Monique Wilson’s love affair with theater started when she was a mere three years old, after seeing a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Thirty-two years later, we see Monique as British governess Anna Leonowens, at the press conference for The King And I, last July 28, at the Newport Performing Arts Theater.
The King and I is a Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical classic being presented by Resorts World Manila.
In her long and applauded theater career, Monique has portrayed major characters in such productions as: The Sound of Music, The South Pacific, A Little Night Music, A Chorus Line, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Fiddler On The Roof...
Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, Zorba, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Nunsense, Les Laisons Dangereuses, The Real Thing, Little Shop of Horrors, and Lion In Winter, among many others.
By the age of 19, Monique had landed on the international scene, when she was chosen to play Kim in the original London production of Miss Saigon.
Three years later, she would come back to the Philippines to do films, recording, television shows, and concerts, for which she earned praise from critics and audiences.
To pursue her dream of completing her drama training, she returned to London to study classical acting at the London Academy of Dramatic Arts [LAMDA].
Roles she essayed while at LAMDA include: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Anne in Richard III, Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra, Marjorie in The Country Wife, and Vittoria in The White Devil.
Monique has performed in several straight and musical plays and has portrayed many big and small roles, but she admits that, today, she connects well with her Anna Leonowens’ character.
“Anna in the King and I is a very interesting character because she’s like an early feminist, because she's kind of awakening to women’s role in society. So, in that aspect I connect very much to her," says Monique.
THE KING AND I. This Rodgers and Hammerstein musical deals with the experiences of a British schoolteacher who is hired to become governess to the children of the King of Siam, as part of the monarchy's move to modernize the country.
The relationship between the King and Anna is marked by personal disagreements and cultural differences through much of the play, as well as by a love that neither one recognizes at first nor expresses for some time.
100-PERCENT FILIPINO CAST. The King and I production in Manila is composed of a 100-percent Filipino cast, which makes it quite exciting for Monique.
With gusto, the actress—who has many times shared the stage with a multi-racial cast—talks about how it feels to be working with an all-Filipino cast in a foreign musical.
“It’s amazing! The Filipinos talaga, they have heart.
"You don’t need to teach them to act with their emotions because they are emotionally available.
"They are open, and they have an innate understanding of how the heart works—and I think that’s what makes Filipino artists and Filipino shows unique.
"Because you just go along with that emotional journey, and that’s why you go to the theater—so you can get lost in that.”
Monique, who first honed her talents with Repertory Philippines, says up front that Filipino talent is "natural" and has "heart."
“We have good impulses. Very instinctive.
"One of our traits is we are beyond instinctive, we listen to our hearts.
"It’s gonna be fabulous because, in a way, you don’t have to over-think the show, because it kind of...it just comes out naturally."
If she has to pick an area that Filipino artists still need to work on, she says, "Of course, we have to work on things like discipline and training.”
Asked about her working relationship with the kids who play the King's children, Monique answers, excitement in her voice:
“The young ones kasi, we try to also teach examples to the young artists. Sila naman are like sponges, e.
"You just tell them, 'Okay, you know you have to listen to us. No making puyat! You have to eat and sleep properly.'
"They follow because they love it so much, just like us, when we were young. They just follow because they want it so much. That’s why, to me, it’s so moving!
"And I wish that more people would really support Filipino artists, because, you know, walang biro yung ginagawa namin on stage.
"Because for the young ones, nanggagaling pa 'yan sa school... Others, they come from different jobs.
"And to rehearse a show for two-and-a-half months, that’s a huge sacrifice!
"Even the parents of the children, they bring them every day, walang angal. No complaints.
"In fact, our rehearsal hall is so masaya!"
A TIMELESS MUSICAL. Like any good story, The King and I has lessons to teach.
Asked about these lessons, Monique says: “I think love and humanity transcend country and race, religion and time. I think that’s the beauty of a timeless piece like The King and I.
"That’s why it can be shown every year, and how... fifty, fifty years later.
"Because it really shows you that when the humanity is so deep, then you would be able to open up as people and actually connect with each other, as opposed to fighting each other.
"I think that’s very important in today’s world in particular, because now, it’s all about fighting. It’s all about you.
"Actually, this show shows you that you can harmonize. There can be harmony.”
It's a lesson, she says, that can be grasped by children.
“I think it’s the same if we teach love and humanity to young children. Actually, they have it e, tapos nawawala sa kanila when they get older, ‘coz, in a way, maybe the world teaches us to divide.
"So, I think, in particular the young kids even in our show, they teach us a lot. Because we are actually born with that. We only get conditioned otherwise when we get older.
"So, I think, the love and humanity aspect is very much what children do because that’s who they are. That’s the world they relate to."
PHYSICAL PREPARATION FOR MUSICALS. Theater goers will recall that, early this year, Monique returned to Manila to perform in The Vagina Monologues, written by Tony Award-winning playwright Eve Ensler.
The play showcases scenes from various parts of the world where women are disenfranchised and violated, but it also showcases how these women fight back.
It is a serious play with a serious advocacy to fight Violence Againt Women, a fight now so recognized around the world, it has come to its own acronym: VAW.
When asked about the difference between performing in a straight play like The Vagina Monologues and a musical like The King and I, Monique comments:
“I guess the main difference is that the musical is very demanding. A musical is like the Olympics of theater because you have to sing and act and dance all at the same time.
