Nuel Rivera is a 19-year-old aspiring director, composer, playwright and theater producer. A graduating senior at De La Salle College of St. Benilde, this young blood has already won awards for his work. He shares with us his fresh insights and promising outlook on the theater scene.
Give us a description of what you do.
I am a director for theater. I also write scripts, and I compose music for musical theater. That’s my foundation, but I also do experimental theater. These break off from the traditional musicals. They’re like revues. We feature pieces in a bar-type show, but it’s still set like a theater. The pieces can be a monologue series or a poetry reading series.
What inspired you to be a playwright and a director?
I grew up in the theater. I was exposed to different kinds of shows. When I hit 4th year high school, I realized there were shows that didn’t have a lot of substantial messages or themes for their audiences. As an audience member who grew up in the theater, I wanted new things to be shown and presented. And I wanted to be the one to do that.
What full shows/musicals have you done so far? Tell us about them. Which one are you most proud of and why?
I’ve done two full-length musicals, Numb and This is Who We Are; one straight play, The Storyteller, and one experimental theater production called Things We Can’t Control. These are apart from my smaller productions.
Numb was my first full length musical. We staged it when I was in 2nd year college. It was about a popstar who had fallen in love with a drug dealer. It shows the downfall of the star’s career because of her attraction to this guy. I wanted to show how fame works against your personal side.
The Storyteller is set in 9/11. It’s about a ballerina and a writer who find themselves caught in the 9/11 attacks. This ballerina becomes paralyzed from the waist down because of it. She loses hope too, thinking that the writer has fallen out of love with her. But he assures her that he has not. This show talks about love, and how you love someone for who they are, not for who they will be.
Things We Can’t Control was my most recent show. It was an experimental theater production. We staged songs and short scripts. The production dwelled on how we embrace unexpected things that transpire in our lives and how we respond to them.
I would say I’m most proud of This is Who We Are. Even I was shocked on how the piece turned out. It was staged in 2015 at De La Salle College of St. Benilde’s annual theater festival called “Crossroads”. The piece is set in New Orleans about victims of Hurricane Katrina. There’s a group of friends who try to get their lives back on foot after the hurricane. This piece came a few years after typhoon Yolanda hit Tacloban. What I wanted to do was tell people that they don’t need to disregard their dreams just because of a calamity or whatever happened in their lives. In this piece, the characters aren’t getting this exact thing they wanted or what they were dreaming of, but they get hope revived in them.
“As an audience member who grew up in the theater, I wanted new things to be shown and presented. And I wanted to be the one to do that.”
What awards have you received for your shows?
In 2014, Numb won Best Playwright for “Crossroads”. This is Who We Are won 3rd best play. Just recently, I won the Pioneer Insurance Stories of Hope competition.
Describe your life as a young playwright and director in four adjectives.
Not really adjectives. But I’d really like to say. “Living the dream everyday”. It’s stressful and tiring, but I don’t feel it. Because somehow I just know that I’m built for this. It’s what I wanted.
Did you ever have to deal with being underestimated in this field because of your age?
How did you get over it?
I use that to my advantage. I like surprising people with my age. I don’t slam it in their faces that “I’m a young kid trying to compete with them.” But at the same time, I like how I’m young and able to have this kind of opportunity in putting up shows. So I just focus on making sure that I put out something good.
Describe your process in making a musical. How long does it take to prepare for it? What are the stages involved?
Contrary to how other writers do it, I actually don’t outline. What I do is I just go with it. Normally, I develop one or two characters, and I go with whatever comes to mind in that moment I decide to write. I people watch, too and draw inspiration from others’ experiences and the stories I hear.
Four months is enough time to produce a musical. There’s pre-production, where we fine tune the creative aspect and audition actors. That happens in the first month. Then we give ourselves 14-21 rehearsals. It doesn’t need to be every day, but in can be scattered in the next 2 months. And then there’s production where we have a week to put out the show. And then finally, post-production.
You’re only 19, but you’re already fulfilling some dreams. What else do you want to accomplish?
