It’s fun being a dame.

Interview  Johanna Poblete | Photography  Jonathan Baldonado

There’s something very engaging, even sassy, about Joy Virata. As a young girl, she convinced everyone at school to call her by a made-up name, and it took ages for them to catch on.

Now 80, Ms. Virata is one of the grand dames of Philippine theater, as well as a director, playwright, classical singer, and lyricist. After 40 years and 160 productions since her breakout play, she’s a pro at costume changes— just last season, completing 25 three-second changes per show for Repertory Philippines’ Stepping Out.

Her talent for make-believe is such that theater stalwarts who have worked with and trained under her sometimes fail to recognize her onstage.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a supporting or starring role: she’s just as happy playing Edith Piaf (Piaf) and  Evita Peron (Evita) as she is playing Madame Thénardier (Les Miserablés) and Adara/Sara (Care Divas). It doesn’t matter if she plays a sickly 88-year-old (Elva in Mind’s Eye, a play Ms. Virata produced herself in 2012), or a tap-dancing 45-year-old (Vera from Stepping Out).

Her trade secret? An ever-revolving collection of varicolored costume wigs, from long skeins and romantic ringlets, to steel-grey buns and close-cropped styles.

HL: When did it start—your love affair with the hair?

JV: When we started doing French comedies. I went to New York and I discovered this wig store, Lacey Costume Wigs.  When we did La Cage aux Folles, I had to buy all the wigs for the Cagelles, all the underwear, all the shoes… For The Game’s Afoot, they all wore wigs that I bought them. That was set in the 1920s, close curls, so I insisted that the whole cast be properly wigged. That aids in the suspension of disbelief.

HL: How did you bring the wigs?

JV: In my suitcase. But oh, the funniest thing, before, I used to ask my husband [businessman Cesar Virata] to bring some home. So he said, ‘What if they opened my suitcase and they see all of these wigs!’ But he’s game. He was the one who brought Lea Salonga’s wig for Annie.

HL: How many wigs do you own?

JV: Not very many because they don’t last. And also, because I recycle it. Long, curly hair—those wigs just last for one run, and then they become put-up wigs, and then they become rat’s nests.

HL: I assume it gives audiences their visual cue.

JV: Yes, absolutely. For me, it’s a wig. When I first get a script and I am trying to figure out a character, the first thing I think about is the hair. Because your hair characterizes the kind of person, often, you are. It determines your age, your personality, a lot of things. Your script defines what character you have. And then you outfit yourself. Sometimes you can’t afford a real costume designer, so you have to create something yourself.

HL: Why not use your own hair?

JV: I can’t. It’s not my hair, it’s not me, I’m not on that stage—it’s this character on that stage. And if it’s my hair, it’s me.

HL: Is this common practice?

JV: That’s what I’m known for here. I always knew: Never show a wig without makeup. Never say, ‘Can I have this wig?’ without the proper makeup. In the past, [Bibot Amador and Baby Barredo] would turn me down in two seconds flat. I had to have the full look, so they could see the whole idea.

HL: Is it still hard to look for roles for women of a certain age?

JV: Oh, there’s a lot of material, but nobody will buy it. In this country, the youth take over everything. How many old movie stars do you have in the Philippines? How many old movie stars do you have abroad—some of the best movie stars are old—and all those great dames of the British theater. But here, it’s all very young people.

HL: Why aren’t we interested in stories about older people?

JV: Entertainment is sort of escapist sometimes. You have to accept the reality that Filipinos like youth, beauty, and to laugh.

HL: Has it ever occurred to you to leave the stage?

JV: You can’t. When you’re bitten, that’s it, it’s a drug. And you’re there. My husband always says ‘If you’re not doing a show, you get sick.’ And honestly, I wasn’t in a show for two years, and I was really hurting. I like directing but I don’t enjoy it as much.

I just like being another person. It’s wonderful to create another person that you’re not. I like the process of creating a character. It’s not that I don’t like myself, it’s just that I enjoy being someone else for a couple of hours, onstage.

And the more I can convince people I’m not me—my greatest compliment is when people say, ‘I didn’t know you were in that! I didn’t see you when I was there!’ That means it wasn’t me; I was that character and they believed it, which is helped a lot by the wig and the makeup.