Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana: an appreciation

Today, the Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists Group, Inc. (PHILSTAGE), in cooperation with the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, is mounting “Theater Herstory 101: A Tribute to National Artist for Theater Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana,” at 3:00 and 8 p.m., at the Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (CCP Little Theater). Admission is free.

“The multi-media concert-informance brings to a close the CCP-led year-long tribute to Ms. Avellana, an actor, director and writer who elevated professional theater to a new level of excellence,” explains PHILSTAGE in a statement. Ms. Avellana turns 91 years old on Saturday, January 26.

Let me add my own voice to the acclaim by reposting below the appreciation piece I wrote on Ms. Avellana last year to mark the opening ceremonies of the year-long tribute to the “First Lady of Philippine Theater.”

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 01.22.2007

National Artist for Theater Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana turns 90 on Jan. 26.

She’d gladly spend that day at home, resting, watching “Jeopardy” and her favorite talk shows, and just savoring the sunset years of a life lived extraordinarily well, but for the fact that a National Artist reaching 90 years old is a rare milestone that calls for something grander than an afternoon nap.

“Ninety! Can you believe it?” she asks herself, incredulous that she has survived this long.

Avellana, in her nonagenarian years, is a bit hard of hearing, but otherwise suffers from no major illnesses. She’s very lucid, her memory still sharp with color and detail.

She remembers the high points of her Renaissance life (actress for theater, film and radio, writer, director, teacher, all-around cultural worker), and is not above laughing at the occasional low moments.

Like the time she went to a well-known doctor to research on drug addiction. She was about to play Mary Tyrone, the drug-addled mother of a dysfunctional family in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and she needed guidance on how an addict--a woman at that--moved, thought, responded.

Her visit to the doctor was duly noted by Manila’s insular society, and word quickly went around that the eminent Daisy Hontiveros Avellana, muse and wife of the equally celebrated film and theater director Lamberto Avellana, had become unhinged.

Nabuang daw ako,” says Avellana, chortling. “They said, Ay, Daisy’s gone nuts! So I said, Okay, I’m nuts! And that really went around, you know.”

Acclaimed roles
To celebrate her 90th birthday, the Cultural Center of the Philippines is mounting “Daisies” on Jan. 26, a grand tribute that will gather some 26 women--acting luminaries from theater and film--to perform excerpts of Avellana’s most acclaimed roles.

Her frequent collaborators Naty Crame-Rogers and Rustica Carpio will read lines from Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” while four musical stars--Celeste Legaspi, Carla Martinez, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and May Bayot--will sing excerpts from Cayabyab-Tinio’s “Larawan,” the musical version of the play.

Cecille Guidote Alvarez as Medea; Shamaine Centenera Buencamino as Desdemona; Baby Barredo as Sarah Bernhardt; Avellana’s daughter Ivi Cosio as Bernarda Alba (she played Bernarda’s daughter Adela opposite her mother in the original production); Frances Makil as Lady Macbeth; and a student from the Philippine High School for the Arts reading from Avellana’s first starring role in college, John Galsworthy’s “The Silver Box”— these, plus appearances by other actresses such as Gina Alajar, Malou de Guzman, Vivian Velez and Dolly Benavides (the very first Paula, now a lawyer) under Irma Adlawan’s staging, promise a distinguished night worthy of the presence of the First Lady of Philippine Theater.

Avellana herself seems flustered at all the attention. “When I first heard about it, I said, ‘Is it possible? I can’t believe it! Me?’”

Gracious, visionary
Her characteristic self-effacement was only one element of the gracious but visionary personality Avellana brought to her trailblazing work across Philippine theater, radio, film and media (she was a magazine editor and award-winning short story writer, too) for decades, beginning in the prewar years.

Along with her husband and 48 other friends, she helped found the Barangay Theater Guild (BTG) in 1939, now the country’s oldest existing theater company. Its last production was a dramatic reading of Ladislas Fodor’s “The Vigil” at the Far Eastern University Theater in September 2006--directed, but of course, by Avellana.

BTG’s weekend productions, mostly staged by her husband, allowed Avellana to play some of the greatest female roles in drama: Medea, Joan of Arc, Lady Macbeth, Sarah Bernhardt, Hecuba, Bernarda Alba, Desdemona, Lupe in Nick Joaquin’s “Tatarin” and, most indelibly, Candida in another Joaquin opus, “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.”

Her Candida was so definitive that she ended up playing it “countless” times, in her estimation. In one run alone, held at the open-air Aurora Gardens in Intramuros, Avellana essayed Candida some 200 times opposite Dolly Benavides as Paula (Crame-Rogers later took over). Armando Goyena played the role of Tony Javier.

