It was in the 90s when I really started going to the CCP. Our Humanities professor would require us to see plays there, usually by the in-house theater group Tanghalang Pilipino. He wasn’t much of a teacher that professor, but the plays he asked us to see were exhilarating pieces, foremost among them the incredibly hilarious Ang Buhay ay Pelikula by Dennis Marasigan which I saw twice at the Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (I don’t know how anyone could watch Irma Adlawan play Mother Lily without aching to see her do it all over again).
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Later on, I remember catching the premiere of the gay Portrait of the Artist as Filipino — where stage giants Behn Cervantes and Anton Juan played the two confirmed bachelors, Candido and Paulo (Floy Quintos played their Bitoy). The production was a class act and it was my first and last time to see its playwright Nick Joaquin in the flesh, looking fittingly fabulous in his green turtle neck under a cigar-colored windowpane suit.
But I remember watching the first local screening of Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis at what is now called the Dream Theater — after the controversial film premiered at Cannes in 1989 as Les Insoumis. It was a terribly depressing movie, and watching the audience step out of the room after the credits was like watching a funeral procession.
I was reminded of that evening recently when I saw the poster at the CCP buffeteria, along with many other posters of the center’s productions over the years (sadly, no Ang Buhay ay Pelikula or gay Portrait). It turns out the wall-full of posters— that faced the eatery’s gallery of ulam— is only part of a bigger show two floors up called POSTER/ITY: 50 Years of Arts and Culture at the CCP, which showcases some 200 posters from the national theater’s productions since the structure opened in 1969.
The show is an ingenious way to commemorate the cultural behemoth’s half a century of existence, as well as an opportunity to study the language of poster design. The Bulwagang Juan Luna (Main Gallery) has been transformed into a literal memory lane, with posters mounted on walls or hanging clothesline-style throughout the space. It reminds a time when the CCP was at the height of its powers, its halls graced by the major cultural stars of the world stage—the Vienna Boys Choir, Ravi Shankar, Margot Fonteyn, Marcel Marceau. It recalls the landmark shows of Filipino artists: from Danny Dalena’s Survey Of Works 1970-1990 to an Alice Reyes dance concert to the first Thirteen Artists Awards exhibit in 1970 to an early production of Dulaang Sibol’s Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio (for which the admission fee is a very friendly one peso).
It also makes a case for the brilliant artists that once headed the Center’s Museum and Art Gallery: Roberto Chabet (the curator is his friend and student Ringo Bunoan) and Ray Albano under whose direction the early posters were produced. Of the 200 or so gathering, those made in their era are easily the most experimental, many of them dependent on the nature of everyday materials, others highly trusting of the power of a simple shape as graphic element, or the printing process as design driver. “After blueprinting the photos and text, I throw them on a piece of paper and see whatever comes out. Sometimes I ask other people to put the blueprints randomly,” said Albano in an article on his design process for the 70s art magazine Ermita.
Did he have fun doing those posters? “No, not really,” said Albano. “There are good shows with bad photos but there are also bad ones —I mean bad to design for. And I get only stock photos to choose from. And I limit myself to two colors only.”
Those familiar with the work of these two iconoclasts will readily recognize their posters, which also happen to be the most refreshing and impressive of the bunch, considering they were done more than 40 years ago.
On its inaugural year alone, the CCP mounted 195 performances, 35 of which were foreign productions. Later on, as the poster show illustrates, international stars like Dame Fonteyn, the singer Dionne Warwick, Imelda’s favorite pianist Van Cliburn, The Bolshoi Ballet would grace its stages. It has indeed a colorful history, the CCP— and we haven’t even mentioned it was born at a time when there was much government love for culture and the arts even as the streets were brewing with discontent, a fervor that will eventually lead to the torture and silencing of, ironically enough, many cultural workers and creative people.
The CCP seems to have a way of continuing on no matter who’s calling the shots outside its lacquered walls and Leandro Locsin-designed brutalist structure, surviving despite the odds, putting on shows that for better or worse respond to the narrative of its time. In a good way, the poster show tells us how rich the center’s history has been; on the other hand, it reminds us Johnnies come lately of the spectacles we missed. More importantly, the show is proof of the stubborn nature of the arts: it’s propensity to insist on its relevance and, through ephemera such as these posters, to advertise it.
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Photographs courtesy of Cultural Center of the Philippines