Church and stage
- Joy G. Virata () - November 12, 2007 - 12:00am

An unlikely answer to Repertory Philippines’ director Baby Barredo’s prayers arrived one afternoon at the Rep rehearsal hall in the substantial form of Ather Tyler Alan Strand, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity.

A month before rehearsals were to start, we learned that Junix Inocian (Sweeney Todd, Fiddler on the Roof, Annie and a host of comedies — musical and otherwise — and member of the original cast of Miss Saigon, who went on to play the lead in that West End mega-hit and later in the musical Cats) couldn’t come. When we first planned doing Fiddler on the Roof, he signified his willingness to come from London, where he now lives and works, but circumstances got in the way. Miguel Faustmann, who is also doing the pivotal role of Tevye, said he couldn’t do all the performances — a matter of requiring sleep after a nightly, after-theater, survival-job. It was a month before rehearsals were to begin. We had auditioned others but no one quite for the role. So we prayed.

Just when desperation started to set in, Father Tyler, (he would prefer the cast to call him plain Tyler but says he has given up on this), showed up. Hefty, bearded, salt-and-pepper hair — he had all the physical attributes of an upbeat, Jewish, father of five daughters. What is more he had a more-than-impressive resume of stage experience — in amateur theater — but nevertheless he wasn’t coming in cold. Broadway, Shakespeare — he had done them all. Yet we held our breath. Could he really sing and could he move? The audition proved he could. He would need a little work but he definitely had the talent and he certainly understood the character. We invited him to join the cast and after ironing out a few problems, he did. Curious, I sat with him between rehearsals one day (Pinky Marquez and I alternate playing Golde, Tevye’s domineering wife) and asked him about his extensive work in amateur theater and why, considering he was a priest, he had remained so active in theater. He gave me some astonishing answers.

“Actually, when I thought about being a priest,” he said, “it was very much coming out of theater because I saw the life of the Church as being a continuation of the theater — sacred drama — not in the sense of a church play but in the sense of doing the Mass — the most sacred drama — the most dramatic thing that we could do — and I felt that this would be a wonderful way to use this for God’s glory and to help other people.”

Tyler’s interest in theater began in the elementary school where he wrote plays. But it was not until his second year of high school that he discovered what theater could do to compensate for what he thought he lacked. He was not good at sports and he was not popular. But one day he was cast in a role against his type (in The Lark by Jean Anouilh) and he realized that in theater he could become someone that he was not. He could become anyone.

“I could experience vicariously the whole riches of the world — the whole spectrum of all the different personalities. I discovered I could act. I became a peer. (I was never a peer at sports. I was the one no one wanted on the team.) When it came to theater I could hold my own. I became popular. I learned a lot about growing up, about life, about people, how to interact with people, how to help people.”

He continued in the theater in college graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities and Scandinavian Languages and believing as he did about theater and the Church, and went on to study for a Master of Divinity in England and New York. Afterwards, whenever the opportunity arose and when his church work permitted, he joined amateur groups.

Continuing to explain to me why theater led him to the church and why he has always gone back to it he said:

“Theater, in its ideal form, is what the church ought to be in its ideal form. What I mean is that in the theater you have a group of people who come together for a common purpose. We have an agreed text (the script). We have our clergy (the director). We encourage each other and our liturgy is on stage. That is our sacred space. If it works well and we have a sense of our vocation on stage, we are changing people’s lives and, depending on the material, we are connecting them to something farce that would be more difficult. But with Fiddler On The Roof, for example, the story is timeless, it is human and it is also connected to the divine. When I go back to the theater, I am, in a sense, returning to my church.”

Tyler admits that it took eight years for him to get up the nerve to audition for Rep. “I was always intimidated by Rep. I saw its shows and I was intimidated.” It was only when a member of Rep’s marketing staff presented his church board with a proposal for a fund-raising sponsorship that he jokingly said “Can I audition?”

Now he realizes that he shouldn’t have waited so long. He says he has never worked harder on a role but he is no longer intimidated. He considers himself just one of the actors and, after the cast’s initial uncertainty, soon dispelled, as to how to treat a priest, has been accepted as such. He has fit in with no difficulty and is a “peer.” All agree that it was fun working with Fr. Tyler who, after 10 years away from the stage, admitted he often wondered what he was doing and had difficulty with lines, but kept his good humor and his camaraderie with the rest of the cast.

Tyler said something else to me that gave me a real lift. He said he realizes how concentrated Rep is on developing Filipino talent and feels privileged, as a foreigner, to be allowed to work with so much talent. He says he wishes that there could be a more concentrated, official support and effort to develop this talent that is obviously one of the Philippines’ greatest natural resources. This is a wish that has been imbedded in the hearts of everyone working in the performing arts. This is my fondest wish.

No one has worked harder than Fr. Tyler in this production of Fiddler on the Roof and now Manila will have a chance to enjoy the results. After all Fr. Tyler is Teyve — warm, open, humorous, loving and human — with God as his constant companion and best friend. A blending of church and stage.

* * *

Fiddler on the Roof is a production of Repertory Philippines Foundation Inc., the Manila Symphony Orchestra and the City of Makati in cooperation with Purefoods Chicken Nuggets and Make Up For Ever. It is currently showing at Onstage, Greenbelt One. Shows are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. Shows are until Dec. 16. For performance times, dates and ticket availability, call 887-0710 or visit Tickets are also available at Ticketworld at 891-9999.

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