Cover Story

In 2018, while deep in the middle of production of long-running and well-received jukebox musical, “Rak of Aegis”, little did the fans know, Gab Pangilinan would indirectly leave her mark without even stepping on the stage as she would take part in the creation and world-building of what was then the coming first run of another original Filipino musical in the horizon.

Helmed by boyfriend at the time, and now husband, Myke Salomon, as musical director, the project would then become “Ang Huling El Bimbo”, which would ultimately be propelled to fan favorite status to throngs of stage fans and first-time theater-goers. A year passes and from serving as demo vocals, she would then land the lead role that, years later, would serve as her most marked and iconic role to date. A poetic justice of sorts, if you will.

Now, years into her still growing career, you would notice that there’s still a certain sense of reluctance when you talk to the award-winning film, television, and theater actress about her storied ascent to a well-decorated life as a young, multi-hyphenated creative. Not to be misconstrued as feigned modesty, nor anything put-on. And this serves both as her charm and her unequivocal power.

A theater mainstay for years, Pangilinan has trailed her storied path from an ensemble actor to a celebrated lead character. With the return to the new normal, she has since returned onstage, won international acclaim, co-founded and wore a producer’s hat to usher in the birth of Barefoot Theatre Collaborative, and accepted the challenge of reprising roles she has become most known for to an audience hungry for new shared human experiences on the stage.

Car seat corduroy cloud sleeves on double faced wool trench coat, upcycled ’70s belts on weathered leather dress (worn as top)(worn inside), Jan Garcia.

When we look back, it is easy to see that her arrival and eventual rise to theater superstar status is every bit divinely ordained—coming at a time when the world was put to a stop and a future in and of the live stage appeared bleak and uncertain.

But with the irony of the titanic success of the online streaming event of AHEB coming amid the great big pause during the pandemic—social media trending topics, fan arts and theories, fan-made video clip edits and all—where she played the now-iconic role to the hymns of Eraserheads, when you look at it, Pangilinan was seemingly anointed by the audiences as the face of the theater scene, having reached unprecedented volumes of viewers that bridged worlds of faithfuls and new theater fans.

Now, while reluctantly seated on the pantheon of Philippine theater greats as one of its most recognizable faces today, there’s no denying that the art of being Gab Pangilinan shines not in collecting applause from the laurels of her smash hits but in the arduous but fulfilling process of stepping into every single role she lands, while forging a path to solidify the foundations of the very community that helped harness and amplify her voice—on and off the stage. And she is not slowing down.


Ostrich on boucle winged short jacket, Jan Garcia.

The immensity of the impact of the pandemic on the performing arts resembles a familiar storyline from any beloved tragic sci-fi drama—which ironically feels far too realistic considering how we have become our own main characters in that plot for close to three years before the slow return to a sense of normalcy we are in now.

Of note, Filipino thespians faced a hovering dark cloud of uncertainty as the pandemic ruled out one of the main pillars of theater which is large-scale gatherings, that in turn prevented sharing in the art of performing for its actors and practitioners and celebrating the art of storytelling for its audiences. Yet, if the Philippine theater industry during this time has taught us anything, it’s that tenacity and creativity will always triumph any unseen enemy.

Despite living in that fever dream, the camaraderie and shared purpose between the performing arts community and their audiences transcended the boundaries imposed by the unprecedented outbreak. In essence, theater, at its core, requires determined and devoted individuals to keep the spirit of “the show must go on” fueled—people like the 31-year-old Pangilinan.

Knowing that the years-long health crisis brought everything to a halt, Pangilinan strongly holds that even at the time when everything appears to be returning to normalcy, theater has stayed in limbo—inevitably making it the last to return to the scene.

With more than 30 productions left with little alternative but to shut down in the midst of the announcement of the lockdown restrictions in 2020, rediscovering the theater to an even wider audience with the historic virtual event of AHEB, backed by network giant ABS-CBN, came with exceeded expectations and realizations.

With the sole intention of supporting a fundraiser for COVID relief, Pangilinan was startled when the video suddenly went viral on various social media platforms within 48 hours and giving birth to numerous fan arts and fan mail (through social media direct messages, of course).

Of this, newfound interest, she shares, “Imagine people watch me as a theater actor but me as a theater actor, wala akong trabaho. So, parang ang weird ng pakiramdam na yun kasi ang ironic that people are enjoying and talking about theater pero lahat ng tagateatro, walang trabaho noong mga time na yun. Di namin magawa what we want, what makes us, ‘us’. Di namin makuwento yung mga gusto naming ikuwento. ” 

Pushed by the will to create and make connections even through the untouched virtual realms, she then crossed over to live streaming in social media app kumu, that led to her getting into online shows, and even conducting a home movie shoot in an effort to make the most of the time in her hands.

