Set and costume designer Gino Gonzales: Shaper of Things to Come

Shaper of Things to Come 
By Walter Ang
January 27, 2002
Sunday Inquirer Magazine

When Gino Gonzales was a child, he looked forward to processions. He just couldn't get enough of the pomp, the music, the assorted folk and costumes that lift such events from the doldrums of summer.

It would be this seminal "fascination for visual spectacle" that would ultimately shape his future as a production designer. Gino took up Communications at the Ateneo, worked in public relations for exactly two weeks and knew irrevocably that he "wanted to do theater."

In college, he had assisted renowned production designer Salvador "Badong" Bernal in several plays for the student theater group Tanghalang Ateneo and went on to his first professional stint: designing for the musical "Alikabok."

The curtain had since risen on Gino's career as he went on creating shapes, spaces, textures, silhouettes, colors and forms for actors and audiences alike. Constantly encouraged by his mentor Bernal to take up further studies abroad, Gino found that serendipity would eventually take him there.

While some Fulbright officials were in town, he managed to score an interview and subsequently a scholarship from them. When the Asian Cultural Council directors were visiting manila, he got an interview with them as well, clinching a grant for his living expenses.

So in 1998, with the blessings of his doctor father and landscape designer mother, off Gino went to New York University to pursue a three year Masters in Fine Arts Degree in Theater Design. Early on during his studies, one of his professors started literally ripping apart his scale model. "I kept saying, `No, no, no!" and all my classmates were laughing," Gino recounts with a smile. "He just did it ? no apologies, no explanations. He moved things around, and afterwards, the design seemed much better. It taught me to be more critical of my work."

The intense training was not lost on this particular student. "I feel lucky I was able to work with brilliant professors whom I trusted. Studying was a joy." The joy faltered a bit in the beginning when Gino found his course "tough and demanding." He was "ready to go back to Manila during the first semester," he confesses.

Gino's epiphany came when he caught an opera with a production design that made him cry. "It was the sheer beauty of it all. When it moves you like that, you realize what design can do to touch your audience. I wanted to do that." Of course, things are always easier said than done. "I thought the work I'd done in Manila would prepare me for working in the U.S. I was wrong. The work ethic so different," Gino reveals. "I had to prove myself."

This tall and lanky artist stuck to his (glue)guns, worked 18-hour days with his classmates, got to train with international theater personalities both off and on Broadway, was recommended by his department chair to design the costumes for the world premiere of Filipino American playwright Han Ong's "Middle Finger," and, not surprisingly, graduated with a prestigious Seidman Award and Meler Award under his belt. Whew!

Returning to the Philippines in September last year, Gino planned on taking a vacation. No way. Projects were waiting for him. First up, he was tasked to design the set for Ballet Philippines' well- received "Shoes." He filled the stage with plastic shoeboxes and turned it into a funky, pseudo-department store. Next, the Philippine Association of Theater Designers and Technicians (PATDAT) appointed him assistant curator for their "Hugis at Hubog" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. This unique exhibit of designs form the performing arts showcases the creative output of the country's foremost designers and craftsmen in sets, props, costumes, and lighting.

In the exhibit, this 28-year-old's designs as presented in sketches and scale models are shown side by side with the works of the country's most prolific and renowned designers, among them Eric Cruz "El Camino Real"), Bobot Lota ("Rent"), and husband and wife team Benny and Liz Batoctoy ("Little Mermaid").

Selecting the best works from "hundreds and rows and rows" of sketches , photographs and other pieces for the exhibit was no easy task. "We decided to be brutal with our standards," reveals Gino. "even my pieces had to go through the same rigid screening." One easily sees how the same standards are applied to his working methods as well.

Gino considers research as essential in arriving at the desired final design that he feels is usually taken for granted in the local industry. "Anything you put into a design has to have weight. It has to mean something. It can't be arbitrary," he explains. Never sticking to just any one signature style, Gino constantly reinvents his approach to design by gleaning inspiration from whatever material he works with. "Depending on the show, I can be inspired by the text or the music or other aspects."

As the year begins, Gino is currently tackling the production design requirements of Tanghalang Pilipino's "Ang Sinungaling" by Carlos Goldoni. Despite his hectic homecoming, Gino is not complaining. "I'm committed to being back and being part of the driving force that will help the local industry," he says proudly. Audiences will surely have much to look forward to in the shape of things to come.