When the name of Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso was being mentioned as the next possible head of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) after President Rodrigo Duterte took his oath of office, many artists and cultural workers raised their eyebrows. A number of personalities in this controversial and colorful sector did not welcome the idea, despite the name Nick Lizaso being an old and respected one in theater, television and movie circles.
For the longest time, Lizaso directed plays and coached thespians in the country’s top universities and colleges. He is also one of the founders of the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and has directed episodes for Balintataw, the award-winning pre-Martial Law television series that presented adaptations of Palanca Award-winning plays. Later, he directed Charito Solis for an ABS-CBN drama series.
As early as after the inauguration of President Duterte, several names for the most likely successor to then CCP president, Raul Sunico were floated not only in private conversations. A paid advertisement even came out in one of the dailies, naming six who supposedly fit the ideal qualifications of who should be the next CCP president.
“I was not on that list,” Nick recalled, “and neither did many take kindly to the possibility of my getting appointed to the position.”
That he had detractors did not faze him. “Alam mo (You know), if you join a certain sector, or an agency like the CCP, it’s not necessary that you’re as good as welcome immediately.
They would wonder, ‘What is this guy going to do here?’ Or you would read on Facebook, ‘Hhmm, siya na ba? (Is he really the one?)’ I knew what I was going into. You know, ang sabi ko sa sarili ko (I said to myself), ‘I don’t spend time thinking about my enemies. I spend time thinking about positive friends of mine. And the positive friends who I will have.”
He looked beyond the criticisms, got the post and went on to revitalize the CCP, particularly its audience development and outreach components.
Descended from great artists
The Daily Tribune visited Lizaso in his third-floor office at the CCP as part of the paper’s commitment to bringing Philippine arts and culture to its readers. Already, the chairperson of the CCP, Margie Moran, had shared her views and explained the cultural agenda of the CCP Board. This next visit to the country’s number-one performing arts center sought to find out from the CCP president how he intended to make CCP responsive to the needs of the Filipino audience.
At the outset, we asked Lizaso about the circumstances that led to his appointment, and he jokingly pointed out that the question should be “whether I am from Davao, which everyone asked me as soon as I became CCP president.”
No, Lizaso is from Bulacan. He descends from an old family of the town of Santa Maria, his mother being a first cousin of the King of Balagtasan, Jose Corazon de Jesus.
He traced for us his roots, thus: “The De Jesus that I came from was from Santa Maria. Jose Corazon de Jesus’s father was Vicente de Jesus, who was the first Filipino Secretary of Health during the American regime, when key government posts were being given to Filipinos as a result of the Organic Act of 1916. Vicente had a brother who lived in Tagbilaran, Bohol, who became a judge. Remember the judges of yore who always had a white suit and were very much respected? I didn’t see him anymore. He was the father of my mother. So my mother and Jose Corazon de Jesus were first cousins. That is why the historical marker which recognizes Jose Corazon de Jesus as the King of Balagtasan stands on our property.”
Interestingly, he could also trace his genealogy to Francisco Santiago, the Father of Kundiman, who composed “Anak Dalita.” Lizaso pointed out that “Anak Dalita” was a collaboration between Jose Corazon de Jesus, who was the lyricist and Francisco Santiago, who wrote the music.
Lizaso first met the future president of the Philippines, then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, in a program in Camp Aguinaldo. “This was in 2015. Upon meeting him, I showed him a page from a San Beda magazine. He was, in 2003, a recipient of an alumni award for public service.” And next to him in a row of pictures, providentially, is Lizaso, receiving also a Bedan Achievement Award. “Ako naman (As for me), I was receiving a medal for arts and culture.”
“He was surprised. ‘Saan mo nakuha ito? (Where did you get this?)’ Sa San Beda ho (In San Beda). I thought he was going to return it to me. What he did was he folded and pocketed it. And then he walked toward the stage. So, that’s how it started.”
It was in that event where he met the future president’s assistant, Bong Go, whom Lizaso described as “a gentleman, a nice man. By nature, napakabait na bata (a good kid). Hindi po nagsasalita ng walang ‘po.’ Palaging ‘po.’ (Always speaking with “po”) Nakakausap ko lang siya ‘pag bandang (I only get to talk to him about 2 or 3 o’clock) two o’clock or three o’clock in the morning. By text. Gising pa sila (They’re still awake), eh. If you texted him during daytime, he would not be able to answer you.
“The beautiful part of it is I became close to Bong Go. So every time that they were campaigning, I would ask him where they were. So, if he mentioned a particular place, I would go there, too.
On the day of President Duterte’s inauguration in Davao City, Lizaso was there. He was scheduled to meet with the new president at seven in the evening, but “when he finally received us, it was probably 4:30 in the morning because of so many people. So we had to stay.
It took several months before he was informed that he was being considered for a position, although the Presidential Management Staff could not decide whether he should be executive director of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts or president of the CCP.
In December of 2016, Bong Go asked him to visit Malacañang.
“My wife and I went. It happened to be the Christmas party of the Malacañang staff. We were not there for that purpose. It was just a convenient time for us to meet with the staff regarding my appointment. So, I finally got to discuss with them my preference. In the end, I just said it was up to them. When the president saw me and my wife, he asked that we be seated in the table next to his and so we stayed. When I felt it was time to leave, we went to him to say goodbye. To my surprise, he stood up and thanked us for coming, as though he expected us to be among his guests. One could see his humility. Probinsiyano talaga. No airs.”