I want to go back to acting. I started acting when I was 8. But when I entered college, I had to put that aside. A few months before I entered college, I auditioned for a show. The producer said, “I want to hire you, but I don’t want to take the opportunity of college away from you.” She was saying there’s a world out there. She said, “I want you to see it so that you can also mature before you come back to acting.” At first, I couldn’t understand that. I really wanted to do the show. Fresh out of high school, you do get sick of studying and want to make a living already. But I get it now. I really do. And I want to go back even more because of my exposure to directing and producing shows.
What is your vision as a director/ producer? Where do you see your shows being staged?
Well, I actually don’t like staging shows in traditional formal theaters. I look for open spaces. I look for galleries that I can partner with. I look for warehouses, maybe even basketball courts; anything different that takes away the tradition of a big platform stage.
Maybe that’s just my vision as a producer of shows. I mean, I want to show different kinds of material, so why not stage it differently?
Which theater actors and actresses would you want for your plays?
As a director, my vision is getting new blood. Preferably people who don’t have experience in theater. Because the thing is, I was exposed to theater at a young age, and I saw how it helped me. It developed my character, made me explore aspects of my personhood. Acting helps people. I want to give that opportunity to people who want to be onstage but never got to.
What kind of difficulties do you think young playwrights face in the Philippine Scene?
In the theater scene, a lot of them are already established. It’s really hard for young blood to penetrate the industry. It will take a lot of hard work. Especially if we want to be competitive with these big names, it will take a while. It will take years. That’s how my vision for staging plays in different locations and staging different kinds of materials come into play. I can use it to establish my own identity, and it’s not about competing with the big names either.
What was the most unforgettable moment of your life as a young director?
During one of our rehearsals for This is Who We Are. I asked an actor friend of mine to handle a workshop. One of their activities was to find a corner in the room and just let out all their frustrations, especially in the context of dreams. For a good half hour, all my actors were screaming and crying. We were heard throughout the whole school. We were rehearsing at the top floor. People from downstairs told me that they could hear the screaming and crying.
That was the first time I realized that my job as a director is more than just mounting the show. My actors, the people I work with, they have certain frustrations. There are feelings that need to come out. As the director, you’re like the “Dad” of the show. You’re responsible for your actors.
What has been the reception of the Filipino audience to your work?
The number one thing I get is, “You’re so western!” Which I’ve learned to embrace because that is the foundation of my theater background. It was purely western. But I’m trying to incorporate a lot of local influences through character development and storyline. That’s one reception. Others love the idea of being exposed to something else, that’s not typical. It’s something new to them, and they welcome it. It’s like a palate cleanser. Another reception is that they love the music. I don’t want to take full credit for that because I have a partner, Tin Caberto. We write all the songs together. They say that our songs are made for theater, but they can imagine it being heard over the radio. And I like that.
“A story is an instrument for truth. And I don’t refer to truth as in an established truth. You can feed people a lie and call it a truth. That’s what you can do with a story.”
Define what a “story” is in your own words, by your own experience.
A story is an instrument for truth. And I don’t refer to truth as in an established truth. You can feed people a lie and call it a truth. That’s what you can do with a story. Whatever you put out there, these are things that people can and probably will believe. So it’s the way that you use the story to impart a certain truth. It’s what’s vital for the writer to do or establish.
Can you define “art” and relate it to your role as a playwright?
I have a professor who told us that art is anything that makes you feel. I have to agree with that. You know that not feeling is a feeling. You stare at an artwork and if you don’t feel anything, that’s still feeling something. And art is exactly like that. Art is anything that makes you feel. As a playwright, that is your job, to make sure that the audience feels some things. That’s what I always work after. Is it gonna make them feel happy, encouraged, sad, or hopeful? Or what if they don’t feel anything? I’ll take that.
What kind of stories do you want your audience to remember you by?
With all my stories and all the songs so far, what I’ve noticed with my trends and themes is that it’s always encouraging. I hate it when people decide for themselves that this is “the end” of something for them. “This is the end of my dreams”; “This is the end of all the good things in my life.” And the thing is, I’ve lived through that. I thought that there was an end, too. You hit a bump on the road and you think you’ll never be able to do more. But it’s not the end. I think that’s just like a false belief the world has said to us.
Interview & Text – Nicole Gusto
Nicole is a part-nerd and part-artist. She geeks out on words and stories that have life…
the ones that are definitely worthwhile. She is in love with summer (if summer could ever be a person).
Photography – Cris Legaspi