Learning from my directorsBy Nestor U. Torre
Philippine Daily Inquirer
As a stage actor for more than three decades, I played lead roles in more than 130 productions and was privileged to have been mentored by practically all of the country’s best directors – from whom I learned enough valuable lessons in performance and living to last me three lifetimes.
My love affair with performing began really early. When I was a grade school student, I was already participating in elocution and declamation competitions and acting in school plays. I felt most alive when I was onstage, so I continued to do it through high school and college, where I was fortunate to have been mentored by Jesuits who loved the arts in general, and theater in particular.
But, this was in the province. How good an actor was I, really? The answer came when I went to Manila for graduate studies, and found time to be a part of Fr. James B. Reuter’s “Family Theater” on ABS-CBN. Like the Jesuits who directed me in the Ateneo de Cagayan, Fr. Reuter was passionate about theater, and I too found myself fired up with his zeal.
Passion – that was the first lesson I learned from my Jesuit mentors, and it’s become a part of my artistic life for many decades now. I believe that zeal and love and artistic passion are important when you want to become a good theater artist, because it’s tough to do good artistic work in these parts, so you need that extra fervor and commitment to carry you past the many obstacles and disappointments that will come your way.
After my graduate studies at the Ateneo de Manila, I went on a Rotary International grant to the States to take up Radio-TV-Film at Northwestern University. There, I had top mentors who developed my talents further. One of them, Dr. Wallace Bacon, got me to perform in a couple of shows for him, and he impressed me with his sensitive attention to nuance and detail. He took his time to explore the script’s many levels and possibilities – a mature director was clearly in charge!
After my studies at Northwestern, I was asked to teach at the University of the Philippines—and imagine my delight when I met Dr. Bacon again, as an exchange professor at UP! Having already worked with me, he gave me important roles in “This Mortal Coil,” the evening of excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays that he put up at Abelardo Hall, to great acclaim.
Luckily for me, the young “avant-garde” director, Joey Gosiengfiao, caught one of our performances, was impressed with my portrayal – and offered me one of the lead roles in his production of Jean Anouilh’s “Becket.”
Little did I know that Joey’s production would be the showcase that would enable me to reach out to the larger theater crowd in Manila. Greatly aided and abetted by a rave review from the leading drama reviewer then, Morli Dharam, I became quite the flavor of the month – the year, even.
Of course, Joey’s staging and mentoring had a lot to do with the cause celebre. He had the visual flourish, the “experimental” edge that made viewers sit up and sense that they were in for a special evening at the theater.
From being directed by Joey, I learned theatricality, the actor’s larger-than-life use of his body and voice, as well as dramatic intensity and “flair,” We became an actor-director “team,” since he kept getting me to perform in his plays, like “The Lovers,” “Luv,” “Suddenly Last Summer”—and many more.
At around this time, I also acted for other directors. At UP, Nilda Joven tapped me to act in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” where I had the privilege of performing with the UP icon, Ching Dadufalza. “Journey” was a special experience for me because of that.
I was also “discovered” by the Manila Theater Guild’s Bill Kane, who got me to play the male lead role in “Black Comedy.” From Bill, I learned the “romantic comedy” style of performance – smart, breezy and thoroughly “entertaining.”
By the way, I also learned another huge lesson when, just one week before the show opened, I dislocated my shoulder in rehearsals! I had to be taken to the hospital and my arm was put in a sling.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s it, they’ll have to replace me.” But, I had another think coming.
From the playbill’s notes, let Bill Kane say it in his own words: “For the sake of the play, the director and MTG Board of Governors have decided to ask Mr. Torre to continue playing the lead role. Some of the more vigorous action (like falling down the stairs) will be modified, but it is the director’s contention that Mr. Torre can play this role with one arm better than most other actors could play it with two!
“The director takes his hat off to Mr. Torre, a brilliant player who has proved himself a real trouper in every sense of the word.” Ahem.
What about my other mentors, like Bert and Daisy Avellana, Sarah Joaquin, Rolando Tinio, Zeneida Amador, Behn Cervantes and Tony Espejo? I did many more plays for them, so those “learning” stories will have to be told – next time!
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