Q&A with Earnest Hope Tinambacan

31 October 2019 | Journal

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Earnest Hope Tinambacan is a theatre actor, director, playwright and singer-songwriter based in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, Philippines. He started his theatre journey at the age of 12 as a member of the LIYAB cultural group in Misamis Occidental, and performed in university musical productions as a student at Silliman University.

Hope is a senior member and former president of Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts (YATTA), with whom he has acted in plays all around the Philippines. He has also written plays for YATTA, including Isla Tawak, performed at the Asian Youth Theatre Festival 2018 in Singapore.

Hope has directed several plays, including the musical Scharon Mani, The Vagina Monologues and The VManologues. In 2018, Hope was a collaborator-actor in Kolab Mindanao and Kolab2 Theatre Devising Workshop and Performance organised by La Salle University, Ozamiz City, in partnership with ITI.

Hope is a recipient of the U.S.-ASEAN Scholarship and a beneficiary of the Möbius Fund.


What were you doing before coming to ITI?

I was a full-time community theatre actor-director and artivist. I was also a singer-songwriter in a band, and founder-organiser of a music organisation in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental.


Tell us how you came to know of ITI and why you decided to come here.

I learned about ITI through Denise Aguilar, an alumna of the school, who was my director in one of the last theatre productions I was in before coming to ITI. Her aesthetics, technique and overall presence as an artist captured my attention, and all the information she gave me about her school matched with my own vision as a theatre-maker.


Thinking back to your first few days here, what were some of your thoughts and emotions then?

Honestly, I have more memories of the tension in the first few days because I had issues with my medical exam results which were only resolved after 3 weeks. It was a rough beginning for me. Although I also remember how surreal the beginning of our Noh class felt. It seemed like we were thrown back in time to ancient Japan, and the senseis were exuding such a powerful presence I’d never felt from any theatre teacher before. 

I also remember the excitement and the rush in my body during the intense animality exercises in Beto’s acting class, the muscle pains after Chin Huat’s movement class, and the fun in getting to know other cultures and people in our intercultural sharing sessions. 

I also remember feeling the warmth of the staff as they guided us in our adjustments as new students in a foreign country, especially in my difficulty with my student pass application. They did not give up on me, and for that I am very thankful to them. Also, I’ll never forget how strange yet amusing it was to meet “Uncle”, who was the first person to greet us and show us around the school.


What is it like to train here at ITI?

It is like we are some kind of ninjas or karate kids who train from sunrise to sundown at this temple up the hill far from the rest of civilisation, mop the studio floors every day, hone our skills and sharpen our senses, and try our best to stay healthy to survive the next few days of training. It was totally different from the fast-paced lifestyle I had back in the Philippines. You know, that feeling when you are learning so much that you want to savour every single day, but you are also so tired and so far from home that you can’t wait for everything to finish. That’s the daily struggle in ITI.


Any lessons learnt from working with your international group of classmates?

I learned that the first thing you must figure out, among many others, is everyone’s sense of humour. The kind of jokes you crack can make or break relationships, especially in an intercultural setting. It is also important to understand not only the differences in culture, but also the differences in individual personalities and behaviour. You have to pay close attention and try to understand every person, because it is only this way that you learn to love, accept, adjust, forgive, or at least tolerate each other and be able to work together at the end of the day.


What are the most memorable experiences you’ve had at ITI?

I will never forget those times when I had to convince myself “the show must go on” even when everything seemed totally dark. If not for my friends, family, and ITI people’s love and support, I would not have survived my time at ITI. Working on my Final Year Individual Project was also memorable because the process allowed me to have a deeper conversation with myself as a person and as an artist. I also remember crying in the middle of the night a few days before the clowning presentation because I felt my clown boycotting me, but thankfully I pulled it off quite well during the final show. Such experiences are memorable because they made me discover my vulnerability and weaknesses, and be aware of solutions and ways to get better.

It is also good to recall our intense discussions with Sasi during humanities classes, the roller coaster of emotions and expressions in Kutiyattam abhinaya exercises, surviving the rigid nature of Beijing Opera training, paying close attention to the details of life during the Wayang Wong body pilgrimage, reaching the depth of an actor’s being through stillness and containment in our Noh training, and learning to embody the relationship between the body, mind, and energy in Taiji and Yoga. Of course, I am proud to remember the feeling of winning the Flang Kupaw game a couple of times in Beto’s acting class. Play it and you’ll know what I mean.


