This December the Office of International Advisement interviewed Regina De Vera for the Eye on Culture blog. Regina is a third year graduate student in the Drama Division from the Philippines. Continue on to read Regina’s career in the Philippines, her experiences as an actress at Juilliard, and her reflections as an international student and a woman of color in the United States.
Can you tell us about your first experience with acting and musicals?
I initially wanted to become a film actress because [of] watching Hollywood actresses in their beautiful gowns during awarding ceremonies. However, my entry point into the world of acting were mainly musicals, because that was what my high school drama club did a lot of. My earliest phases in my artistic journey consisted of an obsession with American Broadway musicals until I got bored trying to copy artistic choices from another culture and realized I wanted a process wherein I can actually create a character using my Self. That is why I transitioned into straight plays and Filipino translations/adaptations of Western work (mostly by playwrights like Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Brecht, etc.).
According to our sources, you were originally participated in a summer musical theater program in the Philippines, what prompted you to apply to this program?
You might be referring to the workshops I’ve attended from this theater company in Manila called “Repertory Philippines.” This company specializes in bringing American Broadway Musicals to the Manila Theater industry. Around 2004-2006, which was when I was in high school and stepped in[to] my “musical phase,” I decided to apply to this company’s summer workshops, because it was around that time that I dreamed to be on Broadway like Lea Salonga (the first Filipino to win a Best Actress Tony Award for Miss Saigon).
Earlier you mentioned how you moved away from American musicals because you wanted to develop more of yourself, how do you feel about the integration of American theatre culture in the Philippines?
American Theatre Culture has been a part of our history even before American Broadway Musicals became popular in the Philippines. We had sarsuwelas (our local version of the Spanish opera zarzuelas) that depicted our rebellion from American colonizers. We also had straight plays that were subversive against American colonizers but it was concealed in images so that the American forces will not put our theater practitioners in jail or censure the performances. All of these even before American Broadway Musicals became popular. American Broadway Musicals are still popular in the Philippines to this day. I am not against integration and I do not inhibit it. There is a plurality of choices in local Philippine theater for our audiences. As an individual artist, however, it was important to me to learn to eventually make something my own. I was not content to watch a dvd of a musical and copy all the artistic choices that the original cast made. I was not interested in that kind of training or process. I want to understand where something comes from so I can decide how I can process something or upend something.
Before attending Juilliard for your MFA, you had already established a career in the Philippines, why did you decide to continue your education?
Somewhere in the fourth year of my stint as a member of an acting company based at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, I felt I had hit a wall, a plateau or a desert not only in my career and artistic growth but also in my personal life. I realized that I needed a stronger foundation to build the next years of my adult life upon. I knew that I’ve always wanted to pursue graduate degree education in acting as soon as I first met Ana Valdes-Lim – the first Filipino to get into Juilliard Drama. After speaking to a trustworthy counselor, I realized that this period of plateau, of “nothingness” would give me time to get my life together and apply for graduate training in the United States.
Can you tell us what the theatre culture is like in the Philippines and in your hometown?
There are specific theatre cultures in different parts of Metro Manila depending on where each theater is situated. The theater company I was based on for five years (Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines), was very far from where I lived so I got to lead double lives. As a whole, it’s a very “choose your own adventure” kind of audience. There are Philippine theater companies who specialize in doing American Broadway Musicals, some in specifically English straight plays, some in devised work, some in more social-relevant theater, and the company I worked for did mostly Western work in translation and some socially-relevant and original Filipino work as well. We have a small number of consistent patrons who review shows in their blogs and we have our own industry award-giving body as well.
If you were to take a reader to your hometown with you, what is something that you think they must experience?
The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands and I wouldn’t necessarily want to take someone to my hometown since it’s a city and can get chaotic. Instead, I would love to take a reader to one of our provinces on a road trip with me because that’s where I can find what I love most about my country: the seas, the underground springs, the view of the mountains, etc.
The Philippines is a diverse place. Can you give our readers who do not know very much about this part of Southeast Asia more information about the culture and the atmosphere of the Philippines? And, could you tell us how this has affected your identity?
I cannot speak for the entire Philippines as it is very diverse (each region has its own dialect and culture, natural resources, etc.) but I have lived and navigated my way through predominantly Catholic communities. Religion was a big influence in my upbringing – my family went to church every Sunday and I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and a Jesuit University. It influenced how I thought about love, marriage, and morality, among other things about the human experience. It was theater that allowed me to step back from this way of thinking and expand my perception of humanity. Leaving home to pursue studies in another country and meeting people from different cultures and religions reinforced my perception of the largeness of humanity. I discovered that I did not have to subscribe to the beliefs that might have remained unquestioned had I not liberated myself from just one context or way of living.
Can you suggest a place where curious readers can learn more?
In your blog, you reflect on what it is to be a person of color in Juilliard’s drama division, could you tell us more about the impact you hope to make in the Juilliard Community? And what diversity looks like to you?
I feel as if the Drama Division of the Juilliard School is ahead in terms of how it commits to find opportunities for the least heard voices and stories to be heard. The way in which the Drama faculty treats me teaches me how I can treat myself in a more empowering way. I do get frustrated when outside of the Drama Division, people mistake me for a Music Student because there are far more Asian students in the Music Division while there are currently only 4 people of Asian descent in the Drama Division. I do hope that the way I conduct myself outside of the classroom, and in my work after graduating, would expand people’s notions of what a person who looks like me behaves, thinks and stands up for herself and what she wants.
You have used your skills as an actor to do work with UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Can you tell us how you became involved in this work? What this work means to you? And, what impact this work has on your community?
I became involved with this work primarily because the theater company I worked for teamed up with these organizations in order for us to be able to teach and share our work with communities in the provinces that were heavily affected by typhoon Haiyan, as well as those communities in cities with high rates of HIV cases. This was part of the mission of our theater company to do work that made an impact on Philippine communities. I embraced this work at the beginning but after a while I was doing this work at the expense of the work and the training that I truly wanted for myself. This was one of the reasons why I decided to leave this company after five years and pursue graduate training outside my home country.
What is some advice you would give to future international actors who hope to further their training at Juilliard?
I would steal a quote from actor Aziz Ansari (Master of None, Netflix), “You can do anything white people can do.” If you want to get further training then go ahead and apply to all the drama schools that you want to apply to. We do need more people of color to get into these programs to help reshape the film, TV and theater industry in the years to come.
From the pieces you have performed during your career so far, is there a favorite? Or, is there a piece you felt really attached to while performing and developing your character?
I don’t have favorites. I try to let go of the work once the duration it has in my life is over so I can allow space to grow and move forward. There were some key marker roles that shaped my career and artistic life. The first one was playing Portia in our adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice” which got me my first industry Best Actress Award. The second was playing the female lead superhero in a musical called “Manhid: The Pinoy Superhero Musical” that was based on Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” that gave me my first lead in a musical in one of the biggest theaters in Manila. The rehearsal process for that musical coincided with my auditions for Juilliard so that was quite memorable being that it coincided with another major moment in my journey. It was also the last major production I had in the Philippines before moving to New York City.
If you were to pursue a field other than acting, what would it be? Why?
There is no other field I would like to pursue to be honest. Acting encompasses a significant amount of things that I love about being alive: movement, language, song, breath, the divine, as well as a process that requires curiosity, empathy, the need to expand, and the willingness to not know. No other field combines all of this all at the same time.