Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Manila & Xi'an Summary

So I'm writing this during/after my last drunken night in Xi'an, China. S'been awhile - apologies - I've just had some serious drinking to do. ;)

Final thoughts on Manila before I move on to Xi'an: the Philippines was an amazing experience. Since I left y'all last, I went to Pagsanjan Falls (where they filmed the famous helicopter scene in "Apocalypse Now"), Lake Taal (where the shortest volcano in the world at 3/4 mile above sea level lies within a lake within an island within a lake within an island - you heard me), and closed our show in Manila. Audiences in Manila were fantastic, but I have to admit I was more than ready to leave when the time came.

I'd started to develop some kind of guilt complex due to the inescapable poverty enveloping this country. The majority of the population lives well below the poverty line, and after not being able to leave my front door without someone begging for money everyday, after countless bus rides to the theatre and seeing women washing their babies by the freeway in buckets, and countless families sleeping under street lamps and paint tarpaulins, I began to feel almost as helpless as they because I had no idea what to do about it. I'd been warned not to give money to anyone because of a huge crime syndicate that would take whatever you gave, so the little bit I might have been able to spare would have been feeding the problem, rather than helping any sick child begging for it. It was heartbreaking, and quite frustrating, to say the least. The Philippines has so much potential, and unfortunately seems somewhat crippled by it's own people.

Not to say it was all bad. I met some amazing people while I was there, many of which I hope to know again someday. My dresser, Ellen, was a widower and single mother, raising a daughter on her own who hopes to be an architect one day. I have great respect for single moms in the US - I've no idea how any of them manage - but Ellen honestly blows my mind for being able to do it under what seem to me like impossible circumstances. (And she's one of the loveliest people I've ever met in my life - commuting an hour and a half each way on a bus to do our show, and always ready to work VERY HARD while never lacking a smile or an easy laugh.) I miss her a lot. I also met 2 women in our hotel lobby one night - regulars, I thought - who invited me to dinner and spent several evenings talking and sharing with me a more intimate viewpoint on life in Manila. I found out later on they were prostitutes, and I'm proud to say this had no effect on our friendship. Having experienced the little bit I did of life in the Philippines, I have to say I don't know how any single/widowed/divorced mother (or woman, period) could support any kind of life for herself or her children without SEVERAL sources of income.

In short, life appears to be incredibly difficult for most people in the Philippines. But you'd never know it from the wonderfully warm and generous people that populate it.

On to Xi'an: this is now my last night in Xi'an; we leave for Zhengzhou tomorrow. My first experience in China has also been a bit of a shock, but mostly because of how strange it HASN'T been. I get a few stares here and there, but it only took a day or so to realize it's mostly curiosity and not any kind of judgement or rudeness on their part.

Xi'an is absolutely beautiful. It's a city of 8 million - not small by any standard - but very VERY clean and laid out in such a way as to seemingly include the land it's built upon. There's trees and parks and water everywhere, and the city has made a concerted effort to maintain the architectural theme of the Tang Dynasty. It's the first capital of China, and served as such for 7 Dynasties. Today it's considered the artistic and cultural center of China, offering hundreds of Universities and the 8th wonder of the world, the Terra Cotta Army less than 45 minutes away.

The people are much warmer than I expected. I think some of the US propaganda against communism had colored my expectations; even though China is no longer communist, technically, I can't imagine this place was ever as stark and barren as I was ignorant enough to be led to believe. There are a few buildings (unsurprisingly mostly government buildings) that fit the pictures in my head before I came, but they are the exception and definitely not the rule. Older generations still seem to be somewhat reserved and formal, but everyone I've interacted with for any length of time and especially children have been quite warm and welcoming, and while the language barrier has been difficult, I'm usually the one ready to throw the towel in before they are.

A couple of my castmates and I went into a Chinese-Tibetan restaurant and even had the manager/owner, who spoke maybe 2 words of English, invite us up to his shrine and show us how to honor the Buddha. He made us a traditional Chinese tea and with the help of his assistant (who spoke just barely a bit more English), we struggled through 2 and a half hours of conversation, tea, and apple slices. We tried to explain what we were doing here, but musical theatre appears to be very much a Western thing; they understood singing, acting, and dancing, but they never seemed to grasp that we did all these things in-one. I wish they could have come see our show, but we were never successful enough in our communication to tell them how, when and where to come see us. (Would have been nice to have a couple fliers printed in Mandarin!)

I've TONS of pictures of all my adventures - I've gotten so much better now! Uploading to websites is kinda' time-consuming, though, so I'm just uploading them to Facebook now. Shoot me an email if you're not my "friend" on Facebook and I'll send you a link to the albums.

