Q & A (Part II) with Denise Mordeno Aguilar

Denise graduated from ITI in 2014 and has been busy since her return to her home country, Philippines. ITI spoke with Denise last, then on the eve of her graduation, to ask of her thoughts of her three years training journey. In this short 1.5 years since, Denise has been active teaching, performing and directing in Manila, Dumaguete, Ozamiz city and in her hometown of Cagayan de Oro. Denise has always believed in the arts as a powerful way to share stories that reflect the complexities of society, and of using theatre as a creative pathway to peace and community engagement – directions she has pursued and are fulfilling even right now. Recently honoured with the inaugural Lambago Art Awards presented by Xavier Center for Culture and the Arts, Denise reflects on how ITI remains a part of her practice today.


What highlights have there been for you since you graduated?

After I graduated from ITI, I was busy preparing and rehearsing my 45-minute solo piece Hope Floats which took root from my Final-Year Individual Presentation back at ITI. I didn’t quite know where to get started right after graduation, but I had, thankfully, signed up early for the inaugural Fringe Manila Festival so I got a chance to perform this solo work in February to March 2015 at De La Salle University in Pasay, Metro Manila. When I went back to my hometown, I was invited to perform Hope Floats on World Theatre Day (March 27, 2015) at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City. All Hope Floats performances were by donations only, with all proceeds turned over to my former classmate and friend who is fighting end-stage renal disease.

After that, Felimon Blanco, the first Filipino graduate of ITI and the one who recommended me to ITI, invited me to meet his network. There, I met a pillar of Philippine art and culture, who is based in the central Philippine islands of the Visayas, where he works in community theatre. He asked me to perform at the famous Baklayon cockpit theatre. This engagement led to an invitation for me to join the Perfomance Studies International RORO Team which toured the Philippines to conduct research on performance and resilience in the country.

One thing led to another. The Speech and Theatre Department of Silliman University, which participated in the RORO Team tour, then asked me to help them put up their 50th Anniversary Show. I assisted the director and performed a shadow theatre piece at The Claire McGil Luce Auditorium.

After that project, I was invited to direct a major original musical production based on a Manobo epic. As it happens, I am a Manobo myself. During my graduation interview in 2014, I said that I intend to go back to my own culture – and this project helped make this a reality! The result was Heaven as the Sea: The Saliling Tale of the Ulahingan Epic – my post-colonial, postmodern take on breathing life to local folklore and myths. It was first staged in March 2016 and will have its national debut during the Philippine Theatre Festival in late 2016 at the Cultural Center of Philippines.

“During my graduation interview in 2014, I said that I intend to go back to my own culture – and this project helped make this a reality! The result was Heaven as the Sea: The Saliling Tale of the Ulahingan Epic – my post-colonial, postmodern takeon breathing life to local folklore and myths.”

In between it all, back in Cagayan de Oro, I gave free workshops to local artists, helping them explore movement improvisations. This became the architectural backbone of a new production I directed in November 2015, Light and Love. Because of the success of this project, I was offered the Artistic Director post at Pasundayag Community Arts, the company where I started my journey in theatre. In February 2016, I was honoured with the Lambago Art Award presented by Xavier Center for Culture and the Arts.

Other than the acting and directing opportunities, I was also asked to share my expertise by the National Commission for Culture and the Art’s Speaker’s Bureau and some other non-governmental organisations.

I’ve also conducted training, mostly Voice for Stage Actors and Movement for Theatre, to La Salle University students in Ozamiz City with Teatro Guindengan, Bacolod City & Kamalig: Visayas Theatre Craft Development & Capability Building Workshop with the TeatroKon Negros Artists Network, and Silliman University & Education Major Students with the module of Creative Approaches to Teaching Language and Literature. I’ve also kept busy by sharing some Creative Communication Modules to Umalahokan Ranao Training Workshop with the Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur Journalism Network under the auspices of the US Embassy in Manila.

Through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and La Salle University, Ozamiz under Felimon Blanco’s project, I had also presented a paper on the “Cultural Journey and Theatre Practice of Reverend Father Rodulfo “Dong” Galenzoga”, an icon in Mindanao theatre. This was followed with a performance based on this material during the “Theatre and Spirituality in Mindanao Conference” at La Salle University in Ozamiz City.

I am now working on a multi-disciplinary research project backed by the NCCA, translating the Philippines’ ancient handwritten script, the Sinaunang Baybayin, into a performance slated for its world premiere on July 2016.

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How have you seen your three-years training at ITI impact your current work?

My years of training at ITI remains fundamental in all my work. It has taught me that there are several ways to approach a performance in terms of acting and directing. I am always grateful to ITI for opening my eyes and broadening my perspectives in theoretical and practical ways. More importantly, my ITI experience has given me confidence to breathe new life to traditional and contemporary performance modalities – as well as joy in performance, in production work, in teaching young thespians, and in my private, internal life – the joy of being alive in my art and in my whole life, this is a supreme gift from ITI.

“I am always grateful to ITI for opening my eyes and broadening my perspectives in theoretical and practical ways.”

To future Filipino ITI students, what words do you have for them?

Nobody ever said acting is easy, or that you are only as good as what you’ve made of yourself in mainstream theatre. If you’ve pondered upon the idea of taking risks, of unlearning, of emptying, of the true essence of humility, then you are ready for ITI.

Without a scholarship, you may not have been able to graduate and return to fruitful work. Tell us how impactful you feel scholarships and financial aid are to theatre students.

I was a recipient of the Kuo Pao Kun Foundation-ITI Scholarship, for which I am grateful beyond words. I thought that after three years at ITI, I would be in great debt…millions in Philippine Peso. For a student coming from a Third World Country like me, financial assistance is a life-saver, especially as foreign students were not allowed to work while studying in Singapore. I hope that the Kuo Pao Kun Foundation will have more good fortune so it can help others as well. As for me, my gratitude to the foundation and to ITI is and will be returned in the only way I can: to spread the good word and good works about the game-changing experience that is ITI. I was trained to be not only a good actor but also a better person. So to those foundations, institutions or philanthropists who want to make a difference, please consider supporting a student in ITI and we will make this world a better place using the Arts – spreading light and love. Mabuhay po kayo!

“To those foundations, institutions or philanthropists who want to make a difference, please consider supporting a student in ITI and we will make this world a better place using the Arts.”