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Web marvel "Prison Dancer" breaks ground onstage and online

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Prison Dancer is the only webseries that’s also been an off-Broadway hit.

Nominated for a Canadian Screen Award tonight for Best Digital Program, Prison Dancer is unique any way you look at it: It’s a musical webseries about a fictional Web musical phenomenon based on an actual Web musical phenomenon. The story’s based on a Cebu prison in the Philippines that became an international sensation when footage of prisoners dancing en masse to Thriller went viral in 2007.

Prison Dancer takes Cebu as a starting point for its own story about a fictional Filipino prison at the center of a similar viral phenomenon. Many things in the series are reminiscent of the real Thriller dance: the ubiquitous orange jumpers, the rock and R&B vibe of the project, and the transgender performer at the center of it all.

But Prison Dancer also pays narrative homage to well-known prison tropes like Shawshank Redemption—less Glee, more Jailhouse Rock. It goes behind the scenes, focusing not on the rousing ensemble dance numbers but on the lives of the performers themselves. The first episode features a musical number, "Point of View," that cleverly does two things at once: It spells out our narrative journey as prison dancing changes our characters' points of view and also tells us how we as audience members can access the story. At the end of each episode you can “choose your own adventure” by selecting a different character (or all of them) to tell the story of their lives on the inside.


Prison Dancer's meta-narrative about prisoners and audiences interacting and coming together seems to be paying off. "Thank you for bringing pride to Pinas," wrote one commenter on the first episode, which has racked up over 82,000 views on YouTube. The series's Facebook page has over 8,000 likes.  

Creators Romeo Candido (music and lyrics) and Carmen de Jesus (script) originally wrote Prison Dancer as a screenplay before producer Ana Serrano realized that it would work better as an interactive webseries. From there, the concept evolved outward, expanding from an interactive Web musical into an actual musical.

Prison Dancer, the musical, premiered last summer at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), where it became one of the fastest-selling shows on the program and garnered critical acclaim as well as awards for choreography, ensemble, and lead performances. Prison Dancer also developed into a separate production of what Serrano calls "live performative cinema"—a hybrid stage and film performance that involves actors performing parts of the webseries alongside the film, complete with audience interaction. Think a showing of Rocky Horror if Tim Curry showed up to do the vocals live onstage.

Each of these different platforms tells the story from a different perspective or timeframe. This storytelling method is called transmedia—when a narrative runs on multiple platforms and contains various levels of audience interactivity. But where most transmedia stories might want audiences to interact with the characters or participate in online writing or games, Prison Dancer invites viewers to remix their latest musical number or cover one of their songs. They even teach us how to do the Pak Yow, an invented dance moved named for famed Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao.

All the while, Prison Dancer weaves concurrent storylines around its various prisoners. Its biggest gamble is perhaps its focus on its transgender main character, Lola, who holds her own inside prison but still faces danger on the outside. Fans have embraced her, and actor Jeigh Madjus, who plays her in both the webseries and the New York stage production, picked up the best actor award at the NYMF and garnered critical acclaim. The musical's commitment to telling the stories of real Filipinos won it a spot at the Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto last November, and the creative team recently partnered with producer Jonathan Reinis to bring Prison Dancer to the states for an extended run. They've also begun releasing character vlogs in anticipation of the show's second season and are working on a full feature film.

On the eve of the Canadian Screen Awards, we asked Candido, de Jesus, and Serrano to share their thoughts on the story of Prison Dancer as well as how they juggle all these different storytelling platforms. The answers, provided via email, turned into a "collaborative writing exercise" for the three of them.

DD: Did the vision for the project evolve from the webseries to the stage to the movie, with each part of the narrative developing concurrently, or did you always have the idea to create a concept that would involve slightly different tales told on different platforms?

The moment we realized this was a "transmedia experience," we knew that we would allow for different facets of the story to be told on their appropriate platforms.  For the webseries, we knew that a mock-documentary story told from the point of view of a journalist was most appropriate: Our webseries is a fiction that was spun from a viral meme found on YouTube, so we knew that the audiences/viewers of the original Dancing Inmates of Cebu videos may have already started spinning their own "stories" about who these prisoners were. Thus to help those audiences make that emotional leap from liking that viral meme to engaging with our web series, we needed the vehicle of that journalist's voice or point of view as a bridging device.

For the stage musical, it's a different story. The stage is a more intimate medium. We needed to tell a story from the point of view of one of the prisoners. The most obvious choice is Lola because she has dreams of being on broadway, and (spoiler alert) she gets out of prison in season 1 of the webseries. So the whole story revolves around him/her.

DD: How did you attract talent for each of the productions?

Casting has always been the hardest part. In different iterations we would focus on different skill sets. For our first workshop we wanted Filipino actors who could kinda sing so we could focus on determining if the drama of the musical held up.  Thankfully there are great Filipino actors in Toronto. For the New York staging we wanted nothing less than triple threats. We did the traditional casting call for that.  (In the building where the casting took place, it was apparent which was the Prison Dancer room.)