I got the program Rosetta Stone for Mandarin; at this point in time, I know how to say "little boy", "little girl", "man", "woman", "car", "plane", "horse", "elephant", "dog", "cat", and maybe "with" and "under". I've also picked up "hello", "thank you", "how much is this?", and "see you tomorrow" and "see you next year" accidentally by mispronouncing the word for "tomorrow" one time. Round of drinks on me to whoever can make a sentence out of any of these words. :)

G'night for now. I used to know the Mandarin for "bye-bye", but it escapes me now. More later - MUCH more, I'm sure - I've got a week off after Zhengshou, and my bank account will no longer put up with all the spending I've been doing here, so I should have plenty of time on my hands very shortly! ;)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Manila - Week 7 Update (Opening Night & Misc)

OK, I apologize in advance for how long this is going to be. I really should write more often so they're not so long, but hey, YOU find time to sit at a computer everyday when there's so much to do in a whole other country! :)

Just a few quick catch-you-ups: we opened last Friday and have had fabulous response; reviews are great, blogs are even better, and audience response is unbelievable. I had my first experience in dealing with the paparazzi - kinda' fun, but more strange and awkward than anything else. I met Imelda Marcos. Yes, THE Imelda Marcos. Unfortunately didn't have the presence of mind to memorialize the moment with a photo; really gotta' just start taking that camera EVERYWHERE! Have done 2 appearances on what I think is the Filipino equivalent of "The Today Show" or "Good Morning, America". Surprisingly fun. Have met quite a few people now, and if I could know that I'd work as much here as I do in NYC, I could quite easily move to Manila just because of how much I adore everyone I meet and am working with.

So that's where I'm at now. We've got a few weeks left in Manila, opening week is done and press stuff should get lighter, so I'm looking forward to getting out and about now. I'm going to hike a volcano on Monday - promise to take pics - and hope to make it to one of the other islands, Boracay, before we leave. It's kind of expensive, but everyone I talk to says the beaches are just amazing; white sand and crystal clear waters.

Hotel life suits me (I'd always suspected!) - but I am getting a little tired of room service now. I've got much more time now to get out and about for food, though, so I'm looking forward to being a little more adventurous with my choices. A lot of people in the cast have gotten sick already (stomach issues, vomiting, etc.) and there have been a lot of food poisoning claims. So far, I've managed to avoid any problems whatsoever and I hope to keep it that way! Balut is still on my list of things to try, though . . .

I continue losing more than I win at poker, but the company is so pleasant I just don't care. It's getting quite popular among the cast, too; we started with a handful of people that's maxed out at about 15 people, I think. We're running out of chairs and room for everybody in one hotel room!

I finally went out a few nights ago. I've had a few drinks in the lobby bar but haven't really had a night out anywhere since I've been here (other than for dinner - not for fun, really). I hate to generalize a whole people, but it's been my experience that Filipinos have this tendency that I've come to truly appreciate: they seem to recognize what's best about something and then just put it all together in one place with the best of several other (sometimes unrelated) things. This is true of their architecture and interior design (you can clearly see Spanish, Chinese, and Muslim influences, often all in the same building!), their music (the lobby lounge singer and her jazz trio one night went from the standard "Fly Me to the Moon" directly into a version of "Umbrella" that actually improved on Rihanna's, in my opinion), and also true apparently of their bars. There's a LOT of karaoke and videoke bars around (not sure what the difference is, I'm not big into any kind of 'oke), but we all went out to play some pool at this place called "Elbow Room" and discovered it had karaoke/videoke, billiards, a bar, a DJ, and a dance floor - a one-stop party place. Totally loved it, and hope to go back, or at least to that mall.

Everything is in a mall here, I've found. You could be driving for half a mile past nothing but palm trees, then come across this mass of concrete with many, MANY little stores, restaurants, clubs, etc. all clustered together like they're afraid of open spaces. Manila also has the 3rd largest mall in Asia - the Mall of Asia. I hate malls, and have avoided it thus far, but since malls are where everything IS, I'm sure that won't last much longer. I want to see "Dark Knight" on IMAX, so it might even be as soon as next Tuesday! :) Besides the IMAX screen and hundreds of stores tempting my money away from me, I guess the Mall of Asia also has an ice-skating rink. Anything with an ice-skating rink can't be ALL bad, right? :)

So that's it for now. Magandang umaga (good morning) and bye for now, dear friends.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Manila - Misc Pics . . . FINALLY!

