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Broadway Actress Shares Inspirations, Thoughts on “Belonging”

Broadway actress discusses the importance of representation in the arts.

A woman stands on stage deep in her emotions
Alumna Melody Butiu portrayed Estrella Cumpas, childhood nanny and friend of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, in the David Byrne disco musical, Here Lies Love, on Broadway in 2023. Photo: Angelo Soriano

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This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Seeing Ourselves.”

“Who am I?

What do I have to say?

What am I here to learn?” 

It’s all part of the process for Broadway, TV and film actress Melody Butiu ’96, MFA ’99. It’s these three key questions that get to the core of the roles that she seeks out and what she tries to bring to her interpretations. 

Being able to explore the Filipino American experience and the Filipino diaspora — of which her parents were part — through her acting roles makes her “feel at home,” she says. “It makes me feel connected to my ancestors, to my family history, to the journey that they took to lead us here.” Her goal is to honor those experiences so that “people feel seen.” And at the same time, she knows those are the moments where she can give audiences a little piece of herself, her own memories and experiences. 

Speaking from her cozy Manhattan Beach home with the afternoon sun streaming through the windows, Butiu’s infectious joy in her career is palpable. She recalls her time at UC San Diego where she quickly moved from an undeclared undergraduate to participating in theatrical internships, shows and productions. She was focused in her pursuit of a professional acting career and would go on to earn a Masters of Fine Arts degree at UC San Diego.

She recalls fondly working with Charlie Oates, faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Dance (1996–2017), and writing a one-person show for his class. For her show, Butiu focused on a trip to the Philippines she took with her family. Having the opportunity to explore that part of her heritage was “pretty special,” she says, because at that point it wasn’t common to have the opportunity to share Filipino stories in the mainstream arts world.

As her career has grown, she’s seen the industry itself undergo a major shift. At the onset, she was told that she might consider changing her name and learning Spanish because Filipino roles just weren’t readily available. But now, those roles increasingly exist and there is also a wider evolution within the industry to “cast authentically,” she says.  

Due to these changes, she has not only been part of the David Byrne disco musical Here Lies Love, which documents the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, but she was also cast in Easter Sunday (2022), a studio film based on actor/comedian Jo Koy’s Filipino American family — which intentionally hired Filipino actors. And, most recently, she spoke on a panel at the Manila International Film Festival, held in Los Angeles, about her experiences and perspectives as a Filipino-American and member of the Screen Actors Guild- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

The evolution within the industry over the last decades is exciting, she says. “We're just little-by-little trying to take our place at the table.” 

A woman dressed in yellow and red smiles.
Photo: Ben Cope

She adds that finding your own career successes and “moments where you really get to shine” is a cumulative process. There are “times where it feels like it's so busy you can't get a breath in,” she notes. But there are also times of drought. And in those times, she suggests digging into the type of work that is exciting to you and that you want to do, supporting your community and lifting them up.

It’s advice that works for anyone, at any age, in any career. “It’s about leaning into the unknown, understanding that certainty is not a real thing in this business or in life, and that not knowing all the answers means you can be open to all the incredible possibilities that lie ahead,” she says.

It’s those experiences that can turn out to be the most invigorating and truly transformative. 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “Seeing Ourselves.”

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