While her friends and family knew she was a talented painter, Celia Diaz Laurel was more known as a soldier of the stage where she carved out a name for herself as both actress and set designer. In her book, “My Lives Behind the Proscenium,” launched in May this year, two months before she would meet her death at 93, Celia wrote in vivid detail of her moment when she finally made a choice between pursuing a painting career or a career in theater.
It was sometime in the early 1950s. The once-shy Celia Diaz Laurel had already gained a foothold in the local theater scene, having done several school plays—first at the Assumption Convent which was then in Ermita, Manila, and at the University of the Philippines (UP) where she graduated with a degree in fine arts, and where she was mentored by Philippine theater titan and future National Artist Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero.
She was keen on pursuing theater work after college, this on top of taking care of her then two children. But her husband, Salvador “Doy” Laurel, had his own plan: he wanted to pursue a Masters of Law degree at Yale. Learning about this, their two families suggested that Celia, too, apply for admission to the Yale School of Art and take her Masters’ Degree. Having a long distance relationship that early in their marriage, the Laurels and Diazes agreed, may be too challenging for the couple.
Anyway, the two followed their folks’ wishes, applied to Yale and got accepted. Celia’s mother took it upon herself to pack for her daughter’s trip, making sure she included enough woolen stuff so she’d be kept warm in the autumn chill. But it turned out the couple would arrive in New York City in the peak of Indian summer. Luckily for Celia, she was able to sneak in a cotton dress in her luggage.
Wardrobe mishap aside, the trip was a memorable one; it was Celia and Doy’s first time to travel together as a married couple. Everything to the young lovers were exciting and romantic. They were HHWW around Times Square. They took in all of the beautiful sights. They were a picture of a couple basking in the promise of a bright future together.
Living abroad was so unlike their life in the Philippines, Celia recalled in her book. While a few people helped them out during their first few days in the city—Doy was, after all, the son of a former president of the Philippines, Jose P. Laurel, a Yale University alumnus—the rest was up to the young couple.
Doy got quickly “entrenched” in Yale life and was “not to be distracted,” so Celia had to take on the daunting task of searching for an apartment for the two of them. A week into her mission, she came across a thrilling announcement: the Yale Drama Department was open for enrollment.
Although already enrolled in the school’s Painting Department, Celia figured she could do a balancing act—painting classes were held in the afternoon, anyway, and drama classes came before that.
“I abandoned my house hunting and immediately headed for the Drama Department which was right behind the Yale Theatre,” Celia recalled in her book. She was led to the office of one Constance Welch, head and founder of the Acting Department. After an hour-long interview that consisted of questions about her theater experience and the roles she had played, Celia recalled Welch telling her, “Well, this is where you belong.”
The young thespian was likely flatttered but also became unsettled. Welch informed her that Drama in Yale was a full-time course, forcing Celia to make a decision: art or theatre? Not a lady who liked to waste her time, Welch put the Filipina student on the spot: “I give you three minutes to decide.”
“Everything rushed into my head,” Celia recalled. “After taking a deep breath, I found myself saying, ‘All right!’”
In Yale, the Laurels stayed on the fourth floor of an old building with no elevators. The apartment was almost empty, save for an expensive three-seater red sofa bed they bought, a few pieces of kitchen appliance, and two iron single beds—one of which was four inches higher than the other. Celia would cook dinner, wash the dishes, and do laundry at night, then head back to the theater to do production work.
In one of her drama classes, she had to do a scene from the play, “Ile” (1817), an early Eugene O’Neille. Celia had done a production of the play during her stint on radio shows in Manila, under the tutelage of Fr. James B. Reuter, S.J. The scene was about a wife going mad after spending years in a ship with her husband, and Celia gave a very convincing performance. She earned a lot of praise, leading to several requests to do more scenes.
But while her momentum was on a steady rise, in October of 1952 the Laurels would find out Celia was pregnant. Yale offered her a two-week leave, with 50 percent discount on hospital expenses. Along with these, Miss Welch also suggested a few daycare facilities that could take care of her baby once born.
“But I told her I was afraid my staying would interfere with Doy’s work and that was crucial,” Celia wrote in her book. “What I didn’t tell her was that I had a strong feeling that the baby was to be our first son and we wanted him born on Philippine soil.”
As compromise, Doy was left to finish his studies in the US and Celia came home in February of 1953. True enough, she gave birth to a son. They would name him Victor, who decades later would become the theater actor and matinee idol Cocoy Laurel. Celia taught drama for a short while in UP before becoming a full-time housewife. Always one to take on several roles at a time, she was also managing a travel agency on the side.
Celia and Doy eventually had five more children. Celia came back to the theater scene 15 years later while Doy was elected to the Philippine senate in 1967. He would, of course, much later also become the 8th vice president of the Philippines.
“My Lives Behind the Proscenium” is a delightful tour of Celia’s life, depicting how far opportunities took her, from being a quiet girl from Talisay, Negros Occidental who only spoke Ilonggo and Spanish. When she was five, her family moved to Ermita, Manila and was immediately enrolled in the Assumption Convent. It was in that private Catholic school that she discovered—and immediately fell in love with—theater. “Then and there, I was stage-struck!” she said in the book. “I yearned to perform on that stage.”
[All photos from Celia Diaz Laurel Facebook page. Special thanks to Toots Tolentino.]