Book review: 'My Lives Behind the Proscenium' by Celia Diaz-Laurel

Fred Hawson

Posted at May 11 2021 03:46 PM

Cover of "My Lives Behind the Proscenium" by Celia Diaz-Laurel

In 2014, Celia Diaz-Laurel published an autobiographical coffee table book about her career as a painter, titled "The Colors of My Life." 

That book chronicled her growth as a visual artist from her childhood to her years in the College of Fine Arts in UP under her professors, National Artists Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino. 

At that time, she revealed that she planned to have three books of memoirs -- as a painter, as a theater artist, and as a whole person. 

This year, the second book has finally seen print, with the very intriguing title "My Lives Behind the Proscenium."

I knew the fair and elegant Diaz-Laurel, the wife of former Vice President Salvador Laurel, as a theater actress, but this was only by reputation. I cited her name a number of times in my reviews of classic plays she acted in which have been revived. 

I had never seen her perform onstage in a play since she had long since retired by the time I caught the theater bug. Fortunately, I did get to see her sing live and in person once, when she received the Natatanging Gawad lifetime achievement award in 2016.

The text of this new book had a motherly lilt to it. You felt like she was right there beside you, personally relating these stories about how she became an avid disciple of the theater. 

She was very thorough, beginning all the way back to her first grade in the Assumption Convent. She watched her first stage performance that year, and was beckoned to follow the call of the stage ever since. Her details about this elementary school episode was very impressive, with a complete names of teachers, schoolmates, and even the specific roles they played.

She went to share her continuing passion with stage shows during the war years, and her introduction to religious theater during the liberation period. 

Her best stories were from her UP days, when she seriously delved into theater work. She related the circumstance that led to her first of many projects with famed playwright and director Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, whom she fondly referred to as "Freddie." She then segued to her theater career outside the university walls. All these stories were remarkably complete with names and roles, and even controversy.

There was a fascinating chapter about her experiences in as a masteral student at the Yale School of Drama, while her husband was doing his masters at the Yale School of Law. This part was written with apparent exhilaration as she told about the various theater techniques and exercises she learned from her American mentors, and the popular acceptance she enjoyed among her classmates. These stories were integrated with the family concerns that ran side by side with her education, like house hunting and pregnancy. 

The final chapter was about her years with Repertory Philippines, from "Plaza Suite" (1968) to "Cemetery Club" (1992). This was probably the part of her career many of her fans remember her for. 

In a cute anecdote. she revealed how she was introduced to director Zenaida Amador in an awkward little incident, one which eventually led to a long-term professional partnership and personal friendship. She acknowledged all the people she met and worked with during these years in Rep, both on and behind the stage. 

Diaz-Laurel was also very much a set and costume designer as much as she was an actress. While she described the challenge of designing for the stage of the Insular Life Theater, I wished she could have told more stories about the most challenging plays she had to design for, and her trips to Divisoria to deal with budget and material constraints for her sets and costumes. 

I actually saw her latest project as costume designer -- "Guadalupe the Musical" (2018). Even at age 90, her stylish flair in design was still very much there. 

The voice of her writing was engaging and conversational, a light and breezy read. Yet, it was very informative and educational in its detail, and charming in her humorous side comments. 

Filipino theater fans would definitely recognize several of the famous names she dropped along the way and feel a sense of heartwarming nostalgia, with her reminiscences about them. 

While you can probably finish the whole book in one sitting, each chapter would exhort you to slow down the pace so you can savor her vividly told experiences a little bit longer. 

"My Lives Behind the Proscenium" was edited by two of Diaz-Laurel's children, Suzie Laurel-Delgado and Cocoy Laurel. It will be formally launched via a Facebook live ceremony on May 29, her 93rd birthday, at 4 p.m. 

Additional details still to be announced. However, you can already pre-order the book care of Jenn Tejada on her mobile number (0966) 769-8969, from Mondays to Fridays only from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."