Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo looks back at her many roles on stage and off, memorable female characters, and the upcoming “The Band’s Visit”.
Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo is in a unique position. With the prowess to perform leadership roles– co-Artistic Director of Resorts World Manila’s Full House Theater Company and president of Resorts World Manila’s Original Pilipino Performing Arts (OPPA), a foundation that gives full scholarships to performing arts students– she also continues to play some of the most iconic roles written for women in theater today.
Lauchengco-Yulo was part of the earlier batches of actors who joined Repertory Philippines in the 70s. Since then, she has done numerous roles, onstage and off, as actor and director, in foreign and original work, in musicals and plays, for different theater companies, building a four-decade long resume that has made her a pillar in the local theater industry.
Now, she is rehearsing for yet another leading role– Dina in Atlantis Theatrical’s staging of The Band’s Visit. Her last role with the company was playing Margaret White in Carrie in 2013.
In this exclusive interview, we ask her what it’s like growing up in Manila’s theater industry, as she took on her many roles in the theater.
You’ve mentioned that you got the theater bug when you first saw your brother perform in REP’s The King and I. What was it about that experience that pushed you to pursue theater?
I had auditioned for Rep’s The King and I, as well, in 1977. At the time I was 15 years old. I had no idea what theater was but I knew the The King and I movie. Unfortunately, at 15, I was too old to be one of the Siamese children and too young to be one of the wives of the King. So long story short, I didn’t get in. My brother Raymond was cast as Louis Leonowens, Ana’s son. When opening night came and I sat in the theater; the lights dimmed, the orchestra played, and the curtain rose, I fell in love with the whole experience.
I was transported into a different world for 3 hours. I laughed, I cried, and I realized how theater can transform a person. It certainly transformed me. I knew then it was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
You were one of the earlier batches of actors in REP. What was it like to be performing in the theater then? What was the industry like?
In terms of work and dedication, REP in the late 70’s and early 80’s remains unchanged. The only difference was, we were a much smaller group of actors. Back then, we couldn’t really sustain a long run. Audiences were not very large. But the audiences that watched were dedicated theater-goers. Joy Virata [Founder and Creative Director of the Repertory Theater for Young Audiences] did a lot in terms of audience development for Repertory.
The advantage though was because runs were not long, it allowed REP to do more shows in a year. So unlike today, where REP has a season of 3 plays, 1 children’s theater production and 1 big musical, we had 2 seasons of 5 plays and a big musical. That’s how we got our training.
Can you describe how the industry and how the audience has changed since you started?
The industry has grown so much, especially after Miss Saigon, which created a major awareness for it. Also a lot of REP “graduates” have gone on to form their own theater companies. When I started theater, to my recollection, there was only really Repertory Philippines and PETA. Now there are so many; AAI, New Voice, 9 Works, Stages, Atlantis, Gantimpala, Tanghalan Pilipino, Upstart etc. Theatre summer courses provided by these theater groups have inspired so many kids and teenagers to join and experience theater.
You were also one of the earlier women who started directing productions, the first being West Side Story in 2008. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer?
I come from a long legacy of Women Theater Directors. In REP, Zenaida Amador, Baby Barredo, and Becca Godinez directed many shows before me. I think what each person brings is a sense of style and attack that is unique to them.
I like stylized staging. I like to think out of the box. That’s always my challenge. My approach to (2012 REP) Jekyll and Hyde reflects this. I set the entire musical in a Victorian operating room setting. It allowed me to push the show on a different level. Actually, I am very proud to say that news of my staging reached Frank Wilhorn, the composer of the musical. He was so pleased with the feedback that he offered to collaborate with me if I decide to do more of his musicals. Sadly, I never got the chance to do that.
My staging of Little Women also got me feedback from Mindi Dickstein, the lyricist of the musical, congratulating me on my staging. It’s also funny and flattering that my staging and set designs have been copied by several school productions abroad. My set designer for both shows was Joey Mendoza. I love working with him because we think alike.
You’re currently the co-artistic director of Full House Theater Company while still playing lead lady roles for different companies. What is it like juggling both roles, helping create original OPM musicals while starring in contemporary musicals?
Being Artistic Director for Full House Theater is always my priority. As long as outside musicals I perform in don’t interfere with my duties with Full House, then it works out.
More than the logistical aspect though, what is that process like, of helping create new work versus making characters your own in an original or a Broadway piece?
The process is very different. When you do a Broadway or West End piece, the focus is really more on the staging and characterization. The material has been tested abroad and the licensing rights don’t allow you to change anything in the script without permission. Whereas an original piece gives you that freedom. You are part of the entire process, from conception, to the writing, to the workshop, until it opens. And the work doesn’t end there. You continue improving on it based on audience responses. You can cut what doesn’t work and add whatever is needed to make the narrative clearer.
