Ryan interviews Renée Albulario on her time with the ground-breaking musical, Here Lies Love. Renée gives us an inside look on the show, what the whole process was like, and what's next in her creative endeavors.
Where are you originally from?
Orange County, California!
When did you start performing?
I knew I loved singing and dancing as long as I can remember, but I really started performing at the wee age of 4.
What was the first show you ever performed in?
In pre-school, I did a lip-synced number to “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. My mom made me this awesome sparkly mermaid fin that completely covered my legs and feet so my big brother had to carry me around all night. It was awesome. I wish someone would still carry me around backstage. I think I’m too heavy now though.
Did you study at a conservatory/college?
Yes I did. I received my BFA in drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts at CAP21.
When did you first get involved with “Here Lies Love”?
I started with the show back in the fall of 2011 in an early workshop of the show which we performed in a black box theater at PS 122. I really knew nothing about the piece, except that the creative team was throwing around this crazy immersive concept for the show. I also knew, of course, that there was some awesome David Byrne music.
What sets this show apart from other musicals?
The biggest thing that sets it apart is that it attempts to immerse the audience in the world of the story. I think it's very effective. The action happens around the audience, rather than the audience watching a traditional proscenium stage from seats in the house. There are seats in a second floor gallery that look down on to the floor, but the show is best seen from the floor. The audience stands on the floor of Club Millennium while the action happens among them on moving platforms throughout the space.
What was the audition process like?
The audition process was not unlike other auditions. I was sent the musical sides, “When She Passed By” and “Eleven Days” in advance. Once I got in the audition room, I sang both songs for the creative team. After that first round, I was called back with a handful of other actors to dance for our choreographer Annie-B Parsons to a song now cut from the show called “You’ll Be Taken Care Of.”
When/how did you learn that you had been cast?
I heard from my agent shortly after my callback that I had been cast in the 2-week workshop. At the time, I had no idea that this little workshop would grow to be such a cool and innovative show!
How was the rehearsal process?
There were two developmental workshops produced by The Public in 2011 which each lasted a couple weeks each. We then spent about a month rehearsing for a week long run the summer of 2012 at MassMoCa in North Adams, Massachusetts as part of the Williamstown Theater Festival. Early in 2013 we started rehearsals at The Public for our initial off-Broadway run and I began my position as dance captain to the show. In 2014 we began our commercial run back at The Public where I was dance captain and was lucky enough to understudy Imelda Marcos!
What, in your own words, is the show about?
That's a great question! The show revolves around the former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos and the rise and fall of the dictatorial Marcos regime. It opens with Imelda as a young woman of very humble beginnings. When she becomes the wife of a successful politician she suddenly has access to an overwhelming amount of political celebrity along with the excess, power, and corruption that come with it. In the end, the show really is about the resilience and heart of the Filipino people who drive the Marcoses from the presidency and lead them to their demise.
What about the show do you relate or connect to most?
Considering my parents lived in the Philippines at the time of the Marcos regime, I actually had very little knowledge of Philippine history before I worked on Here Lies Love. I’m thankful to have learned so much about my own heritage through the process of developing the show.
As an Imelda understudy it was fascinating to try and create this very human and vulnerable character as opposed to portraying her as a caricature of the actual woman. She is basically a poor small-town girl…turned beauty queen…turned first lady with this sudden accessibility to copious amounts of wealth and power. I wanted the audience to empathize with her and share that same rush she must have felt during her infamous rise to power and eventual fall from grace.
Is there a message you feel the show conveys overall?
Well, putting it simply - Power corrupts, and ideals can't be assassinated.
Do you have a certain routine ritual you perform before a performance?
There a big riot scene in the middle of the show, so the actors all get to the theater 45 minutes prior to curtain so we can “fight call” our stage combat. I basically run at Natalie (Cortez) her with a big shield, throw her down to the floor, and then she attacks me with a machete. It’s real fun. I then go down to the greenroom 30 minutes prior to curtain to do my hair and makeup and to get into costume. I usually make myself a cup of throat coat and bring it back into the theater while I warm up my voice and stretch.
What is your favorite part of the show?
“Please Don’t” has always been my favorite number to perform! It’s just so fun and has some killer Annie-B Parsons choreography. But my favorite number to WATCH has to be “Just Ask the Flowers.” It’s just such a beautiful number. The funeral procession coming through the house on the platform is one of the most moving things I have ever seen in live theater.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of the show?
Platforms. Definitely the platforms. As actors, we are much more accustomed to performing on a flat stationary stage. Performing on moving platforms that are constantly being reconfigured definitely took a lot of getting used to.
Can you describe what it was like performing the show for the first time?
It was exhilarating! It was like nothing I’ve ever done before. Having such close proximity to the audience makes our connection to them so exciting and intimate.
What is success to you?
As success is never really final, my idea of success always changing. I do think it's so important to keep dreaming big and striving for more though. As artists it seems there is always that unrest inside us that keeps us always moving forward.
Any interesting or fun stories from a performance? Something that stands out?
As a matter of fact, yes! At the end of the show the cast goes into the audience for a a big Here Lies Love sing-along! I spot an enthusiastic redhead, so I decide to dance next to her. We're singing to each other and clapping over our heads when the next thing I know, my finger is stuck in her hair. Whatever happened next felt like it happened in slow motion...
I start to pull my hand away, and to my shock and surprise I end up taking her long, curly, red hair with me. Oh shit! I look to Enrico (Rodriguez) and Natalie (Cortez) who look equally shocked, but we just keep singing. I look down and feel my eyes get huge as I look at the huge heap of red curls in my hands. How the hell did I just pull off her WIG!? I look up at the woman and thank God that she isn't bald. I hand the woman her hair and we struggle to put it back on her singing along all the while. Lucky for me, the song ends, and in the darkness of the blackout, I gently grab her shoulders and whisper to her, "Oh my god. I am SO so sorry." To which she cheerfully replies, "That's okay!" I was definitely way more embarrassed than she was! I didn't even wait for the lights to come back up. I've never run out of the LuEsther so fast in my life! Now if that's not immersive theater, then I don't know what is.
What's next for you?
Right now, I’m back at The Public working on a reading of new show directed by Michael Greif called The Everleigh Club. It’s a new musical based on a high-class brothel which actually operated in Chicago in the early 1900s. It’s got a killer score and some incredible actors in it. I find it really exciting to be part of the development of a new piece. It’s one of my favorite things to do!
Follow Renée's Instagram at : @rennie11