In the age of viral videos, all this talk of theater dying is no surprise. Launched last week and running until July 27, a musical called Dani Girl has got us thinking, however.
The Dani in this musical is a nine-year-old girl who learns that her cancer is back, but not without the consolation of her cheeky guardian angel. What follows is a whimsical journey through Dani’s imagination and into maturity. While unleashing whip-smart song and dance, Dani learns to fight; she learns to love; and she learns to accept.
This sort of off-Broadway material is risky where the Filipino theater audience has been so used to cloying ol’ musicals, and ones with big-name leads. The Sandbox Collective, a renegade theater company just launched this year, has risen above that to challenge the audience with a show both contemporary and captivating.
Playing Dani, the performances of 16 year-old Rebecca Coates and her alternate, 21 year-old Mitzie Lao, are infectious. B/BLOG peeled off their bald prosthetics and pallid stage makeup, trailing after them through Makati like they were two actresses chasing auditions. With loads of promise, though, casting directors might soon be chasing them.
Is this your first professional gig?
Mitzie: This is my first professional one but I’ve done plays in Ateneo. I started in Ateneo Children’s Theater, it was The King and I. I played Anna Leonowens. From 2005 to present, I’ve been doing the role of Sinta in Dulaang Sibol, in an adaptation of The Fantasticks. I did a mashup of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. This is my first professional play—it takes time since I’m still in school. I’m having a hard time auditioning ‘cause I’d rather present a diploma first to my family.
Rebecca: It always feels like my first but no, I did Sound of Music by Resorts World three or four years ago, then I just finished Alice in Wonderland.
What were auditions like for this?
Rebecca: There was this really shady ad on Facebook. It didn’t even give the name of the company, didn’t give the name of the show. It just gave the description of the character. It was circulating and I wasn’t supposed to do any shows this year but when I saw it, it said Age: 9-25. And there are so few shows that offer slots for that range—my range. It was for Dani Girl, which I never heard of. I stalked the musical, heard the song and cried. ‘Oh my God, I’ve gotta do this.’ And that was the beginning. I met Mitzi at auditions and I completely ruined her callback.
Mitzie: I was supposed to sing with another guy but that guy had to leave already.
Rebecca: So I go in and I completely ruin her song. So when I saw her at the contract signing, I was like, ‘Yes!’
Mitzie: I actually didn’t know it was gonna be a big thing because when I auditioned, there were no people.
And what was it about Dani Girl that drew you to it?
Rebecca: I think it really helps that the show is told through the viewpoint of a nine-year-old. Cancer is a heavy topic and I feel like cancer is treated with the sensitivity that it deserves, but since it’s told from a child’s viewpoint, there’s lightness to it.
When we visited a children’s cancer ward, despite the heavy things they were going through, the kids had so much joy. I feel like that shows in the show.
Mitzi: People will be inspired and it’s an eye-opener for everyone.
Rebecca: The first song I heard from the show was “My Hair.” I looked it up on YouTube and there’s so much power in how the songs are written that when you get into the actual flesh of the show, it’s just ahh. The people who wrote the show, Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, based it on an actual child.
Mitzi: We had so much questions about the script. But when we played it for the director of Child Haus (the children’s ward), we had answers. Like, ‘Is it true that this girl vomits like this?’ She was a survivor of Hodgkin’s at 15 and a lot of the script, she was able to relate to.
What do you think the audience will leave the theater with?
Rebecca: Whenever we invited people who survived cancer to the rehearsals, they would always say, ‘Oh, thank you for doing this because people don’t know our stories.’ And people don’t talk about it, people don’t always understand. So they said, ‘Even if it’s difficult for us to express sometimes, it’s gonna be easier for us.’ People are gonna leave with a better understanding of what cancer is like—and not just in the physical aspect. The emotional, the spiritual journey. Especially if it’s told through a nine-year-old’s point of view, everything is so truthful. Nine-year-olds don’t have walls up. Whatever they’re feeling, whatever they’re going through, that’s what you see onstage.
From what I saw, Dani is a pretty angsty nine-year-old.
Rebecca: She’s very feisty. So much fun to play. As a nine-year-old, I can remember being really fidgety, really talkative, and really annoying. Dani is…
Mitzi: Still annoying (laughs).
Rebecca: And I’m still awkward (laughs). Dani’s like that in the best of ways.
(To Rebecca) You mentioned you weren’t gonna do any shows this year. Why is that?
Rebecca: Oh, no because I’m in my 4th year of high school. At the start of the year, I had to say, ‘Okay, I’m in my 4th year, I’m gonna lay off editions, just get through this year and maybe during my gap year, maybe during college…’ And then at the very start of the year, there’s an audition. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to. When I listened to the song, I got so excited. I can’t remember ever wanting a part that much. I went to my mom and said, ‘Mom, I have an audition in two days, I’m gonna do it. I don’t care if I have to learn the song in two days. And there’s lots of lyrics and high notes. Whatever. I’m doing it.’ And I’m not the best belter—I’m like Disney Princess-style singing, but, okay, gotta do this, gotta do this.
Are you looking forward to doing another show?
Rebecca: Always. The minute a show closes, I always am.
But don’t you just want to enjoy your last year of high school?
Rebecca: I feel like I can enjoy my last year while doing theater. Theater honestly helps me enjoy school more. I don’t like to look at school and think, ‘Great, this is taking me away from what I love to do.’ I think, ‘Okay, if I keep my grades up, then I’ll be allowed to do theater.’
(To Mitzi) And what are you taking up in college?
Mitzi: I’m taking up music and musical theater.
(To Rebecca) Do you know what you’re gonna take up?
Rebecca: I was thinking of occupational therapy. I’m not sure ‘cause I’m not the best at science but whatever, I’ll go for it. I want to do theater forever but I don’t necessarily think I should take it up in college. For me, if I want to do theater, I’m just gonna keep doing theater. I feel like the course will probably help but I’d rather be onstage.
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