Finding Florence
- Joy G. Virata () - April 16, 2007 - 12:00am
Tita Joy, this is for you." Said Ariel Reonal handing me the script of Glorious! by Peter Quilter a little over a year ago — having just arrived from a Miss Saigon stint in London where he had seen the play. Being, as usual, immersed in a thousand and one things, I hurriedly read the script, laughed at the clever, catchy dialogue and passed it on to Repertory Philippines’ artistic director Baby Barredo, who makes the final decision on what plays Rep will do.

"Joy, I want you to take this role," said Barredo six months later. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth and never, never, turning down a role if I can help it, I said with a bright smile: "Sure!" Then, as an afterthought, I looked at her suspiciously and said, "Why are you giving me this role? Are you typecasting me?" She laughed and said, "No, of course not!" But I wasn’t totally reassured. Why was everyone so convinced that this role was for me? Florence Foster Jenkins was a socialite opera singer in the 1930s and 1940s who couldn’t sing. That was the role that I was to play. Glorious! is a comedy based on the story of her life. Hmm.

This was going to be a demanding role — although perhaps not as demanding as playing Edith Piaf, the great French singer of about the same era — a role I played many years ago. The hardest job, I thought, would be to memorize the pages and pages of kilometric dialogue. I hadn’t thought of the songs. And I thought I knew her character. I researched early and thankfully the Internet is full of information and photos of Florence Foster Jenkins. I listened to her recordings — laughing at what I heard and thinking that she was the William Hung of her time. But, as I was to discover, there was so much more to her than that.

I have played in more comedies and done more character roles than straight, dramatic roles and enjoy them the most and Glorious! is definitely a comedy and Florence Foster Jenkins definitely a character. Usually I "get" a character as soon as I read the script and she evolves automatically and rapidly as soon as I have found the proper wig. I thought it would be the same this time. First the voice. The script said she was in her 70s. This meant, I thought, a little old lady’s voice — high and frail. Then her body and its movement. I would have to wear padding and since she was from a wealthy, Pennsylvanian banker’s family, I walked primly, sat primly, and crossed my legs. As for her manner of speaking, I thought I would make her sensible and articulate, and let the author’s dialogue do the rest of the work. As to the singing, I thought I would copy her voice on the recordings. But Barredo said, "No, no, no, no, no!" (Actually, she was a bit kinder than that because, as usual, I was still struggling with lines.)

What was wrong, I asked myself? Why can’t I get her? As rehearsals went on slowly, and painfully, I found the answer. It started with the songs. "Sing in your own voice," I was told not only by Barredo but by others who listened to her recordings and watched a rehearsal. My own voice? Do I really sing that badly? I was depressed for days and almost cried — which actually helped me in the one dramatic scene of the play. Then I went for help to my voice teacher Nelson Caruncho who assured me that I didn’t sing that badly (I tried to ignore the fact that all voice teachers probably encourage their students) and taught me a simple technique of how to sing in my own voice and still sound like "the master of the sliding scale" that Florence Jenkins was called.

Next was the speaking voice. Again I heard, "Speak in your own voice." But Florence is supposed to be in her 70s. That means her voice should be high and frail and my voice is low and strong and full and… and… and…. I am in my 70s.

Then came her body movement. "Move confidently, dramatically, freely," I was directed. Of course. She had to be physically strong to do what she did — hold sold-out recitals and concerts for 30 years. Hadn’t being in the theater given me more years of moving confidently dramatically and freely than most 70-plus-year-olds? And she showed spiritual strength and strength of character as well — leaving the comfort of wealth and a family to pursue her art. At first I thought to myself that this is where we differed because I didn’t have to do that to pursue mine. Then again, on second thought, I realized that I had had to wait until I was 40 years old to do so and I had had to brave a lot of adverse public opinion at one time and a lot of adverse private opinions a lot of times. So the pursuit of my dream hadn’t been easy either. I don’t hobble around. So why did I think she should hobble around like a little old lady?!

So finally I realized why I was not finding Florence. It was because I was ignoring the most fundamental rule in creating a character. Get from yourself. Find in yourself something to identify with this character and let the script help it grow. Did I like Florence? The answer is definitely yes. She was strong, brave, kind, generous, passionate about her art, and above all, happy! So why was I denying her? Why was I creating a character out of thin air when all I had to do was do a little inner searching to flesh out this marvelous and funny woman? I had to put some of me into her and some of her into me.

So finally, with the help of my fellow actors — Rem Zamora, who plays my accompanist, Pinky Marquez and Bonggoy Manahan who play my faithful friends, Chari Arespacochaga who plays my colorful Mexican maid and Jay Glorioso who plays my adversary, I think I have found her. I hope the audience will find her and love her too. I hope they will see that very happy person who said, "There are people who say I cannot sing. But there is no one who can say I didn’t sing."
* * *


Glorious! — A Comedy By Peter Quilter is onstage at the Onstage Theater in Greenbelt One until April 29, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. A production of Repertory Philippines Foundation Inc., the City of Makati, and Ayala Cinemas. The show is directed by Baby Barredo. Tickets are available at the gate before the shows. For reservations and tickets, visit Karrivin Plaza, 2316 Pasong Tamo Ext. Makati City or call 887-0710 or 891-9999 (Ticket world). The tickets are priced at P550, P350 and P250. For information about the show and Rep, visit www.repertory-philippines.com.

A COMEDY BY PETER QUILTER AGAIN I BABY BARREDO CHARACTER FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS THOUGHT VOICE
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