National Artist Daisy Hontiveros Avellana turns 93 this week
“IN 1939, A YEAR AFTER we were married, Bert and I had three offspring in a single year: our eldest daughter Marijo, the Barangay Theater Guild, and the movie ‘Sakay.’ One did not live for more than a year, while the other two live on and on and on.”
So writes Daisy Hontiveros Avellana in Chapter 3 of her just-released memoir, “The Drama of It: A Life on Film and Theater.” That paragraph distills like no other the remarkable life of the Avellanas, the Oliviers of their day in the Philippines.
While raising a family and surviving war, poverty, calamity and the tumult of years, Daisy and Lamberto also blazed a trail in local film and theater, in time becoming both National Artists with a shared body of work that remains unsurpassed in Philippine art.
“The Drama of It” fleshes out their pioneering years together, he as the wunderkind of theater and movies (he directed “Sakay,” the landmark 1939 film hailed as heralding a new chapter in local cinema, at only 23 years old); and she as muse and full creative partner to her husband (she wrote the story of “Sakay” and pared down Nick Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” to the definitive adaptation used in the 1965 film and still staged today), while also starring as Joan of Lorraine, Lady Macbeth, Medea, Hecuba, Desdemona, Bernarda Alba, Candida--the cream of female roles in literature--on stage, in film and over the radio.
“Bert liked to say that on his wedding day he actually married two girls,” recalls Avellana. “He described the first girl as a domestic goddess, dedicated to being a good housewife and devoted to being a good mother. The other lady he called his ‘theater-gone gal,’ who read plays, edited them, performed them, and made other people play in them.”
Lamberto and Daisy Avellana in the early ’60s
It was a formidable partnership. Friends since college when they were both stars of their campus theaters (Bert created a splash in Ateneo de Manila with an acclaimed performance as Joan of Arc--a female role; Daisy was the leading lady of many a production of the UP Dramatic Club), their marriage cemented their shared passions and interests, even as Daisy says, “I am near-sighted and my husband was far-sighted. We never saw things the same way. Literally. We disagreed over many things and approached challenges in completely different ways.”
The challenges were enormous. When they began, there was no established Philippine theater. There were moro-moro plays and zarzuelas and scattered productions in schools, but no industry, no profession, no play-going season to speak of.
In 1939, fired up with a vision, the Avellanas gathered 48 of their friends and created the Barangay Theater Guild.
“At that time, these young men and women were the cream of Manila campus theater guilds. We all shared the dream of building the Filipino Theater.”
BTG’s first production, held at the Manila Grand Opera House, consisted of three one-act plays: Alice Gerstenberg’s “The Pot Boiler,” Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero’s “Women Are Extraordinary” and John Farrar’s “Nerves.”
“The production ran for two to three weeks. Our audience was mostly composed of relatives. But we didn’t mind. With this show, we had broken ground. We were young. We were brimming with ideas,” says Daisy.
Their enthusiasm, however, ran aground on reality. Most BTG actors were students or professionals by day, and could only spare time for rehearsals at night. They weren’t paid, and only made do with simple merienda.
When Daisy had her first baby Marijo (who would tragically die of bronchopneumonia within a year), the guild hibernated for a while. The lull was propitious, however. It led to “Sakay,” Bert’s initial and immediately successful foray into cinema.
Ironically, BTG’s flowering would happen in the middle of war.
“The period between 1942 and 1945 might well have been the beginning of our Golden Age in Philippine theater,” Daisy explains. “The Japanese had banned the showing of foreign films and shut down local movie productions... Enterprising drama groups, the BTG included, seized the opportunity. We sought permission to stage our productions in the now-vacant movie houses.
“It was a joy to see the SRO sign for practically all the plays presented... You went for two hours to forget that there was a war going on outside, that there were people getting tortured and killed. We provided that hope. It was something.”
The postwar years saw the Avellana tandem scaling greater heights. Bert’s “Anak Dalita” and “Badjao” planted the flag of a resurgent Philippine cinema in foreign film competitions, winning awards in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Daisy adds that his “Kandelerong Pilak” was, in fact, the first Filipino film ever shown at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1954.
When he shifted gears in disgust over the commercialism of mainstream cinema, his short films and documentaries (precursors of today’s “indies”) also gained recognition in Spain, Cambodia and other countries.
Reading for Barangay Theater Guild, which pioneered dramatic readings
The lady herself couldn’t be busier. She was adapting and starring in various plays, teaching drama (at St Paul’s and St. Scholastica’s), writing award-winning short stories, headlining “Portrait” onstage (she did Candida over 200 times at Intramuros’ open-air Aurora Gardens alone, helping make it the longest-running play in local theater history at the time) and then in the screen version megged by her husband—a movie praised everywhere but was a loss at the tills. She also minded a family that had now grown to three children.
Her work on the movie, incidentally, was the first time Avellana was paid for her acting. This was already 1965, some 30 years after she had begun her career as an actress. “Before this, it was all gratis and plenty of amore,” she notes wryly. “But it was worth it.”
By the 1960s, such was Daisy’s stature that when Helen Hayes, the First Lady of American Theater, came to the Philippines in 1966 and saw the movie, she paid her Filipino counterpart a compliment: “In your country, Daisy, it is I who should stand to you!”
As Reyna Arminda in the moro-moro “Prinsipe Baldovino,” designed and directed by Rolando Tinio. “Rolando was the one who convinced this Visayan that she could do plays in Tagalog. And even sing in a Tagalog zarzuela at the CCP Main Theater!,” writes Daisy.
Lamberto Avellana, declared National Artist for Theater and Film in 1976, died in 1991. Daisy writes about his last day with haiku-like starkness and feeling:
“‘You want me to stay up with you?’
“‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I’ll just read a while and I’ll be there with you later.’
“That was the last time I saw him and I heard him.
“I miss him. For me, he was the best movie director. The best theater director. And he was my best friend.”
In 1999, Daisy herself was named National Artist for Theater.
The full breadth of the Avellana legacy to Philippine history and culture is unquantifiable, but a partial accounting can be glimpsed at the end of Daisy’s book, where she lists down the stage plays, staged readings, radio plays and plays for television they did from 1939 to 2006.
It’s a prodigious list. Even more consequential are the artists spawned by the Barangay Theater Guild--nearly every fine actor of any era from A (Abuel, Tommy) to Z (Zarate, Ernie).
Between these pages of history, struggle, glory and love--“undying, generous, magnificent love,” as Carmen Guerrero Nakpil puts it in her foreword--are rare, riveting pictures: Bert with a very young Ninoy Aquino in Korea; the Avellanas doing a radio play with friends Vic Silayan, Onofre Pagsanghan and Noel Trinidad; the ravishing actresses Barbara Perez and Marlene Dauden taking last-minute instructions from their director.
Lamberto reviewing script with Barbara Perez and Marlene Dauden before a Barangay Theater Guild reading of Joaquin’s “May Day Eve” and “Guardia de Honor” at the Far Eastern University auditorium, 1960s
Pictures, too, of offstage life and domesticity--the Avellanas with their children and grandchildren, and of their parents, in images that evoke a wistful, genteel but long-gone era.
For a book that purports to tell “the drama of it,” Avellana’s telling is surprisingly free of theatrics--crisp and droll and clear-eyed, its power accumulating from its very simplicity. In this, she is a true child of the fleeting magic of theater: She leaves us hungry for more.
Daisy Hontiveros Avellana turns 93 tomorrow. Stand up, Philippines--there’s a great lady in the house.
[Note: All photos from the book “The Drama of It: A Life on Film and Theater”]