“All the while at the back of my mind, I was just waiting for the theater industry to come back. Three years after, nakakatuwang makita na parang lahat ng tao gusto manoodmay mga taong naghihintay lang.”

As the ghost light ceased its use and the reinvigorated sense of interest among theater fans grew stronger, the curtains did rise again and hordes of theater-goers filled up thousand-seater venues not just for big productions but for straight plays housed in smaller auditoriums. It’s a materialization of a long time dream for any theater professional, but a surprise nevertheless.

“I believe it’s ‘El Bimbo‘, like the big part of it was streaming ‘El Bimbo’ during the height of the pandemic. So, parang ang dami naming nakitang reactions from people na ‘May ganito pala!’ Yung wala silang idea that there’s a theater industry in the country. It’s also because ‘El Bimbo’ was streamed for free sa YouTube diba? So, parang ang laking bagay na sa height ng pandemya, people got introduced to the beauty of theater and all of a sudden people are waiting for live theater shows to come back and this was 2022 pa. What more now, when we can finally say we are coming back.”

Lifting the veil of uncertainty on whether people are ready to go back to the theater, it’s the two sold out-runs of beloved original Filipino musical “Mula Sa Buwan” in 2022, where she returned as the female lead, Roxane, and the virtual streaming of the musical’s proshot that came in 2023 that reinforced beliefs that people are simply waiting to return and marvel at the magic of the theater. 

“Last year, 2022, safe to say na ang daming companies that were scared to produce, that were scared to stage shows because of budget and support. They weren’t sure that people would buy tickets, or if people has the capacity to buy tickets kasi syempre coming from the pandemic priority ng mga tao na ‘Where are we going to spend our money?’ Pero all of a sudden, we saw sa ‘Mula sa Buwan’ when we did it, people were just waiting for shows to be produced.”

She adds, “It’s just so nice to see us coming back, I would say slowly—sobrang slow, pero nararamdaman na ng lahat naEto na! You’re getting sold out shows!’”


Ash herringbone wool bouffant dress, Jan Garcia. Blazer, Edwin Tan.

Notwithstanding the successful and astounding revival of “Mula Sa Buwan”, and now that “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is slated to dazzle our eyes, Pangilinan admits that, amidst her extensive background in theatrical acting, she still battled to recoup in the first few months of her reappearance, particularly because the rehearsal process was still evolving after the crisis.

Following this forced hiatus, Pangilinan highlights that what unfolded has ultimately pushed reset for all of the theater actors that led to a kind of discovery all over again, one that seemingly put her years of notoriety in the scene—trailing her path from dancer, understudy, alternate, ensemble, to lead character, especially in the lineup of productions she has been slated to take part in and has already prepared for that have all been halted by the pandemic like “Anna in the Tropics”, “On Your Feet”, “Tabing Ilog”, and “Bongga Ka ‘Day”—back to zero.

“Actually naninibago pa ako. Kasi, I mean, we came from ‘Mula sa Buwan’ last year and then returned [this year] for ‘El Bimbo’ rehearsals. Nag e-evolve pa rin ang rehearsal process, I mean coming from the pandemic,” she relates.

[Nung] first run—August run ng ‘Mula sa Buwan‘—everyone was in masks, as in we weren’t allowed to take them off. And then sa December run, we were locked in so everyone was housed in one place. And then, ngayon naman in ‘El Bimbo’ rehearsals, wala nang naka mask. Parang iba yung pakiramdam coming back kasi things are still changing coming out of the pandemic.”

She furthers, “Medyo overwhelming siya, only because ang tagal niyang nawala. Parang I think I can speak for other theater actors also na nung sabay-sabay kaming bumalik, may questions na parang ‘Alam ko pa ba ‘tong ginagawa ko?Kasi parang ang tagal nawala eh.”

“And even if let’s say, ‘Mula sa Buwan’, I did it in 2018 and then I did it again in 2022, and that’s how many years after right? So, even if they say ‘Nagawa mo na yan dati, di ba?Oo, pero yung Gab noon iba na sa Gab ngayon. And even the story of ‘Mula sa Buwan’, yung priority ng kwento or what the current [staging] of ‘Mula sa Buwan’ was trying to say, iba siya sa 2018 version.” 

Following hurdling the emotional and psychological toll as theater actors plucked out of their home court because of the global pandemic, the physical demands of the job, compounded by the still present threat of the pandemic, came with this return, but it is one that has been treated almost like a luxury now, more than ever—sorely missed by everyone who has lived and breathed this industry, left with little but no choice but wait.

