A standing ovation for Celia Diaz Laurel

Her life as acclaimed actress, artist who is also wife and mother inspires a nation. Her book tells that story

Celia Diaz Laurel: With zeal and single-mindedness, she pursued acting and love of theater, as she raised eight children. (All photos from Laurel family)

Celia Diaz Laurel passed away July 12, 2021 at the age of 93. We’re republishing the tributes of family and friends to celebrate her 93rd birthday and a life purposefully lived.

(Celia Diaz Laurel turns 93 on May 29, and the family and friends of the foremost Filipino theater actress and artist are not about to let today’s unsettling pandemic dampen the celebration of this milestone.

There is so much to celebrate about the life and times of Celia Diaz Laurel. She is more than what the Philippines has known of her—as wife to the former Vice President and senator Salvador “Doy” Laurel and mother to famous and accomplished children. Apart from being a wife and mother of eight, this woman yielded her life to a great passion: the theater—as an actress, stage and set designer and mover of that vibrant sector. She is also a painter.

To mark her birthday, her family is launching a book, “My Lives Behind the Proscenium,” Celia Diaz Laurel’s first-person account of how she’s discovered, nurtured and didn’t give up her love of the theater, her diligent study of the craft, which began when she was a grade schooler at Assumption.

The book, edited by her children Suzie Laurel-Delgado and Cocoy Laurel, is an honest and warm storytelling by this exceptional woman. The book is very interesting in that her life has been marked by encounters with historic figures and artists. The launch will have a Facebook Live on May 29 to feature her colleagues in theater and family and friends.

We publish here the preface to the book written by her friend, another theater luminary, Joy Virata.—Editor)

Preface by Joy Virata:

Celia and I walked down very similar theatrical paths.  She preceded me at the UP Dramatic Club of Freddie Guerrero by a few years, later returning there after I had left, and then at Repertory Philippines (REP) by eight years.  When I joined REP in 1976 she was one of the company’s leading lights—both as an actress and as a set and costume designer.

I don’t mean “cool” as it is used now in modern slang but “cool” in the way she carried herself.  She never seemed to be flustered, no matter that she was doing ten things at the same time for REP, plus caring for eight children, plus running her huge household, plus being a political wife, and could keep calm in the often stormy atmosphere of a theatre company with a stormy leader.  That’s where she and I were different.

She also had cool (as in temperature) hands—which when she held them out to me would somehow produce an inner calm in me

In those days I was always flustered!  But one thing I discovered.  She also had cool (as in temperature) hands—which when she held them out to me as a newcomer, would somehow produce an inner calm in me as well.  She was kind, gentle, soft-spoken and welcoming.  Later, by some twist of fate, our husbands (who had known each other at the University of the Philippines) became involved in politics—on the opposite sides of the political fence—but that never, ever, became an issue between us.

When we went to Singapore with REP to do Ain’t Misbehavin, I as an actress, and Celia as the production designer, the Singaporeans were amazed that we were such good friends.  “They’re good friends although husbands are rival politicians” one newspaper exclaimed.

Celia has written an entertaining story about her theatrical life in a straightforward, simple, style 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 theatre and the personalities who were part of it.  She writes about her early personal life as the background for the successful career she carved out for herself—not only as an actress but as a set and costume designer.

Celia and I enjoyed many hours together both on and off stage.  As an actress she was a dependable and giving (and forgiving) scene partner.  As a designer she did her best to make me look good.  Off stage she was a favorite hostess, and numerous REP parties were held at the Laurel house.  She also had a great sense of humor.

Cover of ‘My Lives Behind the Proscenium’ to be launched May 29 on FB Live

Seniors will enjoy this book remembering the theatre they watched in times gone by, perhaps with Celia on stage, and young people will learn by her example that even if one is endowed with artistic talent, good looks and intelligence, the two main ingredients for success in theatre are passion and hard work.

Finally, Celia acknowledges the source of all her many accomplishments.

Her professor, National Artist Amorsolo, gave her a 1 on her first day

Cocoy Laurel on his mother, his painting mentor:

With son Cocoy Laurel

My very first portrait was taught to me by my mother! It was so amazingly exciting because she just demonstrated and made me take over. She knew how to give me confidence when at first I was timid but then she made me enjoy it knowing that I was doing great and was succeeding! And she praised my work, which made me feel I had accomplished something great, and I saw that what I had done was beautiful! I have fallen in love with  the art  of portrait painting  ever since!

