Filipino Actress Crisel Consunji Talks Life After Historic Acting Win And Her Comeback To Musical Theatre
Crisel Consunji seems to have the word "performer" branded in her. The Filipino actress has been doing theatre since she was 10 and although she studied political science at one of the Philippines' top universities, performing has always been her passion, having been trained and performing professionally with Repertory Philippines, a theatre company.
Consunji moved to Hong Kong in 2008 to work as a performer at Hong Kong Disneyland, taking on lead vocalist roles for High School Musical and The Golden Mickeys but her big break came when she nabbed the lead role for the Hong Kong film, Still Human alongside Hong Kong veteran actor, Anthony Wong. Her acting debut as Evelyn Santos landed her not only a nomination but a win for Best New Performer at the 38th Hong Kong Film Awards—the first Filipino to be nominated and win in the category. She also made history as the first Filipino to be nominated for Best Actress at the same award show.
After recently headlining A Night at the Musicals at the Hong Kong City Hall, Consunji sits down with Tatler on life after her historic win, ethnic minority representation in Hong Kong media and her commitment to early childhood education.
Can you tell us more about the musical event that you performed in?
[It's] A Night at the Musicals with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, under Chief Conductor Vahan Mardirossian, together with singers Raymond Young and Corinna Cheng. It [was on] June 12 at the City Hall! We’ll be singing well-loved songs from popular musicals.
What was so exciting about the event?
It’s a concert about musicals—doesn’t the thought even want to make you hum a tune and tap your feet? I [was] personally excited because I haven’t performed for an audience this big for more than a decade. What a way to jump back in.
How did you prepare for your performance?
Here’s the thing—this show was originally supposed to be headlined by Lisa Jane Kelsey, a singer from London’s West End. I was invited to be a guest, to sing a few duets with her. However, Leanne Nicholls, the artistic director, finally gave up on flying her over in April due to quarantine issues and asked me if I was ready to headline the concert and sing the lead role. Of course, I said yes.
So the past couple of weeks have been a lot of work. As some may know, I have Baumhaus & Kindermusik Hong Kong to run and until one week before the show, I was managing my team and teaching classes for five hours a day. That left me a few hours in the evening to re-learn songs, memorise lyrics and check my vocal placement. So during breaks and while travelling to work, I’d be studying my music sheets, figuring out entrances and tempo.
Did your experiences as an actress and former Hong Kong Disneyland artist help you with your return to your passion for musical theatre?
I don’t think my passion for musical theatre was ever lost. If anything, I had channelled much of that creativity into early childhood education, where voice and movement play a vital part in communicating with children.
Is there a difference between performing in front of a screen and on stage?
On stage, you’re taught to be "big"—to emanate this energy, as if you’re spreading yourself to fill the space. [Acting] on screen, you’re asked to draw it in. Every movement may appear exaggerated when the camera picks it up, which means you’d have to make an effort to be still. I think they actually complement each other. You learn to have a certain type of energy on stage which you can bring to the screen and you can learn to bring that sense of authentic “stillness” from the camera to the stage.
It’s a little late but congratulations on winning Best New Performer at the 38th Hong Kong Film Awards! It’s such a milestone for Filipinos and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, how did you feel about the award?
For me, it signalled that the voices of people traditionally in the margins are finally given the chance to be heard. As a Filipino, I felt a responsibility to engage in this emerging dialogue and to reclaim the narrative in a way that respected and empowered the people represented by it.
Talking about Still Human, it was your acting debut on screen, did you face any challenges and setbacks?
From an artistic perspective, yes, because [acting for] film wasn’t my medium. I had to relearn performing for the camera. From a social perspective, I was compelled to navigate the bias and prejudice still prevalent in our community.
Did you always know you were going to act (regardless if it’s theatre or on the screen)?
Yes and no. I wasn’t confident about my acting skills because, for some reason, I always thought it was my singing that carried my performance (and that my acting was “passable” for as long as my singing was good). So yes, I’ve always known I’d be performing but to venture into film was a step I didn’t expect I would take.
If you want authentic representation, involve the voices of people in the margins during the production process. If we truly want people to reclaim their narratives, we must allow platforms that let them to do so— Crisel Consunji
There’s a critique that a lot of roles for Filipina performers in Hong Kong tend to be domestic workers and it reinforces the stereotype that Filipinos in Hong Kong are just domestic helpers, as someone who played a domestic worker and also as a Filipino, what are your thoughts?
Oh, I have a lot to say about this. To keep my answer concise, I’ll give you a specific situation I’d always encounter. In post-screening meet-and-greets, audience members would ask me, “How long have you been a helper in Hong Kong?”
Now, you need to understand what I had to navigate—I had to answer in a way that empowered the women I represented in the film while also correcting a hasty generalization caused by someone’s unseen bias. In the end, I would answer something like, “I am proud to have known these women through the work I do in education and community, and what I’ve learned from them has helped shape my own life, as well as my performance in the film.” The last thing I wanted was to correct someone’s misconception without empowering the women I represented in the story.
