a variety of themes from the risque (like the crazily catchy “Two Ladies” and the reimagining of Annie‘s “It’s A Hard Knock Life” as a saucy number with a bunch of waiting bordello-dwellers–the brainchild of a joke between Anthony Ong and Topper Fabregas), to the romantic (I swooned to “I’d Rather Be Sailing”), to the outright hilarious (had to clap for Franco’s dancing in “Mary Jane, Mary Lane”), and the poignantly moving. There were a few small technical difficulties along the way–such is the spice of theatre life–but these were almost forgotten in the face of the amazing performance Director Topper and his assistant director/choreographer Anthony Ong put together.
By the finalé, which was a rendition of the heart-wrenching Wicked number For Good, I felt as nostalgic and angsty as I was sure the cast members would–the class not only performed brilliantly, but they did so as an ensemble, as one unit with no spotlight-stealers and divas to be found. They were not only good performers, they were giving ones–throwing all that they were out on the stage and to their fellow actors. The ball never dropped; the energy was infectious. When the cast came on the give their final bows, I could see directors Topper and Anthony beaming.
The men of the hour: Director Topper Fabregas and Assistant Director Anthony Tarossa Ong congratulate the cast.
For the two dynamos behind the show, however, their moment of pride had come weeks earlier. “I’ll have to say the most memorable thing for me throughout Stage Camp was seeing that moment when each of our students made their own break through and allowed themselves to let go of any inhibitions and just be open to the experience.” Assistant Director/Choreographer Anthony mentioned in our online interview. Director Topper echoed his sentiments, “I think at first everyone was just getting to know each other, but then as time went on we started seeing everyone’s own little quirks and hints of who they are and then one day they just…bloom and you finally see them for who they really are. That’s the most memorable part of the experience.”
All in all, Here Right Now was a sensational performance. So When In Manila, and looking for an opportunity to seize the day, and the limelight, and discover a part of yourself you may never have known before, why not try out 9 Works Theatrical’s Stage Camp. You’ll definitely walk out a zanier, wilder, and ultimately more fulfilled person than when you went in.
Life’s A Cabaret With Nine Works Theatrical’s Adults Camp Production of “Here Right Now”