OK, so this is our cast on the bus on the way to rehearsal:

This is our cast realizing they apparently didn't pose hard enough for the first photo op on the bus to rehearsal:

This is everyone turning their head away from me just as I tried to take a picture (can you tell I'm really unused to taking pics?):

This is my first posed photo with new friend Sheila Valderrama-Martinez, exquisite beauty, beautiful singer/dancer, Cinderella u/s, and the last photo I'll ever put myself in if everyone keeps looking that good at rehearsal (it's REHEARSAL, you're SUPPOSED to look as haggard as I do, people!):

This is a pic of the Cultural Arts Center, our performance space, taken from a moving vehicle. (Again, not good at taking pics, yet, OK?) I've also recently taken some cute ones at rehearsal - I'm getting better! - but I'll have to share those next time, they're not on my computer, yet.

Manila - Week 4 Update

Somehow last week got away from me without a post, so here's an extra-long one to make up for it.

I took a tour of Intramuros last week, which was Manila's city center for about 500 years until WWII. Often when I think of WWII, I think of Nazi Germany, concentration camps, and Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy - hurrah! I'm just realizing I don't know nearly as much about what happened on this side of the world. Apparently Manila was the most heavily bombed city in Asia (even our Fat Man and Little Boy didn't create as much damage) and the 2nd most heavily bombed city in the world (after Warsaw) in WWII. The Intramuros tour started and ended in the only building left standing in the city center, San Agustin Church.

We were a little late getting to the tour, so I missed the beginning about Spanish colonialism and the Chinese influence in the Philippines, but I was present and wide awake to hear about the Battle of Manila in WWII. Apparently the Japanese had booted out our General MacArthur and his troops and were able to take over Manila for a few years. When MacArthur came to get it back, a Japanese general disobeyed orders to retreat and set about slaughtering several hundred thousand innocent Filipinos, which we now call the Manila Massacre. Horrified as I was to hear this, my heart 'bout fell to the floor when I learned that the country responsible for bombing Manila was the good ol' US of A - on paper, we were bombing a Japanese-occupied area with some unfortunate collateral damage; in real life we bombed the crap out of a whole metropolis that never even wanted any part of our war. We got the Japanese out of Manila, but we destroyed it in the process. Just further proof, I guess, that no one ever really wins in war.

I'd like to take the tour again to hear the beginning about the Spanish and the Chinese, because I'm starting to answer my earlier question of "What is Philippine culture?". It seems like Philippine culture is really a mish-mash of local, Spanish, Chinese, American, and a few other Asian cultures. They've been occupied by other peoples so many times, there's no way to separate out what is theirs alone and what's been adopted. Makes me kinda' feel right at home, in a way! ;)

On another note, we recorded our Cast Album last week. Funny how exhausting studio work can be; I worked less in those 2 days in the studio than I have since I got here, but nothing's tired me out nearly as much. Lea's brother, Gerard Salonga (a well-known musician in his own right), did some amazing work; he conducted the orchestra and was in the booth supervising us laying down the tracks. I can't wait to hear it; the creative team seems very happy with it.

We've got our show together now. We're at that point where we're adding costumes and props, and we'll start tech next week. Everyone keeps saying how short our tech process is (10 days of 10/12's) - which seems like a LOT to me since most regional theatre usually techs in one week with only 3 or 4 10/12's! (For those of you not in the biz, "10/12's" are where we work 12 hour days with one 2 hour break - brutal!) But we really are doing a Broadway show that just happens to be touring Asia, so 10 days is a lot shorter than the usual month of tech for Broadway! There's a lot of magic, puppets, etc. in the show, so I can understand why creatives might be a little nervous. We'll be ready, though, I'm sure.

I keep losing my 200 pisos each week in our poker tournament, but I like to think at least I'm learning from some really good players. (200 p is about $4 US, so I'm basically paying a couple bucks to play and chat with some of my favorite people for 3 or 4 hours - MORE than worth it.) Aaron, our poker host, invited me to join his weekly game when we get back to NYC, and I don't even think he did it just to be able to take REAL money from me. ;)

The weather here is now crap, I'm afraid we may have have passed the best we're going to get all summer. :( It's rainy season now, and it really means it. Locals tell me March is the best time of year here, but I can't quite wrap my mind around that - it just seems all wrong to me and my less-than-tropical residence in NYC!

What else? Oh, I finally took more pictures, and I will post them all after this, I promise. Just gotta' figure out how this blog thing does that . . .

Not much else new. Everything's great here! I can't say I even miss NYC at all. I do miss my Makers Mark, though - hasn't quite hopped this pond, yet, unfortunately. And I miss good Italian food, but my figure is only benefitting from that! So all is well; I'll post again before we hit tech since you won't hear from me for probably another 2 weeks after that.