Now, to answer your question: Yes. I think I’ve established by now that I have much respect for migrant workers in our community. That said, I’ve lost count of how many people approach me asking me to repeat the role. What bothers me is not the role but the manner and assumptions people have when they offer it to me.
I think, some people believe that because there are few of these opportunities available, that I’d jump on the chance to reprise the role. First of all, it’s counterproductive for an actor to be typecast. Second, the reason I did the film in the first place was that it represented an empowering narrative for these women. For me to do that project, I’ve learned that I have to believe that the production aims to promote social good through it or that I’d be able to reach an audience where the story could resonate and inspire.
Third, you might laugh (or cry) at people’s assumptions about me because of my connection with the role…once, after declining a (domestic worker) role, the person on the other line was shocked that I had articulated myself in fluent English. Only then, I think, did the person consider that I was actually a professional actor who could communicate and represent herself well. Where the bias came from, we can only guess.
So no, I don’t mind playing the role of a domestic worker again but I also ask this of every person who approaches me: “Can you see me in a different role? You should be able to do so because it’s not rocket science to imagine me playing someone else.”
To you, why does representation matter?
Why and when is it not? The way we represent people in our media, art and conversations, shapes the perception, biases and subsequent way society interacts with them. If you have an opportunity to represent people, you also have an equal responsibility to promote discourse that empowers them, corrects errors in judgments (even seemingly innocuous ones) and allow others to join in the platform you are building.
You also committed yourself to early childhood education with a focus on arts-based learning for young children, what are some of the projects that you’ve done in this area?
For the past six years, I’ve been running Baumhaus, an early childhood space that primarily promotes a holistic approach to the creative arts, with the family playing a vital role in a child’s development. I distribute the Kindermusik program in Hong Kong, and train teachers and organisations to use music as a tool for early childhood development, and not merely as an end in itself. I also partner with my husband in promoting play-based learning (as he designs educational play spaces in Asia).
When I took my Master’s degree in education, my primary aim was to make an impact on the way we view arts-based education. On the one side, to use appropriate pedagogy in teaching the arts and on the other, to use the language of music to build key skills in motor, cognitive, social and linguistic (among others) domains of learning in children from infancy.
I’ve witnessed how the children we teach (as young as months’ old babies) respond and grow through music. And as we empower children from families with resources, our next aim is to provide the same service to less advantaged communities, so that we give foundational skills to all children and give everyone a more equitable start in life and learning.
Do you find it difficult as a woman in Hong Kong to be an actress, performer and educator?
I don't necessarily have difficulty navigating the performing arts and the education field as a woman. Perhaps as an actress in the field of education, though, I do feel there are stereotypes on artists that render us less valuable in some educators' perception as if what we do as an educator is a tad bit trivial or less important than what other educators do.
As an entrepreneur, on the other hand, I see how gender plays a hand in perception, though in my case, this does not necessarily pose significant difficulty. You see, my husband and I established and continue to run our business together. I'm honestly not sure which factors come into play but when people meet us, they assume very stereotypical identities—hat he's the business side and I'm the creative side; that he does the planning and I do the client-facing work; that he's sterner and I'm softer. Uh, no. I equally create plans and project proposals. He's more creative with his ideas. And to be honest, he's so much kinder and softer than I am.
What do you think about the state that we’re in right now when it comes to ethnic minority representation in film/media and what else can be done?
In general, the world is full of slogans on representation but let's face it, how many of these narratives are honest and brave and how many are mere caricatures of the people they're supposed to give a dignified voice to? The art we produce is a reflection of life and social reality.
The good films and media are those that can navigate the complexities of an issue enough to show a multi-faceted argument—a conflict within its story that exposes the sensibilities of more than one group in society; a supposition that not one group is completely right or wrong. If you want to create a dialogue between cultures on screen, you must be ready to engage in that dialogue in real life.
Lastly, if you want authentic representation, involve the voices of people in the margins during the production process. If we truly want people to reclaim their narratives, we must allow platforms that let them to do so.
What do you want the audience to take home from your upcoming performance?
Really, just have fun. It’s been a tough year for everyone, and so a night of music has the power to inspire hope and joy.
What else can we look forward to from Crisel Consunji?
As I promote arts-based education for the early years, I intend to use the platform and network we’ve built to provide education support for communities with children and families who need them.
Under Baumhaus, I’ve started running a project called “Playdates with a Purpose” because ultimately, I hope to contribute to bridging the learning gap in the early years, and address the inequality of learning opportunities. To this end, I’m also training more young local educators in arts-based instruction, and my hope is to be able to link with more organisations in empowering our education community through the arts.
This article was originally published on June 9, 2021 and was updated on August 13, 2021.