RP stage talents migrate to Hong Kong Disneyland

First posted 05:53am (Mla time) Sept 13, 2005
By Bayani San Diego Jr.
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A1 of the Sept. 13, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

LEA SALONGA was not the only Filipino talent at yesterday’s opening of Hong Kong Disneyland.

Singer Jinky Llamanzares performed onstage, while local theater stalwart Bobby Garcia worked backstage as “director for shows” at the theme park.

Salonga, best known for her performance in the Broadway show “Miss Saigon,” is the singing voice behind Disney animated characters Mulan and Princess Jasmine in “Aladdin.”

Llamanzares played Gigi in the Toronto production of “Miss Saigon,” while the Fordham-trained Garcia directed “Rent” in Manila and Singapore.

There are other Filipinos helping Mickey and the gang create magic for Hong Kong Disneyland guests. They work as character performers, playing Disney icons Cinderella and Snow White. They’re also singers, dancers and musicians.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) pegged the number of Filipino artists recruited by Hong Kong Disneyland at 116.

In an interview with the Inquirer, Doug Miller,

executive vice president and managing director of Walt Disney International (Asia Pacific) said: “We’ve hired about 5,000 to 6,000 people from Asia. Among [the new recruits], quite a few are from the Philippines. Visitors will see a lot of Asian faces at the park.”

Hong Kong Disneyland is the 11th in its global empire and the smallest at 40 hectares. Aside from the theme park, there are two hotels offering a thousand rooms each.

Disney auditions in Manila

Ever since Cameron Mackintosh stumbled on a treasure trove of talent in Manila for his original West End staging of “Miss Saigon” in 1987, the Philippines has built a solid reputation among international casting agents.

The US Disney team realized this soon enough when many of those who passed the Hong Kong auditions were Filipinos.

Disney approached composer Ryan Cayabyab because he had previously worked on various projects with the global entertainment giant.

Cayabyab, as the executive and artistic director of the San Miguel Foundation for the Performing Arts, “produced” the Manila auditions for Disney.

From November 2004 to June this year, representatives from Disney International Casting visited Manila to search for talents. “They held auditions in Manila at least five times seeing some 400 to 500 Filipinos,” Cayabyab said.

Those who passed the auditions are now in Hong Kong, working as character performers, singers, dancers and even musicians (brass, trumpet and saxophone players).

Bring rubber shoes

“In June, they were here looking for hand drummers,” Cayabyab said. “African percussionists. Meaning, they play drums not with sticks but with their bare hands. The musicians and singers will work not only in the park, but also at the two hotels.”

“They shot all the participants with a video camera,” Cayabyab described the process. “They didn’t decide on the spot. Instead the audition tapes were sent to the main office in Florida. It’s a very stringent and professional process.”

According to the theme park’s official website, there was another round of auditions in Hong Kong last July 10. Applicants must be at least 16 years old.

“Anyone who’s interested can go there,” Cayabyab said. “It’s open to everyone, for as long as they meet the requirements. All they need to bring are their rubber shoes!”

And lots of chutzpah.

Brain drain

“Being a character performer is not just [about] bringing a character to life,” the Disney website said. “It is [about] having the belief that you [can] truly create magic.”

And while Hong Kong Disneyland is giving these Filipino artists gainful employment, the country is experiencing another “brain drain” -- this time in the performing arts.

“Local musical theater lost a number of seasoned actors,” said Audie Gemora, president and artistic director of Trumpets. He said Ampy Sietereales, Sheila Valderrama, Anna Liza Zialcita, Ralion Alonso, Roy Rolloda and Noel Rayos had joined Hong Kong Disneyland.

Among the Filipino dancers who had signed up with Hong Kong Disneyland were nine company members of Ballet Philippines, according to artistic director Augustus Damian.

“We lost four female and five male dancers,” he said, “That’s nine out of 17 company members.”

On average, these dancers, who were of different ages, had logged two to five years of dancing experience, said Damian, who himself worked as principal dancer in various ballet companies in Germany for two decades.

These artists could hardly be blamed. A Ballet Philippines company member is entitled to a basic salary and shoe allotment which, he said, is “a pittance” compared to international standards.

Window of opportunity

“From what I gather, a ballet dancer in the Philippines earns slightly higher than a public school teacher,” Damian said. “Which is slightly above minimum wage.”

In contrast, the Filipino talents in Hong Kong Disneyland are paid in Hong Kong dollars and given partial payment upon contract signing, according to Angie Magbanua, Llamanzares’ manager.

Cayabyab noted that the Disney exodus “is still a positive development,” in spite of the perceived “brain drain.”

“Since the more experienced performers are leaving for abroad, a window of opportunity has been opened for younger talents who are just waiting in the wings,” he said.

“New artists will be discovered and trained,” Cayabyab added. “Moreover, when the artists who’ve gone abroad return home, they can share and pass on skills and knowledge to their peers here. I am certain their stints abroad will make them better artists and mentors. It will teach them discipline and independence. It will broaden their horizons.”