“It’s great to dream big,” says Melbourne-born Pinoy actor Rowena Vilar, who started in classical ballet and got into musical theater by chance. Just five years into her musical theater career, Rowena has taken on the roles of Kim, Gigi, and Ellen in the Sydney production of Miss Saigon, performed with Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz, and is now playing her dream role as Anita in West Side Story, produced by Audie Gemora of Stages and directed by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.
Of course, getting there also has a lot to do with talent and discipline, which Rowena has much of. Her mom used to sing, she tells us, and her joining West Side Story came with a good recommendation from Miss Saigon co-actor Leo Valdez, who played the Engineer. During the media preview for West Side Story at the Meralco Theater, Rowena showed she was worthy of the recommendation and got some of the biggest applause from the audience.
After West Side Story, what’s next for Rowena? Let’s wait and find out. Life has a been a series of adventure for this talented Pinay, and Manila is just one of the many stops.
In this interview with Pinoycentric, Rowena talks about growing up Pinoy in Sydney and shares her best experiences working in Manila for West Side Story.
How do you like the experience of working with a Manila-based theater company? How is it different from working in Australia and especially for grander-scale productions?
I arrived August 2 and began rehearsals on the fourth. I loved working here right away! There is a certain “organized chaos” here in Manila that is quite thrilling. That’s how it felt when I first walked into rehearsals. I had no idea what was actually happening or how, but somehow it all works.
There are major differences between working in Manila and in Oz. Shows in Oz are so meticulously organized: stage management literally timing every second–they are required to carry stopwatches.
Rehearsals are scheduled meticulously. Dance numbers are cleaned so that every finger is in the right place and everyone is doing exactly the same thing. In addition, it is illegal not to give cast a break after 4 hours. Lateness is not tolerated unless it is a one-off occasion. However, regardless of why, pay is docked.
I could probably give you a list as long as your arm, but I won’t bore you. And although this may seem like a better way of doing things, I don’t necessarily agree.
I have come to learn that with the organized chaos that happens here in the Philippines, Filipinos have learnt a wonderful tool and that is being able to work under pressure.
Filipinos adapt so well under high-pressure circumstances and are able to do it with ease. I hope the more I work here, the more I too will learn this wonderful tool.
How was it like growing up Pinoy in Australia? Did your parents put in the extra effort to make you aware of your roots?
I am very Australian in some ways and also very Filipino. I have so many relatives in Australia and Filipino friends (over 40 first-degree relatives) that regardless of whether my parents tried to make me aware of my roots, there’s no way I could escape them anyway!
Food is the biggest Filipino factor. Us Filipinos love to eat and my family always cooked Filipino food.
Also, I can understand Bisaya perfectly as my parents would speak the language quite a lot. As for my fluency, well, that’s questionable, and so is my accent, but I love to try anyway!
Can you tell us how you got into theater? Is there anybody in the family with a theatrical/showbiz background?
Mum used to sing when she was younger, but she never did it professionally. However, I think she may have told me she came third in a competition on TV when she was younger.
I “fell” into musical theater. I was a classically trained ballet dancer for 8 to 10 years, quit for 7 years, then took it up again when I saw a friend of mine in a dance concert. After training hard in all dance types (blood, sweat, and tears), I auditioned for a series of shows, including a musical, and ended up getting the musical theater job (Queen’s We Will Rock You). I then became addicted and so continued with musicals.
I never thought I would ever do musical theater as I was mainly a dancer back then, but fate has a funny way of pushing you in the right direction–my life has always been a constant adventure!
|As Anita in West Side Story (Photo by Jeff Arcilla)|
People who watched you on West Side Story were impressed with your dancing, and now we know why.
I would have to say my classical ballet training has never left me. In every style, “lines” are so important. If you can hit the right ones, this is what makes it visually appealing.
Also, I am a perfectionist. The problem–or maybe it isn’t one?–is that I’m never ever fully satisfied with my performances. I’m always seeking a way to make it better, stronger, snappier. I know I can always do a better job. Honestly, I have not been totally satisfied with any of my performances yet. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
You’ve done a lot since you started in 2003, having been a part of large-scale, world-class productions like We Will Rock You and Miss Saigon, among others. Do you have a dream role? Is there a musical you’re really intent on doing, given the opportunity?
To tell you the truth, Anita is a dream role for anyone who is an actor/singer/dancer. The spectrum of emotional colors and what she represents in the show I can’t see matched by any other that comes to mind.
From outspoken fun, sexy “America” to the unconditional love in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” even after Maria betrays her, to the near-rape scene where she is a broken woman. I love the role.
The other role I would love to sink my teeth in more would be Kim from Miss Saigon. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a taste and feel that given the opportunity, I would love to take a bigger bite!
The West Side experience must have been a unique one for you. Can you share some of your most favorite memories from the show that you’ll take with you back to Sydney?
Well, firstly meeting [West Side Story female lead star] Joanna Ampil [was memorable]. I was so starstruck! She is now a dear friend of mine. I will always stay in touch with her and hopefully sing on the same stage as her again too!
Also meeting Lea Salonga! I’ve been so in awe of her since I was a teenager and now she even knows who I am! My friends are going to be sooooo jealous!
It’s hard to say what in particular is the most unique from the rest. I can’t really pick one as the whole thing has been a totally different experience from anything I’ve ever had!
Can you share one aspect about Rowena Vilar that hasn’t been written yet?
I’ll give you two. I am a huge animal lover and I looooove designer shoes. [Laughter]
Surely you’re missing Australia and the family. Did your parents come over to watch you in one of your performances?
I do miss Australia but not that much. I miss the people I love, but the place itself . . . not really. My parents came for opening night and stayed for two weeks. They missed only one of my performances.
Have you been able to do the tourist thing since you arrived in Manila? What places have you visited? How has the Manila experience enriched the Pinoy in you?
I’ve been to Boracay and Baguio. Beautiful! I think the food has enriched the Pinoy in me! [Laughter]. Well, really, there’s only one Pinoy restaurant in Sydney!
After West Side Story, what’s next for Rowena Vilar?
Well, I’m looking at a pop career here. I think it’s great to dream big! Nothing is concrete, but a few whispers have come up about some projects. I’m going back to Oz for a short while as I have some business to do there, but I’ll be back in no time!
I have a manager here (the famous Girlie Rodis) who is taking care of me. So hopefully next year the ball gets rolling and big things happen!No Tags