"So I think the only difference, may be...the preparation, the physical and mental preparation you have to do. For a musical is very tough.”
PEP asks how actors actually prepare for a long-running play like The King and I, especially when they have to perform nearly night after night.
Her answer may surprise many: the veteran Monique says she still attends workshops to improve her craft.
“I went back to singing lessons in London. You have to work out, you have to train, go to dance class.
"Ako, I do yoga. I run for stamina because the stage is so big. You need stamina, it’s no joke!
"You have to eat properly, you have to give quiet time to yourself, so you can really concentrate on the role.”
In addition, she says: “No partying, no socializing. You really have to be a monk. It’s a huge sacrifice!
"Because, siyempre, you want to see your family members, you want to see friends—but for three months, when you’re learning the show, you have to be almost in isolation.
"And even with your day job, you just have to get sleep and rest. Keep healthy!
"Kalaban kasi ng singers ang puyat. We have to sleep, like, nine hours a day to do it well.
"We can’t go out, we can’t be talking and talking.
"We have to do away with cigarette smoke. We basically have to keep ourselves fit enough to really give the demands of a musical.”
FROM LONDON TO MANILA. Before her latest return to Manila to appear in The King and I, Monique had been residing in London, where she has a day job: that of a teacher.
Monique is part of the faculty of the University of Essex, not far from London, where she handles acting classes at the university's East 15 Acting School.
“I am so thrilled to be here right now doing this. I have to secure permission for my annual thing," Monique says, referring to her teaching duties.
"Because I handle, like, fifty-five international students and they are postgraduates. So, it is quite a demanding thing I have to do in London.
"But it’s a theatre school. They say, 'You know what? It will be great for our school if one of our heads continues to act.'”
“So, they saw it as a great opportunity for me to be working on my acting because, you know what, you cannot teach and direct unless you go through it as an actor.
"So, I haven’t done a musical in six years in the Philippines. That’s why it's a kind of thrilling thing for me.
"Although I come back every now and then, to do the Vagina Monologues, a stage play, a musical is different!”
AN ARTIST, A FILIPINO. Since she has lived almost half her life in London, does this make her less Filipino?
“I was very young when I went to London for Miss Saigon. I was only nineteen and, you know, I guess you still don’t even know yourself at nineteen!
"So I guess when I went there, and I realized the people were so proud of us doing a show that was so world renowned, that was when I began to think: 'I am a Filipino artist.'
“I never realized that when I was growing up here. I just think that I am an actor, but never thought of myself as a Filipino artist.
"In relation to the world, I then had that reality, na ang galing pala talaga ng mga Pinoy.
"They look up to us. We have to be examples, we have to continue this, we have to return it to our country.
"That’s why if you have passion for teaching, we really have to bring back what we learned to the younger generation.
“But to me, it really is an awakening because I think the world cannot look up to us if we don’t look up to ourselves. We really have to remove this colonial mentality...
"Sorry to say, but the thing is, what’s great about the Philippines now is we’re having huge movement everywhere—in the arts, in everything...
“It’s really about empowerment. We have to be empowered as a people and as artists and not apologize all the time and not feel that we have to please other people. No!
"Our duty is to our country and the Filipino people.”
A WORD ON PINOY TALENT. Monique has insights into the world that awaits Filipino talents.
“We have to train and gain experience. The Pinoy’s kasi, we’re so talented, we can just do it—like that! It’s no joke.
"But sometimes it’s how we last in the business that counts.
"It's in the training. You have to learn your skills. You have to hone them. You have to go to class, workshops, you have to take lessons.
"You need to have humility because only humility can keep you learning. We’ve been in the business for so long, but every day is still a learning experience. Listen to your directors, don’t fight with them.”
For herself, she admits she still has dream roles out there to play.
“You know, I think because I’ve been in the theatre for so long, I’ve been acting for thirty-two years... I think my dream now is to create theatre and to do original Filipino work.
"I mean, I’d love to do a show on Gregoria de Jesus and all the revolutionary women, for example.
"I’d love to really highlight situations of current issues in the Philippines and create them into a show.
"Mahirap maging playwright sa Philippines, lalo na kung walang support. You need to nurture our writers, so we’ll have original work.
"And they need another kind of support because we have so many talented writers—but they have to earn a living.”
In the age of mainstream and indie films, how does she encourage people to watch a musical play like The King and I?
"I think people just need to have it in their psyche that it is just as worthy a medium as film, as concert, and yet it may be a little bit expensive.
"But you get much more than what you paid for.
"I have been part of the theater for thirty-two years and I am not shy to say how long I’ve been in theater.
“I’ve been acting for thirty-two years—please support theater and please support Filipino artists!
"It doesn’t take that much more of your time to bother to come and watch a show, and to maybe shell out a little bit more.
"But in the end, you will be building the industry and ensure its longevity in the future. Because, you know, kawawa tayo pag namatay ang teatro.
"We cannot allow it to die, so we have to support it!”
PEP agrees. Show your support for theater and Filipino artists!
Go catch Monique Wilson and the all-Filipino cast of The King and I. It starts September 15, 2012, at the Newport Performing Arts Theater in Resorts World Manila.
Tickets are available at Resorts World Manila and Ticketworld outlets.