Filipinos and Mennonites unite to bring the first Manitoba-produced sitcom to your TV sets

“Maria and the Mennos” coming out this fall

Set and produced in Manitoba, Maria and the Mennos is the first situation comedy to be ever produced in the province by an all-Manitoban cast and crew. It is also the first time that Filipinos and Mennonites, under the creative team of Paul Plett, Tina Fehr and Hazel Wallace, will join forces to deliver a full 13-episode season while they challenge current Filipino and Mennonite stereotypes in TV and film.

Maria and the Mennos is a story of a young Filipino Canadian woman who tries to maintain her identity as she gets a crash course in everything and being Mennonite. Recently married, Maria Mendoza and Nate Friesen, moved in with his parents, Sarah and Hank Friesen, to save money for a house of their own. Hilarity ensues as the characters contend with different cultures and generations and the contrast between urban and rural life.

The production officially started taping last January 3rd and the Filipino Journal had the pleasure of talking to its co-creator, Hazel Wallace and its Filipino-Canadian cast: Victoria Exconde, a Winnipeg stage actress and performer, who is playing the lead character, Maria Mendoza-Friesen; Donna Natividad-Arenas, CKJS 92.7 FM’s Good Morning Philippines announcer who is playing the character of Gloria Mendoza, Maria’s mom; and Elmer Aquino, a Winnipeg actor and performer who is playing Alejandro Mendoza, Maria’s father.

FJ: Tell us how this all came to be. Why a TV series and a sitcom?

HAZEL: We wanted a TV series because I just felt like we wanted to have one of those things. They can go home after work or school and just turn on the TV and watch and have a good laugh. You just need 20 minutes out of your day to enjoy it.

It’s a sitcom because we just felt there was a lack of comedy in the Winnipeg film scene.

It’s my favorite genre to act in, right? And I find that I get a lot of inspiration from a comedy I always get like a little buzz whenever I’m reading it or writing it so Paul and Tina felt the same way. Also, Filipino just love poking fun at each other and teasing and laughing and we laugh hard. It just has to be a comedy!

FJ: What is the story behind merging the Mennonite and Filipino cultures?

HAZEL: We felt there was a lack of Filipino representation in the media, and we have such a high population of Filipino and so why don’t we have a show set in Manitoba? Paul and Tina are the other producers, they are Mennonite and we also have such a large Mennonite community here. So they kind of approached me with the idea of mixing the two together mixing of both cultures and acceptance but also like, poking a joke, you know, at each other.

FJ: You just finished your second week of taping. Walk me through the atmosphere in the set. How are the dynamics of the cast and crew?

VICTORIA. I find that all of us really connected right away, and with the process starting already and it’s only gotten stronger, and I know it’s going to be unreal by the end of it.
So fun. But also they’re professional. When we’re rolling. everyone’s so professional. Gets through it and it’s so funny. And then when we’re cut, very silly and fun, then maybe a little too fun. Maybe a little too comfortable with each other now.

DONNA: Everybody in the set is so nice and organized. Everything is well taken care of, from food to where you put your shoes and your jacket. They’re so good at following schedules and I’m proud that I am in such a good team, where people know what they’re doing. They are so talented, and I couldn’t be more proud to be working with such an amazing cast and crew. I hope that this will lead to something bigger for each one of them.

ELMER: They are open to suggestions. There was a part in the script which was quite different from what I have said and Paul (Plett) agreed to it because I explained it to him he found out that it’s really good. And then we started that.

FJ: Since this is comedy, how would you compare the humor of the two cultures?

ELMER: Whenever they see our faces, they will laugh right away. (laughs)

VICTORIA: We really are much louder. I think we’re more boisterous with our jokes and just laugh louder.
I think it’s not so much a difference in what we find funny, but more there’s a difference in how we react to it.

HAZEL: We’re so loud. If we laugh, we’re gonna laugh hard. While some people just love it just as much but they just have a different reaction. So that’s really cool

FJ: What are the Filipino elements that viewers get to see in the series?

HAZEL: There are a lot of Filipino elements that we really wanted to have in this show. You know how everyone has their house names I have a cousin named Cookie and Twinkle. We had a bunch of Filipino food in the upcoming Christmas episode we’re filming this week. We have parol and a lot of Tagalog in that one. Just super cool. And we have karaoke. We have a full karaoke episode with original songs, which is super exciting.

We also have a Filipino festival coming up and we’re teaming up with Magdaragat. I got a dance team to do the tinikling which is going to be super, super fun.

FJ: How does acting for TV differ from performing on stage or being in a film?

VICTORIA: For me, it feels backward. Because when we’re doing anything for theater, you’re learning your lines, and your blocking. And you’ve rehearsed that over and over again, up until the final performance, and you just go through it. Whereas with film, I’m just learning the script. I go in blind, and we just do it a bunch of times and hope that we get it, and we block it.

ELMER: No difference at all because if you are an actor, you will always be an actor, right? I was a “batang teatro” so we do a lot of stage play. And so with acting, it becomes natural, as long as you wanted to know whom you’re going to portray, and what will be your character or what kind of behavior you are in that in that kind of role. Then it comes naturally.

FJ: Are there major scenes that you are preparing yourself for, like the Karaoke?

VICTORIA: It’s not even the karaoke episode that I’m more worried about. It’s the one where I’m singing at a Mennonite church so I’m singing their hymns. So that one I just want to make sure that I get right because it is not as familiar to me.

DONNA: I’m looking forward to the karaoke. Victoria and Joseph are trained singers. Kuya Elmer is a singer. Hazel sings too. And surprisingly, I’m also singing. (laughs) I’m really looking forward to that. My daughter told me to get a voice coach (laughs). I think this can be the start of another exciting career for me. It will open more doors of opportunities (laughs).

***

Asked about season 2, Hazel shared that they are talking about it but have no specifics yet. Right now, they are focused on filming season 1 and are thankful to the community and all the people who are taking a chance on them.

Other cast members of Maria and the Mennos are Joseph Sevillo as Angelo Mendoza, Maria’s brother; Kenton Dyck as Nate Friesen, Maria’s husband; Chuck Fett as Hank Friesen, father of Nate; and Erna Peters as Sarah Friesen, mother of Nate.

Maria and the Mennos airs in fall via YESTV and their streaming service, CASTLE.

Photo credit for Maria and the Mennos : Kieran Peters