Victor Lirio returns home to direct his first play here 2
When Victor Lirio left home at 20, he was compelled to pursue his creative life. There was no more looking back for him. Photo courtesy of Victor Liro

Victor Lirio returns home to direct his first play here

'My last professional job was at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London and now, I’m directing a Harold Pinter play in Manila,' Victor Lirio says.
Leah C. Salterio | Mar 02 2024

Filipino-American theater actor-turned-director Victor Lirio wanted to become a lawyer when he was young -- until he saw Gene Kelly in the classic "Singin' in the Rain."

“I was sidetracked because the reality of having a Gene Kelly career as an immigrant Filipino in America was farfetched. I was doing community theatre as a hobby, because I loved it,” Lirio told ANCX.

As a minority theater artist, Lirio didn’t get many opportunities as the plays getting produced were largely for white audiences. Hence, he had to create opportunities for himself with Diverse City Theater.

“I founded Diverse City Theater in New York as its artistic director in 2003,” Lirio said. “I began directing readings as part of our Green Room series, an incubator for new works, in 2006.

HeI directed my first production in 2008 -- Cassandra Medley’s full-length play, "Noon Day Sun," starring Emmy Award winner Ron Cephas Jones (NBC’s "This Is Us"), which was nominated for several Audelco Awards that season including Best Dramatic Production of the Year.

“Curiosity and the desire to tell extraordinary stories prompted me to get into directing. What’s exciting about directing is you get to build and re-imagine a world, explore a deeper context for the play’s core circumstance and relationships," he said.

“I also love language and character-driven plays. My work and training as an actor inform my directing work. The language of the creation and collaboration process with actors in the rehearsal room is organic.”

Lirio did not stop exploring other avenues in his directorial career. He went to London to do classical work, specifically Shakespeare.

“The first production I directed was a double bill of one-act plays by Edward Allan Baker, ‘North of Providence’ and ‘Dolores,’" he recalled.

He was recently resident director on "Dr Semmelweis" in the West End starring Oscar winner Mark Rylance at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. 

"My last professional job was at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London and now, I’m directing a Harold Pinter play in Manila,” he said, referring to Repertory Philippines' "Betrayal," which opened Friday at RCBC Plaza in Makati City.

 Working with Repertory Philippines

Although Lirio has been returning to Manila a number of times, he has not had the chance to direct a play here yet. When Repertory Philippines offered him, he was given the liberty to choose a play.

He zeroed in on Pinter’s “Betrayal,” and chose three British-Filipino actors – James Cooney, James Bradwell and Vanessa White – to headline the three-hander.

“I chose ‘Betrayal’ because I wanted to explore the play with Filipino actors from a second generation Filipino-British experience, examining Pinter’s gorgeous language and themes of extramarital affair and religion, gender inequality, male rivalry, etc.,” he explained.

And Lirio cannot be any pleased that he now gets to direct them in their first work together.

“I’ve seen James Cooney’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Barbican, and The Almeida. James Bradwell is a fellow alumni of the Bristol Old Vic whose works I’ve seen at the Turbine Theatre and Park Theatre in London," he said.

“I worked with both Jameses when we did the virtual Bridge project of the play, ‘The Pride,’ in 2020. They are both brilliant actors. Vanessa White was recommended to me. She auditioned for me in London and she did a fantastic read with James Cooney. So I cast her.”

Theater resilience

Lirio lamented the lack of work in theater this pandemic was one of the challenges he encountered in his profession.

“I didn’t think I’d go back to working in the theater again,” he said. “I was prepared to move on to my third act.”

But at the sane time, Lirio knows that “the theater industry has been resilient to disruption and closure for centuries,” noting that in 17th century England, "the puritan parliament ordered the closure of the theater houses for 18 years until the Restoration of Charles II."

He said that was when new theater forms emerged such as pantomime, opera, and ballet.

"In other words, theater-makers have always seized to create new opportunities during challenging times, and the recent COVID pandemic shutdown was no different," he said.

“I produced and directed a full production, multi-camera livestream of plays from a converted soundstage [an abandoned retail space] in Bristol, UK.

“We built the set, brought in lighting and sound gear, four cameras and installed fiber optic internet whilst getting the production team COVID-19 procedure compliant.

“We were live-cutting the broadcast, which was nerve racking and thrilling at the same time.”

Now that many industries have re-opened, “the challenge is perhaps enticing audiences back to the theater. It is still a difficult economy to navigate,” he said.

“Financing theater productions is still an enormous undertaking. The stakeholders for theatre is lessening. So we need to make theater a compelling proposition to attract and develop new audiences.”

London to New York

Lirio does get to juggle time between work and home. Yet, keeping a balance between the two remains a challenge for him, especially when he needs to shuttle between New York and London for work.

“It’s not easy, but my husband and I make it work,” Lirio said. “I am incredibly fortunate and grateful for my husband without whom I would never have been able to keep working at this level in international cities. And I’ve just gotten used to it. The only difficulty is being away from my husband. But like I said, we make it work.

“I unwind by reading poetry, cooking dinner for me and my husband and our friends, looking after our plants, and drinking wine. I prefer to spend intimate times with friends.

“My normal day would be reading plays, writing production proposals to theatre companies and coaching actors. On weekends, we spend time with friends. I’m usually cooking something and experimenting with a new recipe.”

One of Lirio’s closest friends is Broadway star Lea Salonga. They worked together in 1994 in a production of “Grease” in Manila. Since then, they became inseparable.

“I was her best man at her wedding and she was my maid of honor at mine,” Lirio said. “She is chosen family. We had a serendipitous year last year as we both had West End shows during the same season in London, on the same street, two blocks away from each other.”

Lirio has written for and directed Salonga’s critically-acclaimed solo concerts both in Manila and abroad. 

He also produced Salonga’s sold-out Carnegie Hall debut at the Isaac Stern Auditorium in 2006, and directed Salonga at Café Carlyle, The Town Hall and Lincoln Center in New York.

Filipino 'Hamlet'

Lirio gets a different kind of fulfillment working at the helm of a theater production.

“For me, the purpose of theater and the work that we do is to examine the human condition,” he said. “The fulfillment comes from learning about and delving into the psychology and humanity of different characters. Their life circumstances.

“When you’re investigating the world of a play and its characters, you cannot judge them. You have to justify the decisions they make in dramaturgical context. You become a better human being in the process with a greater sense of empathy and compassion.”

The play that Lirio wants to direct is Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” recontextualized for Philippine history.

“The play is about courage or lack thereof,” Lirio said. “In his book, ‘Invention of the Human,’ Harold Bloom writes, ‘No other single character in [Shakespeare’s] plays matches Hamlet’s infinite reverberations.’ And I agree. 

“I would want to delve into the dynamics of his familial landscape. Positively motivate the actions of his uncle, Claudius, and his mother, Gertrude. And explore a contemporary context from recent events for the fate of Hamlet’s father to justify the play’s passover event, thus giving Hamlet his mammoth mission.”

Rep’s “Betrayal” goes onstage starting March 1 to 17 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza in Makati City.