Saturday, July 12, 2014

Asking Questions and Finding Answers: The Sandbox Collective's Dani Girl

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Call it divine intervention, but when director Toff de Venecia was looking through some 200 names—sans synopses—of various musicals, he chanced a click on Dani Girl, a musical he had never before seen nor heard of.

At his house in Forbes Park, I got a chance to interview Toff about his take on the musical, and was able to watch the cast rehearse. To say that the play brought me to tears would be an understatement. Let’s just say that I was trying to mask the embarrassing sniffles coming out of my nose with quiet coughs. It was truly something else.

“So this [was] one of those few things that I clicked on,” said de Venecia of his chance discovery. “[I thought that] this was really something that we can bring to life here in Manila, [and] when I read the synopsis I [decided that] this is going to be our show. This is what we’re going to launch Sandbox Collective with.” That the musical was the kind of show that would raise questions and get the audience to really think about conflicts and issues that relate to cancer and other life altering situations was something that sold the idea of reimagining —as the Sandbox Collective’s thrust aims to do—Dani Girl for the Philippine stage and audience.
Personally, I’d never heard of the play nor had I encountered anything like it on the stage or screen. When I mentioned this to de Venecia, he said that “this is the first time [Dani Girl] is being done in Asia.”

Originally created by Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman, Dani Girl is the story of nine year-old Dani Lyons, a leukemia patient, and her search for her hair and the answer to the question “ Why is cancer ?” It’s been staged in various parts of the world from the United States all the way to countries like Australia. Although Dani Girl doesn’t have the same name recall as Les Miserables, Rent, or, The Phantom of the Opera, it’s still received quite a bit of international attention with a prestigious Jonathan Larson grant to boot.
Later on in the interview, I asked him how he would bring this to the Philippine audience. “How do you reimagine musicals?” he asks more to himself than to me. Because it is an adaption of an original, they were not allowed to alter any part of it. However, he says that “there’re some liberties that you’re allowed to do, and it depends also on what you want to say. As artists, the best kind of art is the one that has something to say, and keeping in mind who our audience is and the personal experiences of everyone in the team. He adds that “ we’re in that point of our lives where we’re always questioning, always questioning God, self, family, love, friends, career—midlife crisis and all that. So we really kept that in mind in terms of how [we plan] to stage this.”

When asked whether Sandbox will continue to stage shows that send strong messages to the audience, de Venecia says “I think so. If it’s a subject matter that people are afraid to discuss, we’ll do it.” To him and to his team, The Sandbox Collective aims to send a message to the audience --to get them to ask questions and challenge them about what’s being presented on stage. He thinks that “the youth are [ballsier] that way” and that they are more open to delicate topics. A line in one of the songs from the musical goes something like “ No more happily-ever-afters .” De Venecia adds that “we have to push them to the edge of their boundaries and break them out of [their] boxes” and that “it’s [all about] challenging the audiences, not spoon feeding or catering, [but] giving them a stake in the process. If you come to the show, you’ll probably find answers, but these will just lead to more questions. It’s something you’ll still be thinking about well into the next day. For me, that’s mission accomplished.”

Dani Girl does the amazing job of raising questions both in kids, teens and in adults. There are numerous ways in which we—as sufferers or as caregivers—can deal with the onslaught of sickness. According to de Venecia, only three of these possibilities are explored in the musical.

“Creation is being in the moment,” says the 27 year-old director, “and there are a lot of things that happen when you discover new ideas. That also influences the way we do things at Sandbox.”

The Sandbox Collective is all about bringing together a variety of ideas, and turning them into something coherent and presentable for the stage. For Dani Girl, it was a mixture of a brilliant cast, Leeroy New as their set designer, and other young, talented Filipinos.

De Venecia says “It’s having that clear direction and getting everyone on board. So we’re all moving in one direction even if we all have our own different ideas.” Furthermore, he adds that what he’s enjoyed the most about working on Dani Girl is that “it’s all happening for the first time. It’s so open and free.” This was a no-holds-barred kind of thing for him. He says, “I like that young creative [people] are being given a voice, because theatre is such a formalistic industry. Directors are old and it’s hard to penetrate if you’re young. Sandbox is about giving opportunities to younger theatre creatives.”

One of these said creatives is 16 year-old Rebecca Coates.

She says, “[Dani Girl] is the hardest show I’ve ever done. It’s also the most meaningful.” Coates plays Dani Lyons alongside Reb Atadero, and alternates the role with Mitzie Lao. When I asked her how she felt about this being Sandbox’s first production, she said “The way the play is presented—it really allows you to just see things from a different perspective or point-of-view, and it just opens you up a lot.”