You’re starring in an Atlantis production again after so many years, what is it about Dina in The Band’s Visit that you can relate with?
She has been through a lot in her life, and so have I. But I like that she is still hopeful and open to possibilities.
Can you tell us more about the character and her role in the musical?
Dina, like any other person, had dreams and ambitions in her youth. She was a dancer, but chose love over career. A hopeless romantic, she thought that marriage was the answer to fulfilment and happiness. Unfortunately for Dina, it didn’t really work out and she just settled into a life that was not exactly what she had hoped for.
But even if she settled with the life she made for herself, she never gave up the hope of finding someone that could sweep her off her feet. She loves Arabian movies. She is in love with Omar Sharif. She loves the mystery he represents, which she finds in the character of Tewfiq. She becomes totally enamoured with the idea of him being a conductor of an orchestra and working with music.
What do you think will make Filipino audiences connect with The Band’s Visit?
The Band’s Visit is about hope and perseverance. Everybody needs that, especially now. It’s also about how music brings people together. It doesn’t matter what your race is, beliefs, or practices are. Music is a universal language.
You’ve tackled many, many different roles in the last four decades; leading women in classical as well as contemporary musicals and plays. Which one/s do you consider as your most memorable roles?
My most memorable are Diana in Next to Normal (Atlantis Theatrical), Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd (REP), Fosca in Passion (REP), Nora in A Doll’s House Part 2 (Red Turnip Theater) and Eva Peron in Evita (REP).
What was it about these characters that made a mark on you?
I love a challenge, and all these characters pose a high degree of difficulty. I love doing roles that are far from who I really am. I love creating roles that are so out of the box like Mrs. Lovett. I like to think of how I can make my approach different from all the others who’ve done the role. Lovett is such a strong character. But I wanted to create a Lovett that audiences could sympathize with and understand her motivations. I didn’t want her to just be seen as a manipulative, bad person.
Evita tested me vocally. I trained for 5 months with a vocal coach just to be able to “safely” sing the score and not strain my vocal cords. I think it’s one of the most difficult singing roles for a female.
Fosca and Diana both having medical issues, had me doing a lot of research. Fosca was a woman obsessed with love and being loved. Passion is a musical that tells the story of conditional love versus unconditional love. It was a very thin line between coming off too needy and self-indulgent, and displaying a deep and unselfish love.
Diana was obsessed with what happened to her baby son, and just couldn’t recover from it. Everyone around her believed that forgetting was the key to clarity. But really the key to recovery was accepting the truth, and letting go. Both roles are about obsession and depression in different ways. The journey and process of discovering and connecting to these characters brought me to very dark places. It was a difficult process.
Do you think it’s an advantage for an artist to play so many different roles in shorter runs compared to fewer roles with longer runs, like how one would experience abroad?
Both have advantages. On the one hand, a longer run gives you time to settle into the character. You discover so many aspects about the character that you may not have realized early on because you were preoccupied with memory, staging etc. On the other hand, a short run allows you to delve into other shows. Therefore, you can do so much more work.
I remember when I auditioned for Miss Saigon Manila, they were surprised by my resume. They couldn’t believe I had done so many roles. Everything from soprano roles like Maria in West Side Story, Guinevere in Camelot, Johanna in Sweeney Todd, and belting parts like Eva Peron in Evita, Nancy in Oliver, and Fantine in Les Miserables.
Do you still have a dream role and/or a production you’d like to direct?
I would love to do Mama Rose in Gypsy and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. There are several plays I would like to do as well. Too many to name. I would love to direct The Elephant Man and Pippin.
Are there any other people that you’d still like to collaborate with that you haven’t had a chance to yet?
I am getting a chance to do that now. I wanted to work with [Atlantis Theatrical’s Artistic Director] Bobby Garcia and got that opportunity when he asked me to do Proof. We have since become good friends, and I have gotten to do many shows with Atlantis. I have collaborated with Dexter Santos which was an amazing experience. I learned so much from him and I know we will still do projects in the future. I’m collaborating now with Maribel Legarda for Bongga Ka Day, and I am enjoying the pre-production phase. We don’t start rehearsals until May. I would also love to work with Floy Quintos as a director on a play or musical. Just throwing it out there!
With the rise of many different theater companies, do you think having a career in theater is more sustainable now? Or is it all the more competitive?
Yes, definitely. You can now survive just working in the theater. We’ve come a long way baby!