Don’t tell anyone, but he’s a big-shot playwright at home

Ellen Carpenter and Ellen Carpenter

Earlier this month, J.B. Capino flew home to the Philippines to see the opera “Carmen” at the National Theater Company in Manila five times.

Capino had an advantage over his fellow audience members even during the first performance. He knew all of the words to the Tagalog translation of Georges Bizet’s classic and he knew every line of each monologue that had been added to the production.

That’s because he wrote it.

Most people at Northwestern know Capino as the assistant master of Willard Residential College or as a film doctorate student and the teaching assistant from their Web design lab. What they don’t know is that he is one of the premiere playwrights of the Philippines, with a resume packed with original plays, translations and adaptations.

“I actually still have, I think, the largest collection of American plays in my country,” Capino said. “That’s where I spend all my Christmas money.”

Representing everyone from Paula Vogel to Arthur Miller, Capino said he has at least 400 separate titles. But 400 doesn’t sound like a lot to him now. It’s difficult to keep count because the plays, he explained, are mostly in boxes, and his film studies books are beginning to take over.

“Sometimes people tell me they’re doing this play, and they’re like ‘Oh you won’t know what it is.’ And, of course, they have no idea that I’m like this big fan of American drama. And I say, ‘Of course, I know. Which role are you playing?'”

But it makes sense that people wouldn’t know about Capino’s past in the theater. In his office, it’s only the framed posters of some of his favorite plays — “The Elephant Man,” “Amadeus”and “Death of a Salesman” — that give away his interest. He doesn’t display any of the prestigious awards, like three national awards he won for his plays in the Philippines, and he doesn’t exactly use them as conversation starters. He keeps that part of his life to himself.

“When you’re young, and especially when you’re involved in something like the theater, you tend to be very exuberant. You tend to be very intense about it,” Capino said. “But as time passes by, you can still maintain the same amount of passion without being so vocal about it — without having to scream it at the top of your lungs as if there’s an inner security or inner satisfaction that you acquire from it. So very few people know that I’m a playwright, and it doesn’t matter to me.”

And right now, anyway, Capino isn’t a playwright. He’s a student trying to finish his dissertation on the aesthetics of documentary film, particularly as it relates to Filipino-American history. And until he worked on “Carmen” this summer, he hadn’t been a playwright for six years. After he finished his undergraduate work, he dabbled in television, writing sitcoms and TV movies. While he was successful in TV, Capino said he felt like he had “prostituted” his craft.

To get himself out of the TV rut, he switched his interest to film and documentaries. In 1996 he was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to study film at NU.

“I really don’t believe in just having one career,” Capino said. “I have all these crazy careers going on and I think it all boils down to being a public intellectual, which I value more than any single thing.”

Capino is temporarily turning his focus back to theater at the end of the school year. Because of the positive feedback from “Carmen,” he has been commissioned to write a new opera libretto. It will tell the story of an American doctor who is sent to the Philippines to stop the plague in 1902. Capino said he’s looking forward to beginning the project, but at the same time, he knows that it can’t be the only source of his happiness.

“Usually opening night you get a lot out of it, but when you come back to whatever it is you were doing before that, it’s all just a distant memory,” Capino said. “I’m happy to live for the moment. I watched Carmen five times when I was at home and I was very happy to laugh with the audiences or cry with the audience members. But the satisfaction — though it’s buried very deep in your heart — is very short-lived. That’s the way to yield a career in the theater — not to obsess about it.” nyou