In a documentary that accompanied Avellana’s conferment of National Artist honors in 1999, Bienvenido Lumbera, now a fellow National Artist (for Literature), recalled watching this play as a young man. For him, “Daisy Avellana’s Candida in ‘Portrait’ was the highest moment of Philippine theater. She was Philippine theater at a time when there was hardly any Philippine theater.”

When Lamberto filmed “Portrait,” Avellana and Crame-Rogers reprised their roles. It was Avellana’s lone foray into film as an actress (“My parents were against it, and also my children”), but she would go on to win recognition for her story treatment of “Sakay,” and would also help research her husband’s scripts for the classic films “Anak Dalita” and “Badjao.”

Playing Candida with Naty Crame-Rogers as Paula in the film version of Nick Joaquin's “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” directed by Lamberto Avellana

Her work as director, actor and producer of adapted plays for radio is even more remarkable. Starting in 1952, BTG produced weekly 45-minute dramatic readings broadcast over radio dzPI. Daisy adapted and cast the plays, and Lamberto directed the readings with a live audience in the studio.

The first Shakespearean play to be aired locally in its entirety was BTG’s “Macbeth.” In 1952 alone, the readings made up a staggering canon: Anderson’s “Joan of Lorraine”; Shaw’s “Bury the Dead”; Howard’s “They Knew What They Wanted”; Guerrero’s “Forever,” “Forsaken House” and “Frustrations”; Kaufman and Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner”; Zulueta da Costa’s “Like the Molave”; Hellman’s “Little Foxes”; Lorca’s “Blood Wedding” and “The House of Bernarda Alba”; Gogol’s “Inspector General”; Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”; Osborn’s “On Borrowed Time”; Chekhov’s “Marriage Proposal”; Shakespeare’s “Othello,” “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “The Merchant of Venice” and many more.

Their work in radio and the stage didn’t pay--everything was gratis--but the couple didn’t mind.

“My husband and I weren’t rich, but we loved what we were doing,” said Avellana in the 1999 documentary. “And that was good enough for us.”

Lesson in humility
The greatest lesson she has learned from her work in theater, she says, is humility. And she has the requisite life-changing anecdote to back it up.

“[English teacher and drama coach] Jean Edades gave me the best lesson in humility. At that time, I was already the star of all the plays in UP. And then, when we were putting up these three one-act plays, she said I was going to play the role of a maid! I was hurt, of course, and humiliated. I told Mrs. Edades I had a headache and went home. I told my parents about it, expecting them to side with me. But my parents [Supreme Court Justice José Hontiveros and Vicenta Pardo] instead scolded me! They said, Go back, apologize, and play the role. So I did. Afterwards, her theater friends told Mrs. Edades: “You have very good actors in your group, but that young girl who played the maid, she’s going to be a star!’”

“I’ve never forgotten what Mrs. Edades told me. ‘There are no small roles, only small actors.’ That’s a lesson I keep telling the young ones. Even in life, it’s the same thing. There are no small roles in life, only small people.”

Any talk of legacy, of her place in Philippine art and culture, and she is as modest.

“That’s for others to say,” says Avellana. “I just hope to be remembered as a good human being. And that I tried my best. Whether I triumphed in my roles or not, it’s important that I did my best.”

You did, Ms. Avellana, you did.

PLUS: “Prognosis on RP Theater: Negative,” a snapshot of Philippine theater in the 1930s-1940s, courtesy of National Artist for Theater Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana.

[3rd photo copyright © Isa Lorenzo]

P.S. “When the time does come for the Filipino national theater to emerge and take its place at center stage, we who were young in 1939 may no longer be on the scene, but we shall be watching, in spirit, from the wings.” -- Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana

1 comment:

palma tayona said...

hello. it might seem a little odd to put this "comment" under this post, but i simply have to get it out of my chest.

i am having lunch and surfing through the videos in your vodpod collection and saw the Mama Mia stage presentation.

i have never known nor heard of Mama Mia before until i saw your post about meryl streep playing in the movie version. now, surprise, surprise! i am even more titillated by the idea that ABBA songs are part of the stage repertoire the movie is based on.

NOW i am simply EXCITED, THRILLED, AMUSED and UTTERLY HOLDING MY BREATH that La Streep (i am assuming she does) will sing these ABBA songs in the movie.

i wait with tickled excitement for THE DANCING QUEEN to prance at that greek tavern.

______ back to regular programming.

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