For the webseries, we took some actors from the workshops, had people audition online with YouTube videos, and drew from our years of experience and relationships to find the perfect cast who could sing, dance, and act. For many of them, it was their first real 'film' experience.

DD: Did you develop the focal four inmates around the stories of real people, or are they mostly your own creations?

All the characters are our original creations. We wanted to tell the archetypal story of man and what imprisons him, whether it be circumstance, guilt, the past, the inability to express love, etc. In many ways, these characters are extensions of ourselves and the things we have been searching for and aspiring for as people and storytellers... We have always approached our prison as a metaphorical prison as opposed to a real and accurate jail.

DD: In the webseries the story is framed through the point of view of a "viral meme hunter" who's searching for the story behind the meme. Can you talk a bit about the choice to frame the story this way?

Matt Wells, our "viral meme hunter" provided a way for the audience to be introduced and included in the discovery of the prisoners and is the guiding voice of inquiry. Plus, his deadpan, serious delivery is a great comic foil to some of the outrageousness.

DD: This epic review of the film Les Misérables talks about the danger of putting both feet in the concrete, i.e. wallowing in misery. How did you keep from putting both feet in the concrete with Prison Dancer?

They sing! They dance! They laugh! It may be set in a dark, poor, third-world prison full of criminals, but we didn't focus on that. We focused on the heart, the humanity, and the transcendence of that oppressed world through music and dance—which is honestly, a central part of the Filipino spirit and way of life. The whole point of Prison Dancer is to highlight how Filipinos  can take their 'miserable' circumstance and make a song and dance about it.

The Philippines is a third-world country. Life is tough
there. Conditions are tough there. Rich are rich and poor are poor. Not unlike the Les Miz France. Filipinos just have a certain flare with their adversity and way of celebrating life that is unique to being Filipino and that's what we are highlighting in Prison Dancer. [S]orry to say, but if there was a 'fierce' off between poor Filipinos and poor 18th Century French people, the Filipinos would take it.

DD: Have you seen different kinds of responses to the project from different communities—i.e. the Filipino community, the theatre community, and the YouTube community?

It's been an interesting mix—mostly positive responses! Our YouTube stats show that we have a huge viewership of the webseries based in the Philippines. It's kind of hilarious that lots of people comment on the videos as if it was real. There's been some trolling and racist and hateful comments too, but that's par for the course in the YouTube-world. The Filipino community has been supportive and especially with our stage version, the theatre community—especially the Broadway folks we met during our stage production last year—were really stoked that we'd created a platform to showcase the full range of Filipino talent and a uniquely Filipino story.

DD: How much collaboration was there between the writers and the original cast? For instance, did actor Norman Alconcel contribute rap lyrics or dance moves for "Pak Yow?"

With regards to the webseries script, we wrote it all, but part of this whole transmedia experience is to let our talent also be cocreators of the experience. So right now we are releasing Lola's and Hookaps' vlog series and Jeigh and Norm, respectively, are largely responsible for the content. We gave them some story arcs to consider especially in light of all the other story points for season 2 and the other platforms, but they are fully responsible for making these characters live and breathe.

DD: The outlook for musical theatre on Broadway seems pretty dismal--endless revivals, revues, and derivatives of family films. Do you see collaborative and multi-platform art forms like Prison Dancer as a stage in the evolution of musical theatre, or is this something totally new?

There's a democratization that wants to happen in musical theatre—with the economy as it is, there are a lot of people out there who can't afford a $90 ticket to a show. But that doesn't mean they don't want to see good musicals. Les Mis is killing it in the cinemas, and they will no doubt have a resurgence of ticket sales to Les Mis stage revivals as a result. But Prison Dancer wants to bring this storyworld to you on multiple platforms, to be accessible to everyone, to invite remixes and covers and collaborations and somehow we hope to weave it all together—and be the first musical to create our own audience on the web and then expand their experience on the stage.

DD: In the musical theatre world, we've come a long way from Jonathan Pryce doing Miss Saigon in yellowface, but we still have a long way to go. Is Prison Dancer an exception or is it part of a new rule, where underrepresented communities create diversity by creating the shows themselves?

We've got Filipinos playing Filipinos in a musical—amazing!  We cannot wait around for others to write these shows for us. If we want to showcase what our people can do, we have to create our own platforms to do it. And so we are, so we can be part of the solution rather than just complaining about the lack of roles or shows.

DD: Is there a launch date in place for season 2 yet, and what can we
expect to see in new episodes?

Season 2 launch date TBD, but coming soon! In the new episodes, we see more backstory on all the prisoners, and how they got into prison, as well as glimpses of Lola's new life on the outside and her struggle for fame, and love! And more new music and dancing!

DD: Will we ever get more dancing from the Head Guard?

Oh yes, since he "directed the bidyos" the power and vision has given him some pretty grandiose ideas!

Screengrab via YouTube