By DOM GALEON
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in recent years, theater has found a growing market in the Philippines. Whether it be local productions or Broadway musicals, there is a Pinoy audience ready to journey into another world, the world of the stage. For Anna Yulo, being part of a team that brings international productions in the country is a dream job—one that she didn’t initially dream of pursuing.
How did your journey to theater start? Was there a particular moment when you realized, ‘Ah, this is it. This is something I would like to do?’
I’ve always been in love with theater. I immersed myself in as much school-related theater as I could (stage management, project management, performing, props, etc.), but I took up a business course. Finishing university and graduating is one thing, but finding your career is a completely different story. I was so blessed to have found a boss who took a chance on someone who was as young and inexperienced as I was. Bambi Rivera-Verzo was a leader in all aspects, but the one thing she was great at was challenging you as a person—she wouldn’t ask you if you could do it, but simply said, “You can do it. Find a way.”
Jumping into an industry I knew nothing about was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. But as soon as I had one foot in the door, I wanted to stay. To be quite honest, there was no magic moment that told me that this was the “dream job.” It wasn’t one moment but a never-ending series of moments. Every show comes with its own challenges and every show has given me new reasons to stay.
How has it been for you, so far?
It has been an adventure. It’s like riding a spinning teacup and then jumping into a rollercoaster right after—it’s fun for the first few turns then you get the wind knocked out of you. I’ve got to be honest: I got burned out and left for about two months.
After finishing one of the biggest projects we’ve ever had, the excitement and magic disappeared. Passion for the next projects was quickly replaced with dread. I think the main problem was that when I started, it was all go, go, go. Wanting to do anything and everything made me forget to enjoy and be in the moment. I was failing at the smallest things and I would call up my mom to cry to her because I felt like I had enough of this. I was so scared that my love for theater would disappear completely and I wanted to get out before it did. Stepping away from the industry and looking at it from the outside was very sobering, and I think I needed it. I applied for my job again after 2 months, and the company gave me another chance. Not everyone can say that they have found a job that matches their passion, so I don’t want to waste it! It helps when you know how to strike a balance between work and play, sometimes even merging the two.
I’ve also been blessed to have been exposed to so many different cultures. I like to call it “travelling without having to travel.” Shows are here for weeks, and even months at a time, so making friends is almost unavoidable! It’s great because I’ve got friends from all over the world, and I have places to stay if I travel—if and when I can find the time!
In choosing which musicals to stage here, what things do you usually consider?
First thing you have to consider is the tour circuit. Sometimes people don’t understand that apart from the audiences in Manila wanting a show, other countries have to want it too. There has to be a circuit, so packing up a show and touring it will be worth the travel and the expenses.
Another thing is if there’s a big enough audience for it. After every show, we always to a survey online to ask what they enjoyed about the recent show and what they would love to see next, or see again.
Any observations about the local theater scene? Things that we’re doing right? Things that can be improved?
I say this as an outsider! I’m not expert but all I can say about the wonderful local theater scene we have in Manila is that it’s in such a good place.
Many companies are writing original Filipino musicals and plays, and it’s exciting. You have shows like Rak of Aegis, Ang Huling El Bimbo, Charot, Mula Sa Buwan, and Musikal nAPO just to name a few. These are driving people into the theater because they can relate to the songs and the stories as Filipinos, not just as a general audience.
Companies are also staging their own excellent versions of international shows. This means that the talent in the country matches the talent you’d find anywhere else in the world.
When I started working in our company, there was this palpable sense of “us versus them.” But now I feel like we’re collaborating more. I’d like to think that all of us are working hand in hand to build more mature and discerning audience members.
Let me put on my PR hat while I discuss the one thing that needs to be improved: The response to criticism. Inviting critics to see your show means that you are opening yourself up to criticism. We’ve had our fair share of scathing reviews, as well as rave reviews—all of them we carefully read through and try to understand. It’s easy to get upset at bad reviews, especially if you’re on the inside and you’ve seen how much work was put into staging the show. Think of it like raising a child—you watch them grow up, protect them from the world as much as you can, then you send them to school, and they come back with a bad report card and a bruised ego. Your job now involves helping them process what went wrong, and if it was the school being unjust or the school being honest because they want your child to be better.
There are some critics who come out with reviews that you just have to read through then brush off, there will be others that are written because they want to help you get better.
What’s the most difficult thing about being in theater, about bringing foreign musicals into the country? Did you ever consider being part of a musical?
The most difficult? The hours. When I started, I didn’t think the hours would be this long! In college, being involved as a performer just meant coming in to rehearse and then performing and then you leave. As someone working in PR and marketing, its nights working overtime because the team you have to coordinate with is in another country, on a different time zone. Also, it’s quite a lot of time spent in front of a desk. We have to start working on a show months before we can even announce it to the public, so it’s paperwork and emails most days.
Another thing is trying to figure out the right price points for the tickets—the price has to be enough that it won’t leave us bankrupt (because it takes a lot of permits, shipping and various taxes to bring a show in) and leave the audience members’ wallets empty!
Have I ever considered being part of a musical? Not anymore! Those days are over!
What’s the most enduring lesson you have learned in doing theater?
Theater is all about collaboration and teamwork. You’re only as effective as the team you’re working with. You’ve got the cast and crew, the marketing team and the production team, the drivers and the riggers—it takes a village to put together a great show and keep it running.