“As an actor, it felt like I was starting again, para siyang ‘reset’ talaga. Others would say na I’ve been doing theater for a while, which maybe I have, but I haven’t been doing it for years. Ano siya eh, muscle memory. It’s like kung nag gym ka, tapos tumigil ka for how many months, pag balik mo nahihirapan ka ulit, eh. It was that kind of discovery all over again, so I would say it was scary. Nakakatakot pero nakaka-excite siya.”

“[But] I [am very] grateful to be back. I mean, my favorite part of being a theater actor is the rehearsal process. Sa rehearsals kasi, you are rehearsing everyday; you sweat together, you cry together—minsan, even bleed together.”

She highlights, “Being there everyday and learning along the way. Being back in the rehearsal space with the company and my co-actors, to me, is a gift. There’s a saying kasi na, ‘Do your show as if it’s your last.’ And literally because of the pandemic, may ganun ka na talagang mindset na parang, oo eh, pwede na siya ma-cancel nang ganun lang.” 

As the theater is steadily rising to the fore after the standstill it had to deal with, Pangilinan believes that more than the boldness of those navigating the industry, the soul of every production, big or small, lies on the shared experiences built between actors and its production houses and the audiences.

“I would say iba rin talaga yung experience ng live theater. I mean, of course there are different mediums. You get something out of film, you get something out of music. Pero, when you enter the theater, it’s a shared experience not just for the actors but also for the audience that comes. [You] can’t replicate what happens on stage eh, kahit na parehong show yan, every show is a different moment and even yung audience differs.”

She adds, “Kaya, I think, there are audiences na they come again and again to watch, be it to see somebody else to play the role, be it to just hear the songs again, pero they can say, honestly, that no one’s experience is actually the same.”


Upcycled ’70s belts on weathered leather dress (worn as top), Jan Garcia. Skirt, HaMu.

Pangilinan, who has navigated the theater industry for nine years, is now moving in a pivotal direction as she begins co-producing in the Barefoot Theatre Collaborative, founded with fellow theater practitioners and constant collaborators Salomon, whom she has married last February, Pat Valera, John Mark Yap, and Rona Gutierrez.

She admits, taking a step back from wearing the actor’s hat and taking on the steering wheel as co-founder and producer, required a call for serious self-reflection. But, at its core, it’s years learning the ropes of the ins and outs of the industry, across different production companies in her career, that has equipped her with an arsenal of learnings that she believes benefits not just the company, but the industry she continues to live and fight for.

To keep her aligned, Pangilinan went back to her intent and purpose, to why she wanted to continue pursuing it—creating a sustainable theater field for actors with the help of her first hand encounters, which gave her perspective into what worked, what could’ve been improved, and what to avoid.

“This is my ninth year as a theater actor and I’ve worked with different theater companies also. So, coming from that, when we started Barefoot, I brought best practices na na-absorb ko: what worked, what could’ve been improved or what was toxic, and what to avoid. As an actor nadaanan ko yan.”

Pero syempre may birthing pains. Nothing about what we did last year was perfect lalo na coming out of a pandemic, parang there were a lot of learnings and still learning,” she discloses.

Taking some time to embrace her newly acquired role in her line of work, she admits, while success might be in her cards, there are other things that come along with it, particularly the potential for judgment from everybody else who might question whether she deserves it or why she is in it. “It’s kinda like you’re putting yourself in a position that makes it easier for people to hate you.”

“There were days [when] I would overthink and [ask] ‘What would be my place in the industry?’  ‘Di ba? As a girl to be co-producing, parang kinukuwestyon ko rin, ‘Kaya ko ba?o papansinin ko ba yung mga taong kine-question kung kakayanin ko ba? o ‘Bakit siya?‘ Those are the kind of things I wouldn’t say I needed to get over, but I kind of had to come to terms with that also. For the longest time, all I wanna do was act, all I wanna do was to be on stage, all I wanna be is a theater actor.”

“In the long run, the kind of mindset I have also is [knowing that] yung kaalaman ko as an actor would be valuable to the theater company. Kasi I’ll be on the producer side but I have the mind of an actor. For me, if you would like to be able to help the industry, somehow, or to be able to nurture a culture that is better, or at least would help actors in the future lalo na if you’re gearing towards a career that’s more sustainable in the theater industry, I [feel] like that would be my contribution as a partner and a co-producer.”

While some people might consider this to be a new duties for her, Pangilinan thinks that this is not the first time she has tried something different aside from stepping into the shoes of a character she auditioned for. For one, alongside acting for the initial offering of BTC, with all hands on deck on making it work for the company, she has also functioned as one of the merchandise directors, managing the page’s social media, public relations, and other marketing efforts.

Aside from this new path she is beginning to draw, Pangilinan, especially to the post-AHEB stremaing theater fans, continues to be the face of Philippine theater with more and more of her numerous portrayals in widely-successful productions tucked neatly under her belt, particularly fan-favorite musicals people have come to love and root for. However, this does not dissuade her from wanting to do more original Filipino musicals, straight plays, English musicals, and many more in order to thrive and sustain her individuality as an artist.