Mom kept saying isn’t  it fun? Then she’d say, that’s  it! How beautiful!  She really made me know that the secret to successful beautiful portraits was if there were done with joy  and with love. I would watch her paint all the time with great admiration  because she is really a genius! Her professor, National Artist Amorsolo, gave her a 1 on her first day. She really made painting fun and she was passionate  with her brush strokes to the max.  I really learned a lot through the years I watched her paint. I know she is why I am the painter  I am  today.  For one thing , she really gives  God glory when she paints!

Credit: Video submitted to by Salvador H. Laurel Museum and Library

Credit: Video submitted to by Salvador H. Laurel Museum and Library

Credit: Video submitted to by Salvador H. Laurel Museum and Library

Highlights of My Lives Behind the Proscenium:

  • Celia Diaz Laurel was born in 1928 to Anselmo and Concepcion Diaz in the ancestral home in Talisay, Negros Occidental. Her love for acting began in her early elementary at Assumption in Manila, where the family had moved. At Assumption’s velada—that famous tradition dating back to pre-war—as a grade schooler, she watched as a young Chito Madrigal (who would be one of the country’s top businesswomen and doyenne of society) performed onstage: “I thought she looked like an angel….I was stage-struck! I yearned to perform on that stage.”

  • It was also in grade school when she started to draw people, mostly women in period costumes. It would be the seed of her love for costume design.

She would join the likes of Eggie Apostol, Isagani Cruz, Beniting Legarda, Jr. in the Legion of Mary

  • Her youth was marked by acting in the theater, initially with the Dramatic Philippines of Narciso Pimentel, Jr.. Then during Liberation, as a resident of Balic Balic in Manila, she would join the likes of Eggie Apostol (who would be journalist and founder of Philippine Daily Inquirer), Isagani Cruz (later Justice of the Supreme Court), Beniting Legarda, Jr. in the Legion of Mary where they would mount fund-raising production.

  • She enrolled at the UP School of Fine Arts, but would be drawn to theater, specifically through noted playwright, director Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero who asked her to essay the role of Tia Consuelo in his play Forever—on a day’s notice, to take the place of the original actress.

  • The breakthrough happened when a visiting Russian-American director Sonia Rifkin tapped her to play Adela in Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. She was only 19 and how she essayed such an earthy character was an interesting anecdote in her young adult years, thanks to Rita Hayworth. Her performance was lauded by no less than the head of Columbia Pictures in the Philippines. She’d hone her craft more as she came under the tutelage of the iconic James Reuter for the Jesuit’s popular radio program that staged plays.

  • Most interesting and defining was her pursuit of Masters in Fine Arts at Yale University, just to be with her husband who was working on his master’s degree in Law at Yale. The young couple left behind their two daughters in the care of Celia’s mother so they could settle down in New Haven, USA. But like at UP, she took a detour to the Yale School of Drama after a school official, impressed with her interview, convinced her to transfer to the drama department. That opened the door to major roles and productions that would define and fuel her passion for acting and theater. It was a life-defining chapter that would abruptly end when she realized she was pregnant with their third child. She flew home shortly before her due date and gave birth to their firstborn son, Victor (Cocoy), who would become a famous actor and performer, and now, a painter.

Her introduction to Bibot and to Bibot’s legendary fiery temper is one of the most regaling chapters in the book

  • Even as she and Doy raised a brood of eight, she returned to the theater. In 1968, she joined Repertory Philippines, where she would find fulfillment as actress, costume and set designer. She was with Rep until 1992, doing 52 plays, 47 of them directed by Zeneida “Bibot” Amador, the founder of Rep and a theater stalwart who helped build the theater audience in the country. Her introduction to Bibot and to Bibot’s legendary fiery temper is one of the most regaling chapters in the book. (No spoiler alert here)

At the end of her book, Celia writes: “I believe that in every production design and costume created, and in every role I played as an actress, I had the Master Director leading me on and blessing my works. To Him I offered them all, as I would in every role I played behind the proscenium. And I am indeed, truly grateful.”

With admirable zeal, determination and indefatigability, Celia Diaz Laurel fulfilled her roles as wife, mother, actress and artist. She didn’t let these multiple roles get in the way of each other—how she did it was an awesome feat indeed.

Turning 93, Celia Diaz Laurel—most important—has a grateful heart. Her story inspires a nation. We give her a standing ovation.

For book contact details, +639667698969 (Jenn Tejada, Mon-Fri 1-5p.m.)

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