“People need to see it,” quips Coates. “Not a lot of plays deal with something like this, because no one really wants to talk about it which is understandable because it’s such a painful, heavy thing, but people need to see it. I think it’s really important especially for people my age, because we don’t really see it. When I went to Childhouse, [a halfway house for children undergoing chemotherapy], I had no idea there were so many kids going through it .”

I echo Coates’ sentiments regarding the abundance, for lack of a better term, of children going through such turmoil. As someone who visits orphanages often, I’m well aware of the amount of children that don’t have families, that don’t have parents or are given away by their parents, but the amount of children who go through cancer was shocking to me. I believe that it is high time for someone to open the eyes of the unaware. It’s time that someone bring this issue to light especially for the youth who don’t much pay attention to such issues.

Alongside her is 25 year-old Reb Atadero who alternates his role as Marty with Luigi Quesada (who turned just recently turned 16). Apart from playing Marty, Dani’s hospital roommate who suffers from Hodgkin’s disease, Atadero also plays the role of Dani’s guardian angel, Raph. He alternates the role with Laurence Martinez. “[Raph] plays 13 [roles] in total,” says Atadero.

I asked him how he about the subject matter. He said, “I lost my grandma to cancer. That was 13 years ago—2001. Funny thing is, m y family hid it from me, because my grandparents were the ones who raised me. They didn’t want me to see her suffer until it was too late, because they told me and we lost her a couple of months after that. So it is a very delicate subject that hits really close to home for me.”

When the call for auditions had come out on Facebook, there was neither a title nor a synopsis to the show. Having found out, Atadero says he was terrified of the subject matter having gone through it with his grandmother. “No one would want to be that vulnerable even as actors, but the job calls for it,” he said. “But this show’s all about acceptance, so we just accepted that this is what it’s about and treated it with respect and dignity. Since we decided that, the fear just went away. [I]t became all about the storytelling, which it always should be. That’s how I got over [my fear of the subject matter].”

But it’s not a subject that they expect each and every audience member to fully comprehend. As director Toff de Venecia says, “It’s all about sending a message, challenging audiences.” Dani Girl challenges its audience with the question “Why is cancer?” All throughout the show, Dani tries to answer this, and the ending will surprise you, but we asked the director and the cast what they thought the answer is.

“It’s because it is,” said Reb Atadero. “It’s not something that you can explain. [Bad things] happen. It’s how you accept it and deal with it that will define who you are. So, why is cancer? Well, why are we human? You learn from the show that life is unfair, but it doesn’t mean that you give up.”

Rebecca Coates says, “The answer’s really unexpected. I feel like we can’t really give a direct answer to that question, because not all of us have gone through it, and I’m not sure if any of us really know. I guess, like Dani, we just have to wait [and see], because I [don’t think anyone could give an answer to that].” 

“What my thesis for the show was it was all about the acceptance, the journey,” said Toff de Venecia. “Once you’ve accepted that life is the way it is, [what do you do about it] ? It’s about acceptance, because it is, and then what? It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey.”

“[The Sandbox Collective is] theatre for people,” said Coates. “It’s geared towards a particular audience, and that audience is so wide, the range is so wide. So many people can appreciate the shows that Sandbox puts on, and it has so much to do with imagination and so much to do with telling stories, telling important stories.”

Expect from the Sandbox Collective’s maiden show something incredibly brave. Rebecca Coates tells us that “This is a show that will help you see things in a different way and will open your eyes to new things .”

With The Sandbox Collective’s main goal—to get their audiences to think and to somewhat revolutionize Philippine theatre—and Dani Girl as their maiden production, it won’t be surprising to hear that this musical has turned heads and has attracted audiences to the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza in Makati.

Personally, I believe that one must go to the show with an open mind and an open heart. Let go of some of the biases, some of the grudges that you may have when dealing with the oh-so-delicate topic of cancer.
Ask questions and find answers, but expect to leave the theatre with more questions than you did when you first entered, because that’s what Dani Girl will do to you; it’s what it did to me, and that’s the whole point. Cancer isn’t something that has been answered yet—not by science, not by faith, although faith allows you the ability to accept it. Aside from all that, just enjoy the show because at the end of the day it is something that was meant to be enjoyed as much as it was meant to be pondered on.

Dani Girl runs from July 11 to July 27 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza. Ticket prices start at Php 600.00. Certain show dates offer a 50% off discount for students. For more information on Dani Girl and The Sandbox Collective, visit their website.

Article by Anna 
Photo taken from The Sandbox Collective's website
Special thanks to Toff de Venecia, Rebecca Coates, and Reb Atadero
Student. Writer. Wanderer. I'm experiencing life one step at a time, taking things slowly, and cherishing each and every moment.


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