She enthuses, “There’s [just] so many stories to tell that I don’t think mauubusan ako ng gustong gawin or gustong i-kwento.”

With this said, Pangilinan is reluctant in referring to herself as a “seasoned” theater performer, as she maintains there are far too many things that may and should be unearthed in her art, as a whole. “Technically, I feel like I’m just starting. So, there’s so many possibilities pa at there’s so many things na I will be learning pa in the future.”

Pangilinan holds that she wants to work with more people to gain shared knowledge from them that will help shape her years ahead, in conjunction with the fact that she deems there is a lot she still has to learn about everything—including acting, singing, and performing. For this reason, she tries her hand at television, content creation, events, hosting, social media activities, stage work, and film.

“In terms of elevation, I think it’s really [about] continuing to try mastering my craft, which is not just theater but also acting, singing, or performing in general.”

With a wealth of possibilities that lies on her ever-evolving skills in performing, particularly with her voice and her award-winning acting prowess as her vehicles in making a stamp in the industry, many are continuously stating that a recording is long-overdue. To which, she confesses that she was approached to do, but to her a career endeavor that’s far from her priorities, as of now.

Even if she made waves after featuring in “Rosas, a song by Nica del Rosario that marked the historic people-centric run of then-Vice President Leni Robredo, she says, “Parang medyo mahaba ang thought process ko and I really go by gut feel, na if it’s something that I really want to do, gagawin ko talaga siya at ipapaglaban ko talaga siya.”

When considering where she wants her ride to navigate, Pangilinan is certain that all she really wants is to keep expanding her knowledge for the time being—even if it’s piece by piece, regardless of how long it has to take, as long as there’s a breakthrough every day. 

“That’s why, I guess, I’m more excited for what’s to come because I personally don’t even know exactly what could possibly happen.”

This was made evident in what, for her, is the surprise brought about by the recognition she received at the Asian Television Awards where she was hailed the Best Leading Female Performance (Digital) for the Viu original musical series Still. But this, on the other end of the spectrum, fired up her understanding that possibilities are limitless, leading her to wonder and roll up her sleeves to discover what else is out there.

“As a theater actor, I’m already hard on myself. So, kung nilagay ko pa yung pressure na yon, how am I going to enjoy everything that comes along? Kaya right now it’s really making the most of it and learning from the people along the way, and putting all of those learnings into building the path I am sure I will pour my heart in.”

Pangilinan highlights that in treading her still-evolving career, the sense of awareness of how long it took her to land leading roles humbled and shaped her to be patient with her career and her ideas of success. 

Ayoko ‘yung pakiramdam na parang everything has to be a competition. Hindi ba pwedeng I want to be able to progress in my own pace? If we’re talking about improving as an actor or as a performer, lahat ng tao may sariling pace or sariling landas,” she divulges.

Ayokong madaliin ang mga bagay, because it took a while before I started getting lead roles, something as simple as that. That’s why I’m patient, I guess, when it comes to career things or to my notions of levels of success. You can’t measure that based on the shows you are doing kasi for me. You compete with yourself. And if I look at myself five years or ten years ago, it’s completely different from who I am today. And that alone is success already. You can measure your success that way regardless of what is happening around.”

Although witnessing Pangilinan’s growth may appear like seeing a dish prepared with all the necessary ingredients, she still prefers that everything be repeatedly boiled—until it perfectly complements each component—appetizing enough to be consumed and served to the public. “The fulfillment comes from mastering the craft over mastering the success. It’s more than that.”

In all of these, Pangilinan realizes that, in a time when many people are gradually recognizing their own capabilities, similar to her own journey, the beauty is in the grit, commitment, and passion to continuously “create”.

There are a lot of young people producing or making, and putting their work out there, she insists that with that kind of culture reset, it’ll provide those who want to work not just in theater not only better prospects but also a wider outlook that will open the horizon for possibilities moving forward.

“As long as people keep making, creating, and wanting to keep telling stories, we are on the way to an even better theater industry in the country.”

Produced by Leo Balante

Made in collaboration with Full House Theater Company and Newport World Resorts

Creative, fashion, and beauty direction by Leo Balante

Styling by Leo Balante

Introduction and additional text by Leo Balante

Styling and shoot assistant: Bhernn Saenz

Art direction by Joco Nacpil

Videography by Bhernn Saenz

Beauty by Vince Leendon

Hair by Luziya Salon and Spa

Location and creative partner: Rise Above Media

With acknowledgments to: Sam Ajdani, Tohid Ajdani, Rey Ann Legaspi