Building on the CCP’s gains
Lizaso received an invitation to go to Malacañang for oath taking in March 2017. When asked what his marching orders from the president were, Lizaso said, “The president’s order is order for all. Ibig sabihin (It means), no corruption. No drugs. And to manage it well. You follow and implement your mandate, which is to promote and preserve arts and culture.
Don’t go anywhere else. At CCP, we have a very good accountant and a good accounting system at the CCP. Masusi, magaling, malinis.”
Despite the negative reaction from some members of the CCP community, Lizaso took it all in stride. “In my very first speech, I said that I am not at CCP to do anything wrong. I am here to build on the gains of CCP. CCP has been doing a lot of good. Kung ano man, dadagdagan natin. (Whatever it is, we would add to it).”
He emphasized that the CCP has excellent performances “because we have the best resident companies, so my greatest basic contribution is I have started work on bringing in the audience, making CCP exciting so that the people will come. Kasi, tingnan ninyo (Look), you may be the best ballerina in the world, but if no one watches you, paano ‘yun? (how is that?)”
Going out to the people
Initially, Lizaso made the rounds of institutions and key personalities who could help him bring in the audiences. “That’s why I had to go to schools, to Mayor Guia of San Juan, Mayor Lani of Taguig, Pagcor and DBP to get their partnerships, and they’re excited when the president of the CCP comes around.
“They give you a certain amount of money, and for the whole year, they send their employees or relatives to watch performances here. The Philippine Navy here, we get 100 every now and then. The priests of San Agustin watch here too on my invitation. So, it’s more on the audience side.”
Important to Lizaso is the outreach program. As he put it, “if the audience cannot come because of the traffic or the distance, you should instead bring the CCP to them.”
He cited as an example the outreach activity of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, “which I first brought to the Philippine General Hospital where they performed before cancer patients. And then I asked my friends to donate. When I get a little donation from them, I put it in the envelope and give it to the parents of the children to augment their budget for chemotherapy. That was where I started in January.
“From there, we went to the University of the Philippines for the first time at the Sunken Garden. Tuwang-tuwa ‘yung (The UP president was glad) president ng UP. Some 3,000 students watched. Immediately after that, we had an invitation, so we are performing there again this coming 8 December.
“I’ll tell you what, I have also been to Antique. We were invited to Antique in front of the church. Ang ganda (It’s beautiful). There were 3,000 chairs. You won’t believe it, 8000 people came. So, this is what I mean by getting them out. In other words, bringing art to the people.
“The next night, we were in Iloilo City. This was at the convention center. This was Senator Drilon. The convention center can accommodate 2,500 people. We took the bus from Antique. Some 4,500 people watched.
“It was standing room. After that, we had dinner. Senator Migs Zubiri was there. Mayor Leonardia of Bacolod was there too. You know how the Ilonggos speak, very pleasant and sweet. ‘Sir, how can we bring the PPO to Bacolod?’ Well, that would depend on you, I told him. So, now they’re in the schedule of PPO, too. 31 January and 1 February. There will be two shows, one for the so-called socialites of Bacolod so they can raise funds and have a free public performance for the grassroots.
“We have also performed in Malolos. Then we went up to Baguio where there were 5,000 spectators at the gym of the University of Baguio.”
He explained, “What we’re doing now with the PPO, getting them to the different places, somehow helps in our spreading arts and culture. Just like the Masses that used to be said only in church but are now being said in malls. That’s also where I want to bring our companies. We will not just stay here. We have to go out.
Reaching out to the schools
Back in Metro Manila, CCP recently welcomed some 200 students from Pulang Lupa in Valenzuela City.
Lizaso shared, “The head teacher became my friend, and he brought over 200 students. He brought them for ‘Balik Tanaw sa Unang Hari’ and ‘Baka Naman Hindi.’ How did they come over? They hired jeepneys per group. They came here for the first time. I didn’t charge them anymore, so it was for free. We have to continue doing that.
“I have invited the University of Asia and the Pacific. I talked to Lyceum, I talked to UE (University of the East). I want to start selling to schools.”
Art education, for Lizaso, should expand and this includes exposing the students to art events and exhibitions because “I believe that art is good. Somehow, culture and arts can make people good. Because it brings to the individual a kind of realization of his situation and those of other human beings more than any other subject will give you. Through the arts, he acquires an understanding of people, of being able to empathize. You wear his shoes and you will get to know him.”
CCP on Wheels
No wonder that very close to the heart of Lizaso is the rolling out of “a bus that will soon be delivered, compliments of a donor who would rather not be named. This is what we call CCP on Wheels. It has a LED wall. It will go to the neglected areas and show what CCP is doing. It will show our ballet, plays, and anything about culture and the arts. It will also have a library inside.”
Lizaso, in effect, is not limiting art education to the schools. He views the community as one big classroom, even a school, where people from all walks of life do not only enjoy the arts, but also strengthen their Filipino values through the arts.
Finally, Lizaso shared with us his Christmas wish for Philippine arts and culture: “What can we say? Philippine arts and culture is always available. People just don’t really go and see performances. People are really missing a lot of opportunities if they miss to see all these shows and performances at the CCP, in schools.
“I hope that our people will give part of their time to culture and the arts by watching performances, by viewing exhibitions, going to the library and reading our books, and going to a lot of cultural and artistic events. I bring a lot of people here and they realize, ang ganda pala (Its really beautiful). You have to make time. It is probably a sacrifice to come over, but if you come over and watch it, you will see what I mean. Art is an encounter. It cannot be merely defined. And the more encounters you have with theater, paintings and installations, dances, musical concerts, the more you will understand what art truly is. So, what is my wish? That the Filipino people will have more encounters with Philippine arts.”
Photos by Roman Prospero