To meet Monique Wilson is to see steel glinting beneath the silk. Her soft, sweet and warm demeanor belies a streak of determination and fearlessness that would make lesser mortals blanch.
Ms. Wilson has been performing on stage since she was 10 years old, when she played Molly in Repertory Philippines' "Annie," with Lea Salonga in the lead role. Since then, she's brought to life a formidable gallery of women characters on stage. Harper Pitt in "Angels in America." Maureen in "Rent." Sally Bowles in "Cabaret." Peron's mistress in "Evita." Maggie in "A Chorus Line." Rose Vibert in "Aspects of Love." And now, almost at the same time (a rare feat), Maria in Rep's "The Sound of Music" and several characters more in New Voice Company's production of Eve Ensler's "The Good Body."
At 36, this actress-singer-director-producer-teacher has also wowed the West End (as Kim in "Miss Saigon"), tucked two post-graduate degrees under her belt from London's most prestigious drama schools and established a theater company of her own known for its uncompromising repertoire. If things go her way, NVC will be playing in London soon, after its stints in Singapore, Japan and other Asian countries. Given Ms. Wilson's track record, who'd bet otherwise?
"The Sound of Music" marks your return to Rep after 17 years. What was your last Rep role before you left for "Miss Saigon?" "Little Shop of Horrors." I played Audrey.
What do you remember about the 1980 "Sound of Music?" Andami! We were a cast of only 15 people then, ngayon in the new show, the kids pa lang, 21 na! I remember we had so many super-fast costume changes. One time, because we were rushing backstage, Lea and I ended up wearing one shoe each of each other’s pair. Nagkabaligtad! Sikip na sikip ako with the shoe because Lea was of a smaller size. (Laughter)
I also remember Angela Adams, she was only five at that time. One day Tita Bibot [Amador] said, “Angela, why don’t you know your lines? I’m getting tired of waiting for you to learn your lines!” And Angela said, “Tita Bibot, I don’t know how to read yet eh!” Tawa kami ng tawa! Then Tita Bibot called us and said, “Lea and Monique, go there in the corner and teach Angela her lines!” And we’d teach her, because ipa-fire din daw siya! (Laughter)
You should see the video of our TV appearances. My mom taped all these shows. Kami ni Lea, red na red ang lips namin, kasi mga nanay namin backstage made sure we had lipstick on, but Menchu had no makeup! On TV! Talagang wala kaming alam that time!” (Laughter)
You all go back a long time... Yeah, we do! In "A Chorus Line," Menchu was Diana Morales, I was Maggie (the one who sang "At the Ballet"), Pinky Amador, Juno Henares, even Michael [Williams]--we were all in that show. In Rep's first "Chorus Line," Tita Baby [Barredo] was Maggie. In the second "Chorus Line," Juno was Maggie. In the third I was Maggie, and Juno was Cassie na! All our lives are so intertwined. In my very first Rep show, Juno was Grace Farrell and Lea was Annie! And Menchu and I both played Elaine Harper in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” with Audie Gemora as our Mortimer.
I understand you weren’t too keen about “The Sound of Music” in the beginning. What made you say yes? I had a moment of truth. Kasi as far back as “Man of La Mancha” last year, Menchu and I were already being asked to do “The Sound of Music.” In the beginning I was hesitant to do it, because I really wanted to get my foot back in London, to go back to my agent and teach again. I mean, I was living in London and I had no time to audition for anything there because I was always coming back here!
My moment of truth was, I felt that Tita Bibot and Tita Baby had said yes to me graciously, no dilly-dallying pa, for “The Vagina Monologues.” And, you know, we lost Tita Bibot just two years ago, and my dad also passed away just a month after. So I felt I wasn’t getting any younger, and really, what does it take out of my year to go back again for three months to Rep, which had served me for so long and trained me? And since we were part of the 1980 “The Sound of Music,” what better show is there to come back to?
How is it like doing a musical compared to a straight play? Oh, difficult! When you’re doing a musical, it’s like you have to sleep X number of hours for your stamina, you have to take voice lessons, go to the gym and take dance classes and aerobics. Doing a musical is like doing aerobics on stage. In fact, we do aerobics for our warm-ups.
And we have no life when we’re doing a show. We don’t go out, we can’t have a drink somewhere, nowhere where people are smoking. Extreme discipline. But if you have proper technique, the everyday rehearsals actually strengthen your voice.
You’re doing overlapping rehearsals now for “The Sound of Music” and for “The Good Body.” How do you manage that feat? I’ll tell you a secret: I’m enjoying “The Sound of Music” because I’m working with my peers at Rep and with the kids, and it’s a beautiful musical. But when I go to rehearsals for “The Good Body,” this is where, iba talaga ‘yung feeling when you’re handling text like that, it just wakes up something in me... Swerte ako ngayon! I feel really blessed. Can you imagine being given this opportunity--two great parts in two great productions, and working with great people who I grew up with? I mean, what more can one ask for?
What's the last show you saw in London before coming over? “Wicked," which just opened. I love it, Idina Menzel is fabulous! Nine shows a week and no understudy!
What’s the one theater production that has stuck in your mind until now? Not very long ago I saw “Mary Stuart,” a Donmar Warehouse production, and it was pretty amazing. I’m really more attracted to non-musicals, like “Don Carlos,” a Spanish play done by another theater group in the National Theater, and also “House of Bernarda Alba.” What’s great about classically-trained British actors, they’re so deep and multi-dimensional in the way they attack their roles--not caricaturish or superficial. And their voices are not amplified! They don’t use mikes, just their natural voice projection.
