TOP GIRLS by Caryl Churchill
Working on "Top Girls" by Caryl Churchill has been one of the most rewarding projects I've embarked on my Juilliard journey so far (it's at the same plane as my work in Three Sisters as Irina). I was cast in three roles that were no small feats: Lady Nijo - a Japanese courtesan in the thirteenth century; Kit - a twelve year old Brit; and Shona - a twenty one year old pretending to be twenty nine applying for a job in a "Top Girls agency" in London. I had to learn three different accents for the three women: Japanese, Fen and Cockney. The faculty gave me quite a task, but I was very much up for it. I've always wanted to learn a British dialect, and I've also always wanted to learn an Asian dialect apart from the country I was born in. In addition to all that, my casting in this project gave me the opportunity to work on a wide variety of women that I have never had the opportunity to work on before. It was as if I was shooting three birds with one stone and a whole lot more with this project.
To prepare for Lady Nijo in the famous dinner scene of the play, I read her published journal, "The Confessions of Lady Nijo." Lady Nijo was a real Japanese woman in the thirteenth century Kamakura period. I sought the help of three Japanese women: Dawn Saito, Mari Miyamoto and Naoko Arcari who helped me with different aspects of her character i.e. walking, bowing, accent, Japanese culture & history and costume. As you know, I am not Japanese, I am a Filipino. I am not well-versed with Japanese culture yet it was very important to me to honor a woman of a different culture especially if the play was written by a white woman with predominantly white actresses in the cast. I felt it was my duty to bring her to life in the most accurate and three-dimensional way as I can.
For all three women, I had separate dialect guide sheets for each of them with my annotations on their specific diphthong/vowel changes and consonant shifts. I watched several movies that would help me gauge the specific internal landscape and culture where they lived. For Lady Nijo: Throne of Blood and Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa as well as Memoirs of a Geisha. For Kit, London Road and for Shona, Working Girl.
This was the process where I truly had the opportunity to apply all that I've learned these past two years. I no longer waited to be told what to do in rehearsal and I treated this play as if I was a real actress working on challenging material rather than a student in school learning some techniques. More and more I am using each new experience to gain more ownership of my process.
One of the most rewarding things about this project has been the opportunity to finally be able to share my work with friends and family. My Filipino relatives from New Jersey have never seen my work in Juilliard before as the first two years of the training were very much behind closed doors. Now we have a set in a studio with lights, sound, costume and wigs!
The gift of this phase of my artistic journey is the realization that I can "swim" now rather than climb a mountain. I don't have to be a "good student" anymore. I've done a lot of drilling, a lot of repetition, a lot of studying diligently in my first two years. A lot of those "techniques" have seeped into my bones and are there for me when I need them in the work. I feel more and more that I can allow my own spirit to shine through the characters I play rather than worry about being correct. I have a process, a large and ever-growing tool kit and a deep well of experience.
JUILLIARD DRAMA 50TH ANNIVERSARY
This weekend was a generous reminder of journeys, tradition, belonging and love for the work. One of the things that were said by one of the playwrights who spoke during the evening celebration at the Sharp, and some of the alumni who were interviewed in the video presentations: (paraphrased) that we were all invited to be a part of this community because we already ARE the kind of actors, playwrights, artists that we needed to be. This made me reflect upon my motivations as I continue in the training. That I’m not here so that I can learn how to be a white person by talking, speaking, walking, thinking like a white person or any kind of artist that fits into a narrow mold. I’m here because the people who have invited me in have seen that I have a Self that is large that is worth magnifying even more. That my strength lies not in me belonging to a specific mold but in my multiplicity, complexity and simultaneity. That what I am doing here is not to change my Self but to acquire tools so that I have the technique to support my Self that is already large.
I also want to take time to reflect upon the people of color, especially the other Asians and Filipinos who came before me in the Juilliard Drama Division. I may be the first Filipino to be accepted into the MFA program of Juilliard Drama since its inception in 2012, but there are a few other Filipinos who had been accepted into the BFA program of the school before I have been. The first one being Ana Valdes-Lim (Group 13) whose picture is above with Alexander Technique teacher Judy Leibowitz. I do want to recognize that I am standing on the shoulders of the people of color who have come before me and I am grateful to them for braving the four years of training even when there are so few people with similar backgrounds to them in the community.
I am acutely aware of how hard it is for people who are outside the United States to come to this school. As of now there are only 8 international students in the entire Juilliard Drama student community and only two of those are from South Asia.
As the Juilliard Drama Division continues to navigate its way and find its new identity in making space for other people's narratives, I feel like it is our responsibility as an institution to create more opportunities for people who are outside of the United States to come and train in this school. And once they are in, to be responsible for creating the conditions for their own voices and narratives to be seen, heard and sharpened.
I am an actress currently based in New York City. I received my acting training at The Juilliard School. Take a look around!