From tennis to theater, how does Joy Virata pursue her endless passions?
Joy Virata is still killing it.
In theater, that is, where she continues to be active as actress, director and artistic director of Repertory Philippines’ Theater for Young Audiences. Recently, she starred in the classic dark comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace,” for which she received effusive praise, as Abby Brewster, along with Jay Glorioso as the other spinster sister Martha.
This is the third time she has played the part, and says it’s roles like these that she really enjoys playing: “I love to play comedies, and this particular one I could play with a straight face, and the straighter I got, the funnier it became.”
Some weeks back, in a press conference, a young reporter asked her why stage the “old play” now? Without blinking, Virata retorted, “Why, have you seen it?”
The writer shook her head. Good comeback from the theater diva. Stage veteran. Seasoned artist. Divine thespian. Queen.
We asked her how it feels to have one’s name preceded by these adjectives. Virata lets out an honest laugh: “Because I’m old?”
And with a more thoughtful tone: “I take it with gratitude that I’m recognized. My main objective, really, is to get people into the theater, so if that helps, fine.”
There’s a lesson to be learned here, especially for those who think second chances have an age limit. In this era of Insta-worthiness, premium is placed on youthful looks, amazing physical feats, or acquiring covetable merchandise, more than what one has actually achieved.
But Virata is showing us that old-school hard work and discipline are still the essentials of success and true self-fulfillment.
Her husband Cesar was Finance Secretary when Virata joined Repertory Philippines in the early ’70s. But she wasn’t taken into the fold on account of her husband’s influence. She auditioned for a part in a play.
Virata was in her late-30s, married with three kids, and had a master’s degree in Industrial Management from University of the Philippines Diliman. The couple were supposed to set up a consulting firm, but Virata recalls: “He was taken by the government and was appointed Secretary of Finance. There was nothing I could do. I could not be hired by any company because it would be conflict of interest.”
Instead, she had sewing classes and cooking lessons. She also went back to UP Diliman, at the College of Music, for a Voice Performance certificate.
For fitness, you would also spot her trading powerful serves and backhands at the university’s outdoor courts or in some tournament. “Oh, I was a champion tennis player, a champion pelota player.”
But her aha moment was bound to happen. “One day, I said, ‘Am I going to spend my life like this? Is this the way I’m going to be? Hitting this ball?”
A friend told her about an audition at Rep by its founder Bibot Amador. She went and got the part. The play was a comedy called “How the Other Half Loves” by Alan Ayckbourn (staged in 1976), which had her performing with trained theater actors like Chito Ponce Enrile, Baby Barredo, Jorge Ortoll and Freddie Santos.
Break an arm
Her very first performance was memorable: “I fell off the stage and broke my arm! Before intermission. During performance.”
Chito Ponce Enrile came to the rescue. He got a hanger and broke it. The crew found a bandanna. The team made an impromptu sling for Virata’s injured arm. For some reason, the pain felt bearable, and so Virata simply put on a coat to hide her immobile arm. She was brought to the ER after the show, where her arm got a thick cast.
The play had three more weekends to go. And before each show, Amador would always announce, “We are very happy to have Mrs. Virata in a cast.”
Three years later, Virata set her sights on auditioning for her very first musical, “A Chorus Line.” She remembers scanning the room to check out competition—young dancers, mostly half her age, who eagerly wanted to be part of the celebrated Broadway musical.
She recalls: “My daughter was with me. I asked her, what was I going to say? She told me to tell the truth. And so I said, ‘Hi, I’m 40, I was dancing since I was 39!’
Of course, the doggedly determined Virata got her role. But preparing for the audition didn’t happen overnight. Early on, she enrolled at Julie Borromeo’s dancing school: “I took every single class that she could possibly offer—ballet, jazz, tap. I had taken tap before and I took it again. I so wanted to do that role. I guess I also had the look they wanted. And I could sing. I was taking singing lessons with every single person you could think of. I was singing opera. I was classically trained.”
