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A look back at Celia Diaz’s life onstage (and off)

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published May 24, 2021 5:00 am

Celia Diaz-Laurel, noted Repertory Philippines performer and Gawad Buhay awardee — a woman of the arts who could have been First Lady —  turns 93 this coming May 29.

And she had a pretty great idea to celebrate that birthday: by putting out a coffee table book celebrating her years behind the scenes and onstage.

The wife of Cory’s VP Doy Laurel, mom to beautiful daughters and singer/ actor Cocoy Laurel, Celia launches My Lives Behind the Proscenium while we’re all still in lockdown, but it’s well worth the gazing: with its plethora of vintage photos from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s up to the ‘90s, it’s Diaz-Laurel’s look back at a life that took many branches — from marriage to upcoming politician Salvador Laurel to motherhood; from art and drama studies at Yale, to decades of acting and production design for increasingly lauded work onstage.

As her best friend Joy Virata says in the introduction, “Celia has written an entertaining story that not only will give the curious reader an insight into her life and the social milieu of her time, but is a historical narrative of the early years of Manila theater and its personalities.”

Celia Diaz-Laurel received a Gawad Buhay Lifetime Achievement (Natatanging Gawad) trophy in 2016. The book ‘My Lives Behind The Proscenium’ is a vivid portrait of her years onstage, and behind the scenes.

A proscenium, of course, is a virtual “screen” through which audience members observe the stage, framed by an arch and floorboards below. Celia came to understand every aspect of what made theater tick — from the acting and directing to scenery and lighting.

 Celia Diaz-Laurel with Salvador “Doy” Laurel

“To win an audience, everything behind the proscenium must transport the audience to another world — the imaginary world — that becomes alive and real on that stage when the lights go on,” she writes in her foreword.

Acting was an education in life: “Living more than a hundred lives behind the proscenium made me understand the human heart.”

 Onstage for Repertory Philippines’ ‘Blithe Spirit’

Ms. Celia has lots of anecdotes about her rise to the stage: from growing up the youngest of six kids in Talisay, Negros Occidental to immersing herself in live theater during the Japanese occupation, when moviehouses were shut down and Atenean troupes performed at places like Metropolitan Theatre and the Gaiety.

At the UP College of Fine Arts in Manila, where she took up painting, she also took several roles with the UP Dramatic Club – at times reluctantly, as when she had to fill in as a 60-year-old character, learning pages and pages of lines overnight, and performing the next day.

Sometimes it was Rita Hayworth that would inspire her. Performing in a Lorca play, The House of Bernarda Alba, for the Manila Community Players, she learned how to play a vixen role by watching the sexy American actress sashay around onscreen in Blood and Sand.

 Stage version of Rashomon

She was hired by Jesuit priest Fr. James Reuter to join his radio group, the Ave Maria Players on DZRH, where Reuter instructed her to modulate her sound: “Don’t use your full voice — just three-fourths of it.”

Of course, marriage to Laurel followed, and Celia’s book skips ahead, after the birth of her daughters Suzie and Lynnie, to her Yale years, where she took up her master’s in drama alongside Salvador who was studying law.

 With son Cocoy Laurel

There, she understudied with Agnes Moorehead for a production of Shaw’s Man and Superman, and the roles started stacking up; by 1952, she had to make a tough choice: she was pregnant again, and Doy wanted her to give birth in the Philippines. They suspected it would be a boy, and wanted him born on Philippine soil. She did, and that boy was Cocoy. Now, with three kids back in Manila, Celia focused on being a full-time housewife.

The greasepaint lured her back though, and in 1968, Repertory Philippines co-founder and fellow thespian Zeneida Amador coaxed her to join the company, where she remained, behind the scenes doing scenery work, and onstage, until 1992.

Amador cast her alongside Jose Mari Avellana, Nick Lizaso, Nestor Torre, Chito Ponce-Enrile, Miguel Faustmann, Jimmy Fabregas, Noel Tolentino, Bernardo Bernardo, Subas Herrero, Freddie Santos, Francis Maravilla, Jorge Ortoll, Dido dela Paz, Paul Holmes and Steve Metherell, and up and comers like Baby Barredo, Joy Virata, Lea Salonga, Mitch Valdez, Benita Steger, Monique Wilson, Becca Godinez and Terry Legarda.

REP day: Celia with Miguel Faustmann 
Onstage with Bernardo Bernardo 

“REP became a magnet,” Celia says, and the next decades were a constant merry-go-around of stellar productions — Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, The Sound of Music, Chorus Line — with each generation propelling new actors, directors and artists to fame. Foreigners watching would compare REP shows favorably to Broadway casts they’d seen — a credit to Filipino talent. REP’s reputation was cemented into place.

Celia focused on design work for REP — often made challenging when Amador would pick huge productions like Pirates of Penzance and Amadeus to stage, and wouldn’t take “no” or “can’t” for an answer.

She eventually bowed out from REP when husband Doy became Cory Aquino’s vice president. Her last role for the company was Lucille in Cemetery Club in 1992, but she left her mark behind in over 50 productions. (The full résumé of her production work is staggering.) After that, she took on the more public role of politician’s wife.

Celia received a Gawad Buhay Lifetime Achievement (Natatanging Gawad) trophy in 2016. This book is a vivid portrait of her years onstage, and behind the scenes.

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The ‘My Lives Behind the Proscenium’ book launch will be at Celia Diaz-Laurel’s Facebook page on May 29, 4 p.m., hosted by Jamie Wilson and Nicole Laurel, with an OPM song number from Cocoy Laurel. Celia’s special guests are Julie Borromeo, Joonee Gamboa, Audie Gemora and Lea Salonga. For book reservations and inquiries, contact Jenn Tejada at 8869-7298 (Monday-Friday, 1 to 5 p.m.)