By Gerard de la Peña, News5
FILIPINOS have made quite an impression globally as performers, having conquered Broadway and the West End’s stages.
But one has entered the New York theater scene not onstage as a performer, but literally through the back entry — the backstage.
Sheryl Polancos had spent more than a decade working on the production and stage management side of theater in the Philippines. After finishing her AB Communication Arts degree from the University of Sto. Tomas, she worked for the Cultural Center of the Philippines-Tanghalang Pilipino and Atlantis Productions, among other theater groups, where she worked on the stagings of Himala, The Musicale, Piaf, Avenue Q, Shrek The Musical, and Next To Normal, to name a few. Now based in New York, Ms. Polancos is part of the stage management team of the critically acclaimed The Jersey Boys and Soho Repertory Theatre’s production of Samara.
After stints in off-Broadway productions, her goal is to be part of shows with bigger audiences on Broadway.
News5/BusinessWorld was able to talk to Ms. Polancos to discover her journey through the road less travelled.
What brought you to the US?
I’ve always wanted to work in Broadway. I wanted to be in the middle of the melting pot of arts and theater so that solidified my decision to move to New York and pursue my dreams even if I had to start from scratch again.
What is so exciting in New York?
I feel like New York is the leader when it comes to pushing boundaries in art. It is unapologetic that’s why I love it. New York is such a diverse city — the people, the culture, the food, they’re all fascinating. New York opens your eyes to new things and experiences. It is the birthplace of some of the great works in theater and to witness it — or be in it — first hand is very exciting.
Most Pinoys would probably take performing seriously in order to land a job in New York or the West End.
In your case, why enter through the backstage?
My first love really was dancing but I got injured when I was about to start my freshman year in the university. So in the meantime I told myself I will try my hand in theater as an actor and once I’m healed, I’m going back to dancing. But like most people, I caught the theater bug and never left. After graduation, I applied at the Cultural Center of the Philippines as assistant production manager. I liked my job but I didn’t particularly love it. Then I found out I wanted to be a stage manager. Now why backstage, particularly stage management? I’ve always had great respect for stage managers. I feel like they are the magicians and unsung heroes of theater. It gave me a different sense of fulfilment when I’m on the other side to see all the hard work finally come together. The stage manager is the glue that holds the show together. And so I told myself, my aim is to become the best stage manager I can be. For me to get that training and experience, I told myself I want to penetrate New York.
How would you differentiate working for Philippine productions vs. New York productions?
I don’t see a big difference as far as the rehearsal process or running shows is concerned. The difference is managing people. In the Philippines, our productions have short runs while they have long-running shows in New York. In the Philippines, we’re done after a three-week run. Same with off-Broadway productions that run for a couple of months. It’s a whole different beast when you’re maintaining a long-running show. So the difference really is maintaining the show and managing the company for years, and keeping the show’s integrity intact. I’d say that’s the training that I didn’t get from running shows in the Philippines. Now I am still learning all these things.
How would you differentiate the working conditions in Philippine theater compared to those in New York?
In the Philippines, stage managers don’t have a union but here in New York, we have what we call Equity (An American labor union representing live theater performance — Ed.) so we are protected by rules once we step in a rehearsal space or theater. For example, as an assistant stage manager, we’re not allowed to touch a prop or move a set piece because the deck crew does that. And they are also bound by their union rules. So there is no overstepping of jobs.
But I see my experience in the Philippines as an advantage because stage managers here are not necessarily trained on deck tracks. When presented with a complicated production that we have to do a full deck track while doing stage management, I feel like I have an edge over them. Since we don’t have a union in the Philippines, I’ve been trained to be a stage manager and also as a crew person. So when I’m running a show here, my brain and body can multitask and function not only as a stage manager but also as crew. I have to thank Philippine theater for that.
How was it working with the big names in New York theater scene?
Working with Tony Award-winning directors, choreographers, actors, legends, and even lighting designers was pretty intimidating. But then you get to know them and you realize they are just regular people having the same goal as you do, which is to create or maintain a wonderful show. It’s so fascinating to be able to work with them closely and be a witness to their process. Even just hearing these award-winning directors give notes to the actors is already a privilege and an honor.
What are your dream productions in New York?
When I came to New York for a visit, I planned on watching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time because I have read the book and really loved it. So when I saw it on Broadway, I told myself I want to be a part of this show some day. They are currently on tour. Also, everyone close to me knows I’m a Harry Potter fan so to be in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child would be a dream come true.
Who do you dream of working with?
To be honest, more than the dream of working with actors or celebrities, I really want to be able to work with stage managers of big Broadway shows and pick their brain and learn from them. I think I geek out more on stage managers, directors, and choreographers than actors.
Gerard de la Peña , a former reporter at BusinessWorld, is now a senior corresponded at TV5 and One News and an achor at Radyo Singko 92.3 NewsFM.