By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was through singing the song “Alright, Okay, You Win” in high school that roused the performing bug in Filipino American actress Heather Apellanes. Though Apellanes was trained in classical piano, that first solo performance set the stage for her eventual pursuits as a triple threat — a thespian skilled in acting, singing, and dancing.
“What connects me to theater is my love of storytelling,” said Apellanes. “I love the triple threat medium and entertainment value of musical theater.”
Her fiancé, Ben Gonio, also developed an interest in performing as a teen. As a child, Gonio took folk dancing and guitar lessons. He admitted that he also enjoyed creating dialogue for his toys. He was a theatrical person from the start. However, it wasn’t until he was captivated by his high school’s production of “Anything Goes” that he started taking drama classes and auditioning for high school musicals.
Gonio earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama from Carnegie Mellon University years later.
A musically inclined culture
Both Apellanes and Gonio represent the growing trend of Filipino American actors in the local theater scene. But why are numbers for Filipino Americans rising in an industry where Asians have long been considered the minority?
Is it in their genes?
Gonio sees this explanation as too simplistic. “Music is inherently ingrained in our culture, more than any other Asian culture,” he said. Gonio thinks that Filipinos are more naturally expressive as a result of the Philippines’ history with other cultures.
Through thousands of years of colonization and immigration, the Philippines has become a melting pot with Chinese, Arab, and Spanish influences. The country has become more factional as subcultures struggle to assert their identity apart from others.
However, it is this lack of a strong national identity that has shaped a new mentality among Filipinos, according to Gonio.
Time has allowed the cultures to fuse together and produce a naturally more expressive way of celebrating “island life” — exemplifying the way Filipinos live.
“People live quiet lives on these remote islands, so they celebrate simple happiness … there’s just a gratitude for being alive,” said Gonio. “So, when you have nothing, you’re going to sing your praises. What else are you going to do on a rural island?”
Apellanes said that because this musical culture is so deeply ingrained in their roots, it is natural for Filipino families to embrace performance in their daily lives.
“Filipinos love to entertain and celebrate life,” she said. “Music plays a key role in our lives from an early age.”
According to the 2005 American Community Survey, Filipinos made up 19 percent of the local Asian Pacific American (APA) community, which is the largest Asian American subgroup in Washington state. This helps explain why there are more Filipino Americans in the local theater community than any other Asian American subgroup.
As a first generation Filipino American, Gonio said his parents have always supported and encouraged his artistic goals. But Apellanes, who is second generation, has long argued with her mother about her pursuits.
Apellanes said she has had to persevere to create her own performing career out of “pure aggressive determination.” She often sees the same familial conflict reflected in her peers.
“I’ve known other Asian Americans who never really tried to succeed in this (theater) business because they were too scared to pursue it,” said Apellanes. “They didn’t have the support due to cultural differences with their parents.”
Asian Americans in local theater
Although there is a relatively large group of local Asian American actors, there aren’t nearly as many jobs available because of the reluctance toward colorblind casting in Seattle.
Many local board members, who decide on a venue’s theater season, gravitate toward classic musicals that appeal to an older, more affluent white demographic. These shows typically cast white actors in the starring roles.
For Gonio and Apellanes, both of whom have worked at some of the main theaters in Seattle, including The 5th Avenue Theatre, it has been difficult to avoid typecasting or minor roles.
“As a minority actor, what people see on our stages doesn’t really reflect the diversity we have in Seattle,” said Gonio. “Theater should always reflect its community, and Seattle isn’t reflecting the one we truly have.”
Gonio notes that in the past decade, Asian American actors resided in Seattle until they left for bigger markets in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago. These cities generally produce edgier, modern works that allow for non-traditional casting.
“Seattle just doesn’t have enough work [for Asian Americans],” said Gonio. “I would like to see more diversity in Seattle theaters. I need and [want them to] aspire to do more.”
The art of balance and sustainability
Although their love for the performing arts is undeniable, both Apellanes and Gonio understand the importance of balance in their lives.
As she did not study theater in college, Apellanes sees herself as a self-made artist with most of her professional training stemming from hip hop dance classes and singing and performing as a young adult.
Before she delved into professional theater, Apellanes graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree n industrial engineering. After graduating, with a few productions under her belt — including a run of “The King and I” at the Village Theatre in Issaquah, where she met Gonio — Apellanes realized that while her interests did not lie in engineering, she could not financially sustain herself on theater pursuits alone.
Apellanes became a web consultant. She is currently a program manager working with a retail training team at Microsoft. Her day job provides her with the flexibility to continue performing. This includes starting her own production company, creating a one-woman solo show, and if time permits, one professional theater gig a year.
“Now that I’m older, my work has really become all about balance for me — a balance between creativity and vocation,” said Apellanes. “And it’s great to be able to get my own stories out and create the voice that I want to hear.”
Gonio holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Washington. He works as a clinical placement specialist with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, lectures at the University of Washington-Bothell campus, and is a leadership consultant.
But Gonio still manages his time for his artistic endeavors. “I have to produce [artistic] stuff to sustain me.”
Having received a grant from the City of Seattle’s Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, Gonio is developing a multimedia, solo-theater show called, “As Boundless as the Green Earth.”
The show is based on the novel “America is in the Heart” by Filipino novelist and poet Carlos Bulosan. Apellanes will create music for the show, which opens in early 2011. ♦
“As Boundless as the Green Earth” will run at the Ethnic Cultural Center Jan. 21–22 and Jan. 28–29. For more information, visit www.whoisheather.com and www.bengonio.com.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.