The late American writer, activist and feminist Betty Friedan once said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Her insight may well be the best description for Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso at this crossroads in his life, an octogenarian who just assumed the presidency of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt in the most regal of blues, a casual pair of jeans and simple black loafers during his media introduction as the new shepherd of the country’s premiere bastion of artistic works, Lizaso looked every bit ready for his latest challenge.
A member of CCP’s Board of Trustees since 2010, Lizaso is an appointee of President Rodrigo Duterte and was duly given the vote of confidence by the board of directors following elections on June 13.
Road to cultural presidency
“Hindi na ako nakawala diyan simula ng estudyante ako. I first appeared on stage as someone to recite a poem and since then hindi na ako nakaalis sa drama kaya napunta na sa entablado, sa theater at kung saan saan pa,” Lizaso recalled his foray into performance arts during a sit-down interview with The Sunday Times Magazine following his successful first press conference. This he said—a very ardent passion for acting—has kept him with the CCP then until now at the ripe age of 81.
Truly immersed in the arts, it can be said that even before discovering his talent, Lizaso already had the genes for performing what with Jose Corazon “Huseng Batute” de Jesus—also known as the King of Balagtasan—for his maternal grandfather.
Born in Sta. Maria, Bulacan, Lizaso recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine that he had been joining plays and presentations since college where he first discovered his potential. Apparently, Lizaso was on his way to becoming a lawyer at the time, taking pre-law at the University of the Philippines, when fate revealed other plans for him.
Dropping out of his undergraduate course, Lizaso took a Speech class at the University of the East (UE) and there, his first ever reading in public, discovered he could command his audience quite effectively.
Finally finding his place in the sun, Lizaso eventually obtained a Bachelor of Arts in English at the university where he debuted his gift for public speaking, and went on to explore theater, co-founding the Philippine Educational Theater Association [PETA] with Cecile Guidote-Alvarez.
Both at PETA and Repertory Philippines, Lizaso took on one lead role after another, his most notable as Professor Henry Higgins in the local adaptation the Broadway classic “My Fair Lady.” To date, Lizaso has acted in 50 stage plays.
Spreading his wings
Lizaso also founded the UE Dramatic Guild and later on, after gaining enough experience from the stage, took on the task of running workshops. The likes of noted directors Joey Gosiengfiao and Elwood Perez his students of Lizaso this admirable endeavor.
Moreover, as an actor who is always thirsty for new roles, Lizaso transitioned from the stage to the cinema, appearing in “Anak ng Dilim,” “Ulo ng Gapo,” “Flordeliza” and “Markadong Angel,” among others.
He also took on the director’s chair later on and helmed television drama series and anthologies such as Ipaglaban Mo, Balintataw, Hiyas, Ng Dahil sa Pag-ibig and Guni-Guni to name a few. He duly became a member and leading figure in the Directors Guild of the Philippines, where he sat as president from 1983 to 1985.
Besides this extensive experience in acting and directing, Lizaso further brings to the CCP continued learnings from a long list of international congresses and workshops he attended. For one, he honed his theatrical chops both with the Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Shakespeare Company (London and Stratford-on Avon), and as a Fullbright-Hayes scholarship grantee in the United States for theater arts, film and television.
In spreading his wings far and wide, Lizaso reaped endless citations and accolades, among them the Dangal ng Lipi Award in the field of Theater Arts (1999) from the City of Manila, Outstanding Achievement in the Field of
Arts (1995), and Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan (1995) from his hometown Sta, Maria Bulacan.
But perhaps the most noteworthy of all his awards was one he received in San Beda in 2003—not only for its importance but more so because it somehow paved his installation as CCP president.
“Nagkasabay kami noon ni Presidente [Duterte]. Binigyan siya ng award for public service in 2003, ako naman in the same year, binigyan ng San Beda ng award for arts and culture. Hindi kami magkakilala. Magkasama litrato namin pero hindi kami magkakilala,” Lizaso recalled. Apparently, the former mayor of Davao City became a fan of the actor-director then just Lizaso came to admire the man who would be president of the Philippines. For now, 14 years later, they both hold the same title and the same love in preserving what is good in the nation.
Building on CCP’s gains
“My job is to build on the gains of CCP,” Lizaso said of his new task at the press conference that preceded The Sunday Times Magazine interview. His plan of action is wise what with the institution’s present standing.
As CCP’s Vice President and Artistic Director Chris Millado cited at the media gathering, “We are proud to say that the arts and culture activities of CCP have significantly develop in the last five years. It can be characterized by the following developments—a spike in audience attendance, the vigorous development of new and original content, the commitment to excellence, the development of new audiences for the arts, and the strengthening of regional arts and culture.”
Indeed, the CCP has been successful in drawing more Filipinos to what was once considered as entertainment for the elite, boosting 2010’s 290,000 visitors on record to 670,000 in 2015.
