Filipino actors

With ‘Rent,’ Ian Pangilinan comes full circle to his early years in theater

Lé Baltar

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With ‘Rent,’ Ian Pangilinan comes full circle to his early years in theater

RENT. Ian Pangilinan alternates with Reb Atadero in the role of Mark Cohen, the show’s narrator.

Photo courtesy of Ian Pangilinan

Ian, who portrays Mark Cohen in 'Rent,' talks about the shift in how he approaches his craft and his favorite song in the musical

MANILA, Philippines – In 2018, while still in his junior year in college, Ian Pangilinan auditioned for a student production of Rent steered by Ateneo Blue Repertory. It was his attempt at getting back into acting and fortunately got cast as Roger Davis, a lead part in the musical.

But upon earning the role, Pangilinan shared in a glowing profile of the actor on CNN Philippines Life, which sadly folded earlier this year, how he struggled with the nitty-gritty of collegiate theater at the time. 

“You’d have to be insane to continue wanting to be an artist after that year. But I came back. Because it’s something that I fell in love with and, even if I was not the best at it, I was willing to endure all the humiliation I needed for the sake of being better at it,” he told CNN Philippines Life in 2020.

Boy, Male, Person
“At the heart of it, the play is about living your life to the fullest despite all odds,” Pangilinan says of ‘Rent.’ Photo courtesy of Ian Pangilinan.

From there, Pangilinan slowly found his footing as an actor, whether onscreen or onstage. And it felt like an inevitable tug of fate when he got called in to once more play the “pretty boy rocker,” as the actor describes the character, for 9 Works Theatrical’s revival of the Broadway musical. 

“[Roger Davis] shares a lot of the usual molds of characters I get — angsty, moody boy with a love interest,” Pangilinan told Rappler via email.

That full-circle moment also came with another lovely surprise, as he was offered to take on the role of Mark Cohen, the aspiring filmmaker who doubles as the narrator of the story. Pangilinan alternates with Reb Atadero in the part.

“He’s a much more jolly character with more comedic beats than some of my previous roles, so I’m quite excited to play around with those elements,” Pangilinan said of the role. “I think more than anything, I’m excited to really go in and have fun on stage as the character.”

Created by Tony and Pulitzer winner Jonathan Larson, Rent tracks the lives of young artists in poverty-stricken Manhattan in early ‘90s amid the HIV/AIDS crisis. This is the third time that 9 Works Theatrical restages the work, after its previous runs in 2010 and 2011. Last year, the theater company also staged Tick, Tick… Boom!, another musical by Larson.

Photo courtesy of Ian Pangilinan.

In anticipation of Rent’s opening this April 19, I talked to Pangilinan about the shift in how he approaches his craft, his favorite song in the musical, and what is necessary to maintain local theater’s resurgence post-lockdown.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was your reaction when you learned that you’ll be playing Mark Cohen in the musical? Did you audition for it?

Interesting trivia: all of us in the cast auditioned for our respective roles. Since it was an open call, there was an even playing field all around. It was almost funny how intimidating it was at first because people from all walks of life were really there during the audition proper. Singing competition contestants, theater veterans, big personalities and all sorts. Needless to say, everyone gave one heck of an audition.

Having done the material before definitely helps with tempering the “kooky” aspect of Mark as well. With the crazy antics that Rent as a material has (and by extension the crazy antics Mark has), it’s easy to lose sight of the real meaning of the text. Underneath all the fluff and entertainment, the world they live in is really a world rife with death and disease. At the heart of it, the play is about living your life to the fullest despite all odds. Mark as a character therefore, is not just comic relief, nor a mood lightener. He chooses joy and togetherness because despite all his friends suffering from illnesses around him, joy is how he chooses to spend their limited days with him. That fight within him is what I hopefully want to show come premiere time. Fingers crossed!

How have the rehearsals been?

Rehearsals have been lovely, in great part due to the great watchability of the cast. Everyone is just so talented and entertaining to watch. I’m excited for audiences to see what we’ve got in store.

People, Person, Adult
The cast of 9 Works Theatrical’s ‘Rent’ during the rehearsals. Photo courtesy of Ian Pangilinan.
What was the first theater show you remember seeing live? What made you gravitate towards theater, despite taking a science degree at Ateneo?

First show that really stuck out to me was probably Phantom of the Opera. The spectacle of it all was probably what really imprinted on my brain. The huge chandelier almost dropping onto the audience, the powerhouse vocal performances, and the entertaining production numbers. I attribute my initial interest in theater to that show most definitely. 

What really made me fall in love with theater as an art form was catching Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, though. I went in blind to that one. I hadn’t heard of all the accolades it had received yet, nor knew what it was about. All I knew was it was apparently quite a nice watch so I decided to buy a ticket. The long and short of that was that the story of that show really struck a chord with me. The longing to belong somewhere just hit home in a way I hadn’t felt since I was a kid watching Lilo and Stitch. Dear Evan Hansen’s production was really what drew me to pursue theater much more seriously and study the art form. In my ideal world, if we could give audiences some emotional resonance comparable to what I felt watching Dear Evan Hansen, it would honestly mean the world to me.

What is your favorite song in Rent, and how do you connect with it?

Cliché as it is, it’s really “Seasons of Love.” There are several production numbers that go through the different aspects of getting through life, whether it be money, loss, frustration or fear. But at the end of it all, they all point back to measuring life in love. It’s the heart of the show.

Can you talk me through your process whenever you get a new role, whether in theater, film, or television?

Nowadays it really varies. Theater is a whole another process of letting the characters breathe and grow as the one or two months of rehearsals go by. You try things that may or may not work and eventually lock in what does as you go along. Movies are similar in that having a pre-written script allows you to study arcs of the characters and visualize their journey throughout the film. What you really figure out through this process is what they’re “fighting for” as a character (beliefs, aspirations, etc.) as well as what they need to overcome to achieve those things.

For TV, it’s much more difficult. I had to study a school of acting called Meisner because that one really helps with doing things on the fly. Series tend to have very on-the-spot scripts with little time to adjust, so Meisner helps with just following your impulses and really just “doing” the scene. I used to honestly really struggle with TV before then.

What is your break from work like?

Break during rehearsals is really cast bonding time. You kinda need it for an ensemble piece like this, so that you imbibe the comfort level of friends living in the busy streets of New York. Once out of work, my breaks are really spent at home. I’m such an introverted burrito I need time to recharge. Once rehearsals are over though who knows! I’m looking into getting more fitness related activities so that should be fun.

Clothing, Knitwear, Sweater
Photo courtesy of Ian Pangilinan.
It’s been over a decade since 9 Works Theatrical staged Rent in the country in 2010 and 2011. What do you think makes this year’s run different from those stagings? Were you able to catch any of those?

No, I didn’t catch it, but judging based on the interviews the past production team has done regarding this topic, our production is definitely taking bigger swings both on the production-level wise like sets and costumes, as well as on the character interpretation level. Rest assured staple things that people would want to see in any Rent staging will be kept, but our approach will also be quite a bit more playful when it comes to other things.

Theater has been attracting more and new audiences post-lockdown. Actors are booked and busy. More shows are coming out. What would be necessary to keep this energy going?

A curious audience, really. Which, thank god, we have had these past couple of years post pandemic. People are much more willing to really go out of their way to see shows which people talk well about. Word of mouth is so strong nowadays. This curiosity is what’s been fueling our industry so well so I hope it really keeps going. So much great work is out there for people who are willing to give it a chance, and hopefully this deluge of theater shows this season will be a testament to that.


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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.