Coming Home to Center Stage: Michelle Washington

Michelle Washington (far right) and fellow theatre enthusiast expats

When I first started writing for What’s On & Expat I asked some friends if they knew any interesting expatriates who would be good for our “People You Should Know” section. Immediately, one friend told me about Michelle Washington. He described her as “a real character, a fun lady, definitely worth a piece on”. Little did I know that Ms. Washington would turn out to be all that and more. Michelle’s enthusiasm and energy is infectious, as if it bubbles out from her very core. After warmly welcoming me into her home and bonding over her cats, our encounter ended up more like a conversation with a new friend than an interview. This lady has so much to share and is not shy about it.

“When we first arrived, my husband was so concerned that I wouldn’t have anything to do here,” Michelle reveals. But considering his wife’s personality, he shouldn’t have worried a bit. “When the Asian Development Spouses’ Association (ADBSA) saw that I have a background in theater, they asked me to join their board of trustees and be their program director. It turned out to be a great way of meeting people.”

Michelle soon found her hands full. The first thing she had to deal with was a charity event for the ADBSA social welfare and scholarship committee fund. Michelle saw this as a way to exert a positive effect on her host country. “What struck me when I first got here was the number of street children out begging. Coming from the United States, I’ve seen poor people before, but nothing like this. I’m not the type of person who can just sit and let this happen. I have to feel like I’m contributing something. So I thought, what can I do to make a difference?”

That’s why she feels very glad to have joined the ADBSA and really believes in what they do. Michelle described their program wherein they provide funding for teachers to go into different neighborhoods and teach street children. “A teacher sets up the school on a side of the building. The street-children will gather there because they know the teacher will be in that place that day and they basically go, pin up their assignments and have lessons.” she explained. The ADBSA also funds scholarships for students throughout the Philippines, pay for their tuition and books, transportation, and meals.

Michelle figured that she wanted to use all her education and experience to help somehow. She has masters degrees in theater management, theater history and criticism, taught for three and a half years at universities including Le Sorbonne in France and ran several theater companies. “This is a fabulous opportunity. And the proof is in the results,” she affirms. “It was the end of May when we started the show “An Evening of Stars”, the first show I ever produced here with the help of ADBSA, and we raised a little over 500,000 pesos, which is probably just a drop in the bucket. We sold over 400 tickets. We had sponsors like BMW, Jaguar, some airlines and resorts. We had over 50 artists from every single continent, including the Repertory Philippines theater company, amateurs and professionals all together. We even had Mrs. Kuroda, who is the ADB president’s wife, to be part of the show. And they all did it for free, a two hour show. It was just incredible.”

Michelle was more than just vindicated by the success of her efforts, it was as if she had experienced an epiphany. “My mother died a couple of years back and she knew me better than anyone in this world. I just felt her that night shining down on me,” she relates. “I felt this warmth because all of us had been working together. And I realized that’s what I’m meant to do here. That I was meant to use my talent, my skills, whatever I can to make a difference.”

It’s obvious that not only is Michelle making a difference, but she is a different sort of expat lady herself, and that’s in a good way. “I’m not like some people who just sit around. I don’t understand that. I have too much ambition, too much feeling inside to just say, I’m bored. I gotta get out there and do something. I’ve actually heard some people say, ‘I’m so bored, I have nothing to do but play golf.’ And I’m like, I don’t have time to play golf!” Michelle shares this insight so good-naturedly one can’t help but smile. It’s her refreshing attitude and sense of humor which makes it no surprise why all these expat groups have rallied around her projects or actively sought out her help. As a member of the American Women’s Club and the American Association of the Philippines, Michelle has also been actively involved in their fundraising activities. “We get to do a lot of good. And I feel so incredible about that, it’s like a shiver running down my spine, and it’s so much fun!” she declares.

Despite her having accomplished so much in less than a year of having lived here, Michelle admits that the Philippines still stumps her at times. “There are certain nuances that are particular to the culture I still don’t get. But I’m learning. And I rally through.”

What Michelle wasn’t counting on in her ongoing education, was finding a friendly and thriving community ready to take her into their fold. “I wouldn’t have thought that my ideas would have worked here. But last April, I started asking, who do you know who’s in theater in this city? So I found out about these theater organizations. And to get to know all these people I basically threw a theater party. It started with just two people and I told them to bring a friend along. And we had three waves of people. People who weren’t working, came at 7pm, people who were working in rehearsals came at 8pm, people who were in shows came at 11:30pm. The last person left at 3:30 am. It was beautiful. There were so many people.”

Obviously, Michelle was as big a hit with the theater community as her party. “It was so great when I met [Repertory Philippines co-founder] Baby Barredo, she told me to come to her rehearsal one night. And when I was there, she introduced me as, ‘this is Michelle, she’s a new Rep person’. And I thought, how cool! And every time I go there everyone says ‘Hi Michelle!’”

Michelle is currently helping Repertory Philippines build up their expat audience through her contacts within the community, clubs and organizations. “I just introduce myself and tell them ‘come on, let’s go get tickets to the theater tonight’. This has helped me to get to know even more people and do something for the theater community with their marketing. I’ve gotten them coverage through sending e-mails to these different organizations. I go once or twice a week to get publicity material to help get the word out.”

As far as Michelle is concerned, this is all just the first act of a brilliant performance, the first show of a blockbuster run. “I told them a few things I can do, but I still have so much to learn. And I’m hoping to do some producing and probably some directing for them in the future. For now, it’s a start.”

-text & photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

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