Additionally, the number of artists and cultural workers creating and presenting work with the CCP more than doubled since 2011. A total of 11,351 artists and cultural workers collaborated with CCP in 2011, going up to 25,755 in 2015.
Millado said the spike in audience attendance could be attributed to the substantial increase of shows that CCP has produced within its complex and satellite venues in the time frame—from 755 annual number of shows in 2010 to 1,182 shows in 2015. More significantly, two largest festivals of CCP, Pasinaya Open House Fesival and Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Festival, have experienced overwhelming response from the public, recording 100,000 and 55,000 viewership respectively.
Moreover, Lizaso is taking on the reigns of CCP at the time when three more structures are set to be built within the complex’s 62-hectare perimeter. The P50-million, 300-seater Black Box Theater—which will accommodate twice the number of CCP Little’s Theater’s capacity—is scheduled for a soft opening in December and an official opening in the first quarter of 2018.
On the other hand, the creation of the Artists Center and the new Performing Arts Theater are already in the pipeline as their P2-billion budget had already been granted by the previous administration.
Nevertheless, despite these gains, the new CCP president laid out his own suggestions, which he felt would benefit CCP, its cultural workers and its audiences all the more.
On top of Lizaso’s list of projects is salary standardization for CCP employees. The new president divulged that since being a trustee since 2010, he has pushed for a standard salary for employees—some of whom had been with the center for decades but had never been regularized—including cultural workers. He vowed to achieve this before the end of his presidency.
Clearly concerned over worker’s welfare he happily updated, “Just recently we have talked to the Chinese General Hospital to plan out health benefits for CCP employees.”
In terms of discovering and rallying support for artists, he hopes to tap into the generosity of the affluent set to sponsor training and development.
“I want to come up with a foundation where people who can afford—let’s be frank, the wealthy or rich people—can adopt an artist. A foundation that can finance talents from depressed areas so that if a poor artist wants to be let’s say a violinist, or writer, or anything he or she wants to be in the field of art, someone can help finance their studies. Yun ang gusto kong gawin and I hope I can succeed in it.”
Lizaso also further dreams of a CCP that is more accessible to young Filipinos, even those who cannot afford to see a show, in the hopes that potential talents may find inspiration to pursue a career in the arts.
“We should find a way to bring as many people as possible inside CCP. Bring people from the villages, from the barangay [communities], by the buses. I want them to experience art in CCP. Kasi yung iba diyan kapag natukaan ng art, they will stay on.
The theater thespian has a long list of other projects including the strengthening of CCP’s regional projects to discover local artists; the push for a Department of Culture and the Arts; and making the CCP complex a cultural heritage tourism zone.
As with any artist who has been in the business for more than 50 years, Lizaso takes on the presidency of the CCP not without controversy. It will be remembered that in 2011, he stood his ground for the closure of Mideo Cruz’s controversial work “Poleteismo,” which sparked a debate on art and religion. While conservatives and devotees commended Lizaso’s decision, his critics accused him of art censorship back then.
Six years later, not a few artist and cultural workers fear that he will bring the same conservatism in his leadership.
“What I meant was, ang art naman kapag masyadong below the waist…wag naman. The word I used was bastos, which means anything below the waist. Hindi naman lahat ng ginawa ng tao eh art na. Even when I was teaching, I tell my students, if it does not arouse your imagination and it does not enable your taste or sophistication, baka hindi art yan. Baka minsan ang kanilang appeal ay temporary, hindi naman permanent. Art is a permanent thing, it stays on for a long time,” Lizaso explained his position on the controversy.
Asked to what degree censorship may take place in his term, Lizaso replied, “Palagay ko case to case basis ito. [If you are an artist], ilagay mo then pakita natin kung ano [ito]. Ika nga, nasa paniniwala at sa encounter mo ng art.”
He continued, “Art is not a statement, it must be something actual—have you read it, have you seen it, have you felt it? Have you tasted it? Eh kung wala namang gan’un, you cannot give a sweeping statement that this is art or this is not art.”
Reiterating that an artist should never fear being shunned by the CCP, he was careful to finally verbalize what he sees the institution turning out under his leadership.
“I don’t want to put my mouth ahead of what I am going to do. But I think you will know it, five years from now. Mahirap sabihin tapos hindi mangyayari. Pero ang gusto kong sabihin, kasi when you think of CCP, it is not just the building of the cultural center. CCP is a whole complex, so something’s got to be done to make this complex attractive to people. That’s my job, to transform the whole 62-hectare into a kind of center of culture for the entire country. Palagay ko yun ang magiging malaking contribution ng gobyernong ito,” Lizaso ended as he went on to begin tackling what is bound to be his life’s most significant chapter yet.