Always a student, Virata upped her game by attending theater seminars, including an eight-week workshop in Acting Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She also credits Amador for the hands-on training.
She has over 150 performances to her name, but it wasn’t until 10 years after she joined Rep when she got to play lead parts such as Edith Piaf in
“Piaf” (1985) and Evita Peron in “Evita” (1986), to name few. From there, she sealed her rightful place in the theater firmament, receiving a Lifetime Achievement award in 2017 from Gawad Buhay, the first and only industry awards for the performing arts.
In 2013, Virata announced her retirement from Repertory Philippines. A year later, she ditched the idea.
“No, I guess the retirement didn’t happen!” she admits.
As artistic director of Rep’s Theater for Young Audiences, Virata has been gearing up production work for
“Rapunzel” that she is directing, and is set to open in September.
Nowadays, her “post-retirement” period is preoccupied with rehearsals, production meetings, communicating with set designer Oliver “Obeng” Roxas who lives in London, and costume designer Raven Ong who is now based in New York. Creative ideas are hatched and developed over phone calls, e-mails and Facebook Messenger.
Virata sticks to a routine to balance her busy creative life with her personal time. She’s a certified early riser, at 5 or 6 a.m. Her first hour is spent in meditation. Then, exercise, which she considers her must, follows. “That’s medicinal to me. It’s not as a fad or for beauty. I have to exercise and I do that three times a week.”
Middle of the week, it’s church time for Bible study and to sing with the choir for the day’s noon service. Then it’s off to the Rep office or home to work in the afternoon. And when there are productions, it’s rehearsals till late in the evening.
She’s one of those artists who can “multitask like mad. I use every single minute to do something that I have to do. Like, if I’m in traffic, I will be doing things on my computer. Right now, I’ve been texting back and forth with my manager for ‘Rapunzel.’”
Joining her husband at social events or bonding with their three kids and grandkids and one great-grandchild is a nonnegotiable for this lady.
She squeezes in some reading time, too, on Kindle for novels. Her most recent bedside read is “Lincoln in the Bardo,” the 2017 experimental novel by American writer George Saunders.
When production for “Rapunzel” peaks and the children’s musical starts its run, Virata will be deep into rehearsals for “Miong,” which she will be directing and which will be staged for the third time in February 2019.
Based on the life of Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of independent Philippines, the libretto is by Virata, music by Ian Monsod. It was created in time for the country’s centennial celebration in 1998.
Next year’s “Miong” will coincide with the 115th birth anniversary of Aguinaldo.
Virata says she has shortened the script from a three hours to only two—cutting through the recitativo or the sang-through style of the play.
She recalls that it was her husband, a descendant of Aguinaldo, who suggested the idea to Amador. The theater director gave it a nod, threw Virata a glance and said, “Write it.”
The burden of writing about Aguinaldo’s life and times was managed by Virata early on, especially because of her familial connection with Aguinaldo. Virata says that she can comfortably say the result of her challenging work is “based on the truth, on data” she has diligently pored over.
“It’s not a defense. Honestly, if they look it up in the books, all the facts are there. I didn’t add anything that was just told to me—I wasn’t in contact with the family when I was writing it. But I got it all from books and research.”
Virata’s Miong is a valiant hero who was also a vulnerable human. “He was a soldier, a strategist who won all his battles. But he was also a very shy person.”
It’s quite a feat that Virata was able to pull off a play on a controversial figure in Philippine history, and to weave complex songs and a script that aims to capture the intense events that led to Philippine independence. But she did it.
In life, as in her love for theater, Virata has always given herself permission to pursue her passion, no matter what decade she is in. It’s a good thing, she says, when people go to her and say she has inspired them: “I like it when people sometimes tell me, ‘I saw you do that, so I can do that, too.’ And I say, ‘Absolutely.’ I started my theater when I was age 40! You think you’re old at 40 but you’re not.
“You can do anything you want. As long as you want it, and as long as you work hard to attain it. And people I know who are well, are busy. They’re doing things, they’re not just hibernating. You do anything you like.” –CONTRIBUTED
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