Much love, my friends.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Manila - Week 2 Update (Filipino Food!)

I finally tried some Filipino food last night - and loved it! A couple of us went out to dinner and shared a big platter so we could all try a lot of different things. The names are gone, but I tried some bits of pork that were lightly battered and fried with kind of a vinegar-y yet sweet dipping sauce, had some grilled squid (still gotta' get used to them serving the whole animal intact, looking like it just crawled out of the ocean and onto my plate by way of a BBQ grill), had some BBQ chicken that would rival my dad's, and some random veggies in a spicy-kinda'-sweet sauce. As my friend Julia said, it's ALL about that sauce - good stuff! Everything was delicious. For dessert, I had myself a cocktail - I've yet to find Makers Mark anywhere here :( - and picked at a bit of Jefferson's "mango slice" (which seemed to be mango ice cream sandwiched between layers of granola) and Julia's gelatin phantasmagoria (actual name is completely different and gone from my head). I've no idea, really, what was in that besides bits of gelatin, but she loved it; my reaction was more lukewarm since I'm not really into eating horse hooves. It seemed to be bits of green gelatin in coconut milk along with other stringy bits of white gelatin, or possibly some kind of noodles - ??? Anyway, looking forward to more Pinoy culinary pleasures for the next couple months!

Our Herald from the show started a poker tournament last night and after a rather strong start, I promptly lost about 400 pisos (or almost $9.00 US) - big spender, I know. We were all beaten by a newbie (had just learned the game 30 minutes before the tournament - !!!) in the first round, then by our Prince in the second, and I was out like a light shortly after as the game went until well after midnight. (What's with the old lady bedtimes still?) Lots of fun, though; I play a bit, but tournament play is quite different from sitting in for an occasional hand here and there and I could use a little more experience with the escalating stakes involved. Looking forward to adding a few pisos to my per diem every week! . . . hopefully. ;)

More later - I'm off to find some kind of lunch I've never had before.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Manila - End of Week 1

So it's our first official day off and I feel like I should go out and do or see something in Manila. And I'm thinking that something might just be a movie. Not much motivation for anything else.

I went out last night with some cast members and managed to stay up until midnight – quite a feat considering I still want to lay my head down around 8pm. Managed to sleep in until 7:30am this morning, too! We went to a Thai restaurant in the Greenbelt, which is quite possibly the best mall ever. Lots of coffee shops, restaurants, stores, live music, museums, and all spread out in this mix of indoor/outdoor spaces. Lots of trees, plants, open air – really the best way to design a mall if you have to have one. I hate shopping, but this place is really quite pleasant and relaxing.

Anyway, we had some Thai food, and I proceeded to set my lips afire with my stir-fried chicken with holy basil. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a 5-alarm kinda' girl – I love spicy, and am usually not satisfied until my nose, eyes, and ears are running and I'm almost crying. This was WAY beyond that. The kind of spicy that literally made my lips AND NOSE burn, and almost had me convinced that I could, in fact, breathe fire. I only made it halfway through my meal – it was good, but it's clear that even super spicy Thai food in the States is nothing compared with the real thing. I also had the Tom Yum Goong soup, which is a spicy prawn soup that I've always loved, but was a little grossed out that they actually put the whole animal in my soup. Two, in fact. I had to let my mind wrap around that idea for awhile, scooped the two crustaceans out and set them aside, finished my soup, then decided to go for it, anyway, and tore into the poor (very much alive-looking) creatures. Once they no longer had faces they were much easier to swallow and quite tasty.

A couple of our cast members are local actors and one of them suggested a specifically Pinoy delicacy: balut. I thought he was pulling my leg but have since verified that this is for real. Duck fetuses and hot sauce. Baby ducks, not quite fully-formed, that you break out of the egg and eat whole. Uncooked, even. I've been eating a lot of raw fish since I got here – perfect breakfast food, surprisingly enough – but balut will be a struggle for me, I'm sure. I have several weeks still to work up the guts . . . literally.

I might be off to a museum today, because that sounds nice and easy and not too expensive or overly ambitious. I'd really love to sit by the pool, but I don't think the sun is going to show at all today. There's this weird cloud cover; Manila doesn't seem to have too many super tall buildings, so you can practically see horizon to horizon and there's just white covering everything. Not really cloudy as I know it, and not really fog, either, but like someone just laid a thick layer of cotton over the city. Not very inspiring to get out and about.

