A Journey via Performance and Story: Once Upon a Time…
I was a star.
Building a Reputation
I recited poetry on stage, wore costumes and stole spotlights, sang and dance to win pageants, and strutted across stages.
In Grade 3, we had an assignment in Home Economics class to write and produce a story about cleanliness and respecting the environment. At home, I sat at the desk under our varnished wooden staircase and penned a screenplay. I distinctly remember stopping my mom (a teacher) who swept a cloud of dust past me to ask her the English expression for “paalisin” (as in, to drive away).
Public schools in the Philippines are largely administered in Filipino. Only English and maybe Math classes are taught in English. Although English is our official second language, majority of the Filipino population do not speak English fluently.
I differed from my peers in that respect. Well stocked in encyclopaedias, dictionaries, fairy tales and other sorts of books at home, I learned from an early age to scrawl my name in cursive letters, to conjugate my verbs, and to read at a level higher than my then-current grade level. I used my English speaking and writing skills whenever I had the chance despite getting teased for “being arrogant” by my friends. I risked another teasing session to write my Gr. 3 screenplay.
I composed a screenplay about a group of friends cleaning the school yard while joking and having fun. I directed the small production, cemented the acting, and I myself took on a smaller part in the play. We performed our project in the afternoon.
Something, something about one of the girls singing.
And one of the boys teasing her: “Good, keep singing! It drives away the mosquitoes.”
After our presentation, our Gr. 3 teacher asked who’d written the story and praised me for a job well done. Not only was she impressed by my having taken on the challenge to write the story in English, but for a well-written and well-executed production. Small as it was.
Ever since, my classmates ran to me whenever we were assigned acting projects.
When the Spotlight Hits You, You Perform
Although I could never really escape performance even after my family migrated to Canada (I once rapped my conjugated verbs in front of the class for a French assignment), I only returned to Drama full-time in Gr. 9 as an elective in high school. It was my very first class in my first year in high school as it was my first period in the first semester. It was nerve-racking to enter secondary school without any of my friends from elementary. I suspected Drama, which requires participants to be as open and outgoing as possible, would present a tough start to my secondary schooling.
My teacher, Mr. Maine, had prepared games for us to play. One of them included a punishment in which students had to do as he instructed, regardless how embarrassing the task may be.
Mr. Maine asked each student who was “it” (I can’t remember the game anymore) to sing I’m a Little Tea Pot while pretending to be underwater. When he got to me, I shyly answered that I didn’t know the lyrics to the children’s song. He demanded that I improvise.
I believe I didsomething like this: “Bur-bur-brrr-burrr-burr-burr-bur-brr-BBURRR…” while curling an arm at my side and extending the other.
I am a little shy, but I know that one critical quality of any individual who has ever stood or will ever stand on a stage is this: when the light shines on you and the eyes gaze at you, you shed the shame and you perform. I performed.
By Mr. Maine’s standards, I performed very well. I think actors possess a sharpness of mind and great depth to be able to improvise instantaneously and to draw out and successfully depict different characters. I like to think Mr. Maine saw those qualities in me.
Whatever other students might say about Mr. Maine, I will always remember him as the teacher who recognized my potential and my passion, and who, perhaps as only visible to me, was as penetrating as to be able to gauge and test what physical intelligence and intellectual quotient I had. He spontaneously asked me word definitions, asked my ideas on seemingly random subjects, and smirked when I shyly corrected a classmate on an answer to a question.
Before reaching the halfway point of the semester, the guidance councillor spoke to me and my parents. She convinced my parents to to take me to formally test my intelligence. I didn’t make the gifted category, but supposedly, I’m above average.
For the Christmas presentation, we had a play that encompassed various mini-plays. I asked to play smaller roles. Mr. Maine handed me the script for the host/main character’s role and insisted I start memorizing. I memorized. I even remixed a hip-hop version of Good King Wenceslas and rapped my own Sir Wenceslas version on stage.
Originals Written and Performed, and Imprinted on School History
Mr. Maine had a good enough opinion of me to recommend me to the Gr. 12 Drama teacher. I skipped Gr. 10 and 11 Drama for computer and guitar classes, but Mrs. Cossaro trusted my Gr. 9 teacher’s judgement enough to let me take her class regardless.
For our Christmas performance, open to other elementary and secondary schools, I suggested writing a story about a spoiled brat who’s forgotten the meaning of Christmas. Typical Christmas Story stuff. When asked where I got my idea and to elaborate on it, I told a quick anecdote on how I dramatically clawed at the car window glass when my parents steered us to church rather than the mall.
She asked me to write the story. With the help of my two classmates, I wrote and produced the school Christmas play. Before our first performance on the Christmas stage, Mr. Maine gathered us performers and said, “For the first time in a long time, we get to act out an original story thanks to one of our very own.” He never specified me, but it made me happy.
Later in class, we filmed ourselves doing monologues. I wrote a monologue from the perspective of a girl who laments her boyfriend’s death. According to my friend who later took the same Drama course, my teacher had kept my film and showed it as an example of the level of quality they should aspire to when writing and acting their own monologues. (Oh, and I won an award in Gr. 12 Drama for having the highest mark in class.)
My Roots are Showing
I don’t act anymore. I have no stage to stand on or audiences to wow. I’ve exchanged the spotlight for pen and paper. Through my journey with performance — be it reciting poetry, writing screenplays, starring in productions or dancing like Britney Spears — not only have I learned a lot about myself and developed skills, but I’ve also built my confidence. Most importantly, I think, my history with performance has had some hand in leading me to writing.
One of the biggest compliment I got about my book Opening the Lampshade was from my previous office’s superior. She kept my book in her purse at all times, and her parting advice to me when I left that work was this: “Never stop writing.” Interestingly enough, she also commented that my writing reminds her of a screenplay and that she hoped to see my writing in action on stage or in film someday.
What Art Means to Me
Some people doubt the power of arts, visual and performance. They are not just for aesthetics; they are not just components of a culture. Although these two are undoubtedly true, for me, performance arts is something even bigger than that: it’s opening up yourself to a thousand possibilities — from being a little teapot to Britney Spears — learning from each experience, and growing as an individual. It’s becoming more self-aware and learning to control yourself in a profound way. Performance arts is a story in motion, and did Thomas King not say that the truth about stories, is that’s all we are?
I’ve never quite talked about my earlier acting days to anyone,
so I thought it would be nice to share here on my website
the trek it took for me to be where I am now.
Not that where I am now is all that impressive…
but I’ve been alive for 21 years, and I’d like to think
I haven’t just been wasting oxygen.
P.s. I also drew. Wait for a lengthy and possibly just
as boring post and egotistical post on that.