Happy New Year!
We’re kicking off 2020 with a fresh batch of Fellows Spotlights featuring the 2019-2020 DGF Fellows!
Each month we’ll feature a new fellow and invite you to take a behind-the-scenes look at our Fellows program.
We’ll be hearing from all our 2019-2020 Fellows: Andrew Rincón, Andy Roninson, Avi Amon, Elliah Heifetz, Jessica Kahkoska, Kate Douglas, Kyoung H. Park, Melis Aker, Nikhil Mahapatra, Nolan Doran, and Paulo K Tiról.
Each of these writers were asked the same series of questions, exploring where these writers have been, are now, and are journeying towards. Our Fellows took this gentle structure and ran, each submitting responses as unique and creative as they are.
We’re thrilled to introduce you to Paulo K Tiról.
What was your first experience with theater?
There wasn’t a lot of musical theatre in Manila, where I grew up; but when I was four or five, my parents were determined to expose me to it. They relentlessly played original cast recordings and rented movie adaptations of the great classics, and brought me to what few productions of western musical theatre were being staged. And I resisted it. I dismissed it as “boring, old people music” — even falling asleep during a local production of “My Fair Lady”. (The one exception was the movie version of “Annie”, which, to my brother’s dismay, I watched repeatedly on video and sang non-stop, word for word, from memory.)
Things changed with “Miss Saigon”. Like many Filipinos living in Manila during the late 80’s, I was enthralled by news features about Lea Salonga and the many other Filipinos who were headed somewhere called “The West End”, and the sweeping, melodramatic selections that played over and over on mainstream radio. I was hooked. There still wasn’t a lot of musical theatre in Manila, but I consumed all I could. I got season tickets to the the local theatre company that staged western work; bought every cast recording I could find in Manila and on trips to Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States; and even ordered bootleg reproductions of cast recordings and filmed-from-stage videos from a shady little store which has since closed.
When did you decide to become a writer? Is there a writer, show, or piece of writing that was particularly influential on your path?
I’ve been writing all my life: short stories, journalistic news and features, essays, and eventually, songs. But even when I started writing songs, it wasn’t for musical theatre: it was choral inspirational / liturgical music for a semi-professional group I was with in Manila. Musical theatre writing never even crossed my mind; being a self-taught musician, I wasn’t confident in my composing ability, and with the Manila’s relatively small, resource-constrained theatre scene in the 90s and 2000s, new work wasn’t a thing. (Interestingly, people would remark at the theatricality and drama of my inspirational-liturgical writing.)
There’s no particular writer, show, or piece of writing that I can cite as influential; but I can attribute my entry into musical theatre writing to a professor I had, Michael Wartofsky. In 2012, after over 12 years as a corporate professional and choral composer, I left Manila and moved to Boston to get my first formal music education at Berklee. I enrolled for songwriting courses and was horribly insecure about being a church musician in a school of insanely talented pop, rock, R&B and jazz kids. But my professors made me believe I had what it took, most influential among whom was Michael Wartofsky, with whom I studied musical theatre writing for two semesters before he helped me get a slot and a full scholarship to the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU Tisch.
How do you describe your work overall? What sets your work apart?
I write Filipino-American stories and characters in a way that I hope speaks to audiences of all backgrounds, by exploring themes that are universal through a frame that just happens to be Filipino-American.
I believe two things set me apart. First, as one of very few Filipino-American musical theater writers in the United States, I’m one of very few telling stories of this community. Second, I came to musical theatre writing relatively late (in my mid 30s), from a non-music, non-theatre background. My first bachelor’s degree was in Communication; I worked in Manila’s corporate sector for over 12 years; I was never in the theatre scene; I was largely a self-taught musician; and my songwriting for 17 years was liturgical and choral. Even when I left corporate life behind and started on a second bachelor’s degree at Berklee in my early 30s, my major was music therapy. As a result of my being self-taught, my music is more intuitive than theoretical; my liturgical music background gives my writing an honesty and earnestness, even a spirituality; my corporate past gives me a certain work ethic and attention to detail; and the time I spent outside of theatre lets me to bring into it a “real world” view.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been developing as a Fellow?
I’m working on the book, music and lyrics for “Called”, an original musical set in a Manila-based call center of an American credit card company, where Filipino call center agents pretend to have American names, speak with American accents, work at an American address, and function in an American time zone, as they pretend to happily serve American callers. At the center of the show is Carmela, the ambitious, overachieving star agent on the verge of achieving her long-time dream of moving to the United States; and her relationship with Nelson, an elderly widower calling from North Dakota who threatens Carmela’s plans when he realizes she’s Filipino and asks her to be his friend. Over five days, Carmela navigates the rules of the call center to comply with Nelson’s request; but in doing so, also confronts isolation, identity, and all that she has given up to achieve her American dream.
I started writing “Called” in 2015, and for a long time was afraid it would be too foreign and specific for it to speak to American audiences. But with the positive reception I got at a presentation of an excerpt in Musical Theatre Factory’s 4X15 series in 2018, and my admission into the DGF Fellows program through “Called” and the response I’ve gotten to it in the program so far, I’m encouraged that this is a story worth telling. I’m proud and grateful to be a Filipino telling Filipino stories in a program as prestigious as DGF Fellows.
What do you find most rewarding about your work as a writer?
I have two favorite moments as a musical theatre writer.
The first is when I put my writing into the hands of my collaborators — actors, directors, music directors, choreographers, designers. This step in the process used to be absolutely terrifying — who knows if my work makes sense, what if they don’t like it? — but I’ve learned to look forward to the way artists from other theatre disciplines interpret and add to the work, including letting me know it’s not quite working and giving me a sense of how to make it better. What a thrill now when the work ceases to feel like something that’s my own, but rather, something which has been nurtured and grown by a whole family. It helps that I’ve been gifted with collaborators I deeply respect, who believe in creating exceptional art and building a joyous, supportive community at the same time.
The second is when I know my work has made an impact on an audience member’s life. It’s been edifying for Filipino immigrants and first generation Filipino-Americans to come up to me after my shows and say with gratitude and astonishment: “These are our stories!” It’s the power of representation in theatre made very real. And on the other hand, I’ve had non-Filipino immigrants, and individuals who’s families have been in the United States for generation — tell me they’ve been moved by the broader, more universal themes that I write into my stories and characters.
Do you have any upcoming work you’d like to share?
YES! On February 3 and 4, Prospect Theater Co. is producing a concert staging of “On This Side of the World” as part of its IGNITE concert series. “On This Side of the World” is a song cycle I wrote inspired by the Filipino immigrant experience in the United States, and we’re so excited to be reuniting the phenomenal cast we had at our sold-out two-week workshop production in May 2019. Tickets are available here!
Follow @DGFound on Twitter for further announcements regarding this exciting new work!