Recently got a short introduction to Manila's seamier side. I'm not sure what it is about me that makes people want to share this kind of info with me, but at least it's interesting stuff. One of the locals I get to interact with every day pointed out a couple of sex hotels on the way back to our hotel. Maximum 3-hour stay. His English wasn't the best, so I'm not sure if we were communicating very clearly, but he told me prostitution is legal here, along with dog-fighting and cock-fighting – you know, in case I felt the need to satisfy EVERY possible vice, I'm now covered. I'm not really into seeing animals tear each other apart (I've seen enough of that kind of thing backstage when two divas collide), and I'm not sure I could keep a straight face long enough to ever try and hire a prostitute, but I do love getting to know something not-so-touristy about Manila.

I'm beginning to think half the Pinoy population is employed as security guards. They're everywhere. Anytime you enter a building, you're screened. They look in your purse/bags, they've got the metal-detector wands, etc. I'm not sure what all the security is about. It's a little annoying – my backpack is searched everyday even re-entering our own hotel after rehearsals – but if it's that strict, I guess there must be good reason.

Rehearsals are awesome; I feel so blessed. We record the cast album in 10 days, then hard back at work to open, I think, maybe 2 weeks later. I see posters everywhere, and Lea's face on billboards, and even one giant 4-story banner hung up in the mall advertising a contest to win tickets to our show. (I know, I should take a picture!) I promise to keep my camera with me today, and will take a photo of SOMETHING so I can get myself in the habit.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Manila - Week 1 Update

I know, it's been several days since my last post, but we really kinda' hit the ground running and this is my first chance to sit down at a computer for more than 5 minutes without either having to run off to rehearsal or put my butt in bed before I pass out sitting up. I have the day off today, though; I think Lea has some press stuff all day, and since all my scenes are with her, I get to look at my lines poolside today. :)

Typhoon Frank/Fengshen finally left the Philippines on Monday, but the country is still dealing with the aftermath. It's really quite sad - the newspapers are still headlining with all the damage, injuries, lives lost, etc. I don't have the paper in front of me, but I read at breakfast that there are close to 500 dead, maybe 250 injured, and a couple hundred more still missing or unaccounted for. Over 70,000 homes destroyed . . . ugh. They're retiring the name "Frank" from the list because of it's severity. Not sure how much news has covered it in the US, but it's quite serious over here.

Other than than the typhoons, though, Manila is lovely. It's about 80 degrees every day, sunny, tropical breezes blowing . . . perfect, really. I don't even turn the AC on. We're rehearsing right by the ocean - I walked down to the beach yesterday to eat lunch and was, unfortunately, quite disappointed. It wasn't really a beach; it was somewhat fenced off, but a portion of it had fallen into disrepair and I crossed through that. Wish I hadn't. The waves hitting the coastline were more litter and trash than they were water, and the water itself was actually brown. I've never seen the ocean that color. There's signs and tips advertised everywhere about living and working "green" in the Philippines, but I guess that'll take some time to take effect. Further south, though, is supposed to be some great surfing and scuba-diving. The Philippines has the largest populations of humpback and whale sharks of anywhere in the world, so I'm hoping I'll have a chance to make it out on a boat to spot some. (Might even try surfing again, who knows?)

I'm struggling a bit to find what is specifically Philippine culture - food, art, etc. Manila is apparently quite diverse, and especially where we're at. We're staying in a more international business-oriented area of Manila, so I see people from all over the world at breakfast. Even the TV channels speak to that; they have CNN, BBC World, some possibly Korean channel (?), several Philippino stations (where they speak in kind of the Philippine equivalent of Spanglish, half Tagalog/Filipino and half English - took me a while to realize it wasn't my ears just misunderstanding half of what they said), and - randomly - a German channel. We're right next to a GIANT mall - and I am NOT exaggerating - a mall so big there is nothing else around but MORE mall. Hopefully once I settle into the time change and rehearsals, I'll see about how to get a little further away from our hotel.

They have these public transport/buses called jeepneys. They're supposed to be super cheap, but I have to admit I'm a little hesitant because I've yet to actually see one STOP. Just yesterday I watched as a dozen people got out of this vehicle that really probably only seats 4-6 adults (?!?) AS IT WAS STILL MOVING. It did slow down a bit for them, but I'm just clumsy enough to break something vital trying to crawl in and out of a moving vehicle, so we'll see if I ever work up the nerve.

Anyway, all is good over here with me. I did finally buy a digital camera, and even took a picture. Yes, ONE. I'll keep working on that so I can post some photos here eventually. For now, I'm off to finish "God of War" on my PSP and then maybe go get an $8 hour-long massage . . . I know, ridiculous, right?!? Sure am loving it here! :)