'The Princess and the Red Carp' opens Theater Down South season

'The Princess and the Red Carp' opens Theater Down South season
By Walter Ang
August 30, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Manila audiences are familiar with Michael Williams as one of the long-time resident actors of Repertory Philippines and one of the original West End cast members of "Miss Saigon."

Over the past few years, he's been doing more backstage work south of the metropolis?specifically, as artistic director of his own theater company, Theater Down South (TDS), based in Alabang.

TDS' 2010 season opens with "The Princess and the Red Carp," an original musical that hews close to one of the earliest versions of the Cinderella story.

With book, music and lyrics by company member Joonee Garcia, the show started off as a small-scale Chinese New Year show that The Podium mall commissioned from the group earlier this year. Favorable audience response spurred the company to expand it to its present full-length production.

"While we're most familiar with the retellings of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, the story exists in different forms in various cultures," notes Williams. "The oldest known recorded version of the story is Chinese in origin, written down by Tuan Ch'eng-shih in the middle of the ninth century AD."

The heroine, Yeh Hsien, triumphs over adversity with the help of a magical red carp who provides her with clothes, jewelry, and, most importantly, a pair of tiny golden slippers.

"The Princess and the Red Carp" opened last weekend and runs until Sept. 19.

"TDS is on a mission to encourage the theatergoing habit, especially in the suburban communities," Williams says. "Smaller family-friendly shows such as this one are a great way to introduce new audiences to the experience."

Williams relishes his role offstage at TDS.

"I've always directed. I guess it's just not publicly known," he says. "It all evolved from when I started teaching in Rep's summer workshops."

He moved up from teaching assistant to handling his own classes. Every year, he'd helm his students' culminating showcase at the end of the workshop.

"It was like my on-the-job training!" he says with a laugh. "Also, being a theater actor all of my adult life, I have learned about directing by being directed, and by exposure to different directors."

He later started to direct for Rep (recently as assistant to Baby Barredo for "Sweeney Todd") as well as for Philippine Opera Company (for "Master Class").

Inspiration and advocacy
The workshops led to teaching opportunities for several schools, either as a moderator or a headmaster for theater groups. He's been teaching in De La Salle Zobel for several years, and this spurred him to aspire for a more community-wide endeavor.

"There is such a theater culture in that school. Where do these kids and kids like these go for their theater fix? Where do their folks go?" he says. "The south is so vast, and the journey to Manila can be a deterrent. Surely there are those who would rather stay in town and might appreciate being able to watch or participate in theater somewhere nearby if they could."

This insight, coupled with a desire to spread theater (inspired by the advocacy of his own mentors from Rep, namely Zeneida Amador and Baby Barredo), drove him to find like-minded individuals.

"Before we knew it, TDS has already been around for three years!"

Eschewing labels such as "community theater" or "regional theater," Williams points out that the group is focused on simply being a professional theater group. It has already mounted musical versions of "Treasure Island" and "Rapunzel," as well as Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"I think the theater industry today is as vibrant as it has ever been," he says. "It's high time for TDS to exist."

Given his own journey from acting to other disciplines in theater, Williams encourages his actors to work in all areas of the theater, including stage management, marketing, teaching and writing.

"This not only gives them a wider understanding of their work and uncovers untapped potential, it also adds to their skills set, making them more employable in the long run," he says.

Season line-up
In October, TDS will stage the Tony Award-winning Stephen Sondheim musical farce "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Sondheim is the recipient of eight Tony Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement); an Academy Award; a Pulitzer Prize; several Grammy Awards.

This production of "Forum" coincides with Sondheim's 80th birthday, which is being celebrated with a year of concerts and revivals worldwide.

The season will wrap with a restaging of TDS' version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," this time using a pan-Asian motif. Taking inspiration from Chinese epic films and Japanese animé but keeping the original text, the group aims to make the Bard's work more accessible to a modern-day audience.

The show is available for school tours and includes a mobile lobby exhibit and post-show open forums to encourage student learning and interaction.

TDS stages its shows at Insular Life Theater, Filinvest Corporate City, Alabang. Call 0916-6436976 and 5056380, visit www.theaterdownsouth.com.

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