How has what you’ve learnt here shaped you as an actor?

As an actor, I should be firm yet malleable, vulnerable yet durable. I learned that I must pay attention not only to myself but also to the people and everything around me. I understood that to be a better actor is to be a better human being, because in theatre we need sensitivity, we learn to listen, we are encouraged to perceive, receive and give, we practice discipline, we try to achieve unity and see beauty. Basically, all the things we need among people in order to create a harmonious world.


To be a better actor is to be a better human being, because in theatre we need sensitivity, we learn to listen, we are encouraged to perceive, receive and give, we practice discipline, we try to achieve unity and see beauty.


How has your ITI experience been, compared to your initial expectations on Day 1 of Year 1?

I came to ITI with the expectation that I would have to unlearn many things and that I must allow myself to go through a remoulding process. I expected some struggles, but I never thought I would be challenged so hard to the point of almost giving up.

In ITI we are always taught to “be in the moment”, and in the beginning this only applied well during work, until the middle of Year 2, when I saw myself stuck between regrets about what I could have possibly done differently if I hadn’t come to ITI and thoughts of just reaching the finish line so I could do whatever I want.  It was in that particular period when being in the moment was the only best thing to do in order to find joy in the present. 

I expected intense training, but I never expected I’d put myself through a pilgrimage - a journey of reevaluation, rediscovery, renewal of faith in my chosen vocation, and remoulding of the self, not only as an actor but as a human being.


I expected intense training, but I never expected I’d put myself through a pilgrimage - a journey of reevaluation, rediscovery, renewal of faith in my chosen vocation, and remoulding of the self, not only as an actor but as a human being.


What are your plans for after graduation?

Ultimately I plan to build a good body of work as an actor and theatre-maker. I also plan to set up a theatre company together with my friends. Of course, I also see myself continuing the work of my parents in MISPA Foundation Inc. and continue to empower the poor and marginalised sectors in our area in Mindanao. I am also considering teaching and conducting theatre workshops, and I will definitely continue with my music and songwriting, and maybe also try making and acting in films.


What would you say to a new student or someone thinking of joining ITI?

As I said, be firm yet malleable, vulnerable yet durable. Be open to new ideas and be willing to be shaped and reshaped. Singapore may be small, but ITI will definitely show you how big the world out there is when you begin to understand the role of theatre in the world and across cultures. 

Lastly, remember that you can never escape from drama in drama school, but the last thing you want to do is let it affect the work. 


Is there anyone you'd like to thank or acknowledge?

I dedicate my success to the higher being that created and sustained my life and all the things seen and unseen. To my parents who, despite their eternal physical absence, will always be present in my heart and in my dreams to guide me and support me. I love you both always and forever. To my brother, Kim, and the rest of my family, thank you for being my strength and believing in my dreams and decisions. To my YATTA family, especially Nanay Dessa Quesada-Palm, I would not be where I am today without you, and for that I’m forever grateful. To all the people of MISPA Foundation Inc., thanks for trusting me and for joining me in this journey. 

I am also humbled and very thankful to have met all the wonderful people of ITI, especially Sasi, our school director, who at the most difficult part of my stay in ITI was able to convince me to never consider quitting. To Beto for being my confidante, Chin Huat for being an inspiring cheerleader, Simon for always challenging me to go beyond, and the rest of the amazing set of mentors, masters, and able staff, thanks for making my stay in ITI all worth the sacrifices. To Uncle Chan Mun Chew, you’re the best! My classmates and schoolmates, I’m happy to have met you all. To all my friends in Singapore who helped me in many different ways, God bless your hearts. 

My friends and supporters from the Philippines who followed my journey and sent their support in many different ways, especially Ate Inday and Tito Franz Klein-Koerkamp, you are all important to me. Thanks also to the Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts for the support. Finally, I want to thank the U.S. Embassy Singapore for awarding me the U.S.-ASEAN scholarship for the entire 3 years.


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Photos by Bernie Ng