How do Filipino actors measure up against Western talent? Filipinos have natural talent, that’s for sure. We’re a lot more emotional creatures, we wear our hearts on our sleeve and we can access our emotions very quick. But we lack discipline and focus, and we also lack a process or a procedure of working, which is part of the discipline. So many of us become one-show wonders. We know we can do it just like that, but to be able to sustain it is another matter. Dito kasi, some Filipino actors think 20 performances is a long run na. What happens if you’re doing a year, 8 shows a week? You need to be fresh each night, it has to be like opening night every time.
But, you see, what I teach in London, you’re just teaching them how to access their emotions, because they’re so repressed and they’re much more stoic. But once they learn that, it becomes a technique that they can just call upon forever.
With us Pinoys, unless we train, natural talent gets burned out or defused, or it cannot get replicated each night. Discipline is where I think we’re weak at. But natural talent, we’re far superior in some cases to people in the West, because we’re open and very giving.
Is NVC slowing down? The number of productions decreased this year. No, we just wanted to go back to our roots. For two years we did musicals, which in a way was a great experience because it stretched us in so many ways. But it sort of took us away from where we used to be when we did “The Vagina Monologues”--you know, advocacy theater, much more transformative, far-reaching and mobile theater that you can tour around so you can reach more people. So now we’re going back to where we are most rooted, to what defines us. Kasi it’s so easy to go mainstream, baka makalimutan na namin what we set out to do in the first place.
How do you see now your brief foray into local films? Let’s put it this way: I’m thankful for the experience, because I learned so much, even about myself.
So when you look at the time when Viva tried to-- I don’t look at myself! I can’t! (Laughter) Really, I made many mistakes in my career outside theater, but it was okay, because you also get to know where you’re good at.
But you did win a Best Supporting Actress award for “Laro sa Baga.” That was because I was in the hands of a capable director, Chito Rono. I’ve had very good, challenging directors in Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Joel Lamangan. Other than that... Celso Ad Castillo was also a very good director artistically and visually, but he just didn’t seem to know how to guide me, and I was very new in the film industry then. The whole experience of “Kapag Iginuhit ang Hatol ng Puso” was so dreadful! (Laughter)
You also did a movie with Robin Padilla, right? Yes, “Bad Boy 2.” That was traumatic in itself, because that’s when Robin got busted. So my first experience with film, ang gulo-gulo. It was also an action film, so I was so out of my depth! (Laughter)
What’s your greatest learning from that experience? That I would rather do theater! (Laughter) Or, rephrase: That my bigger passion lies in theater.
Fame, or being a celebrity, is secondary to me. To me, what really matters more is the work, what would give me artistic fulfillment. Now, I’d choose very wisely who my film and TV directors would be, if I do get offered another role.
You also did Maria Clara in Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Noli” and “Fili” under Nonon Padilla. How was it like doing a Tagalog production? It was great. I learned a lot from Nonon in terms of piecing something together visually, and of course to work on such a great epic piece that was our own, it brought out a different kind of sentiment in you. Even if you do “Les Miserables" or "Cabaret,” iba pa rin talaga when you’re doing something so close to your own origins. And Ryan’s [Cayabyab] music was beautiful.
I also did one other Filipino play with PETA. What I loved naman about that was, sobrang political ang mga taga-PETA. I loved it, I thrived in it. I made so many friends there.
What do you think of political or ideological theater? What I’ve learned from our own experience at New Voice is that, if you’re so political and you have a political agenda, minsan you may end up forgetting the aesthetics, the craft of theater. My whole dissertation was about this, that the two have to meet. You cannot be successful in your advocacy if your aesthetics is not of the highest standard.
Are you happy with the way Philippine theater is going? Well, we're still struggling. I can’t say that enough. We don’t get as much exposure or recognition; there’s still too much focus on film and TV celebrities. But I think Philippine theater is pretty amazing, too, because we’re so resilient! We’re the only ones who are surviving when the film industry is dead. Kasi, we’ve never had it good. We’ve never had support, we’re used to hardship, so we just continue. Whether times are good or bad, we’re still here.
But this is what I’d like people to see: Maybe now it’s time naman to focus on Philippine theater, to see that the very same thing you’re proud of us for, which is that you exported us all for “Miss Saigon,” etc., is the very same talent and resources you have here, now. So why can’t we enjoy that same kind of support?
Do you still have a dream role? Yes, I’d really like to tackle the classics: Cleopatra, Medea, mostly Greek and Shakespearean characters. Or even Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg. Kami, if you ask me--tomorrow, if I have money, I’ll produce and act in these things. But who’s going to watch us here? That’s always been the case. (Laughter)
What’s the best lesson you learned from Bibot Amador? To work very hard and love your work. If that’s your guiding philosophy, you’d be good.
In 1995, TP's "El Filibusterismo" (music by Ryan Cayabyab, libretto by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera) was performed in Japan, with Ms. Wilson playing Maria Clara. A Japanese record producer, Kaz Ishikawa, was so enthralled with her voice that he invited her to record a CD of Gershwin songs under his label, MusicScape. The result was "Monique Sings Gershwin," a beautifully packaged collection of 16 timeless standards that showcases Ms. Wilson's pristine pipes and dramatic way with song. The CD is not available commercially. To order, call NVC 8966695/8965497.
Here is Ms. Wilson singing a lovely, wistful version of "Someone to Watch Over Me."