National Artist for Theater Daisy Avellana dies; 96

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MANILA, Philippines—Daisy Avellana, a pioneering actress, director and writer whose career spanned the emergence and flowering of modern Philippine theater, and whose seminal contributions to the field led to her being declared a National Artist for Theater in 1999, died Sunday morning. She was 96.

Born in Roxas City, Capiz, on Jan. 26, 1917, Avellana became one-half of a celebrated husband-and-wife team of Olympian Filipino artists—the other half being film and theater director Lamberto Avellana, who was conferred National Artist honors in 1976. They were the Oliviers of their day, producing and writing material for all available media, from stage to radio and film.

She was a full creative partner to her husband, not only as the indispensable leading lady of his plays, but also as a writing collaborator. While Lamberto, at only 23, directed “Sakay,” the landmark 1939 film hailed as heralding a new chapter in local cinema, it was Daisy who did “Sakay’s” story treatment. She also helped research her husband’s scripts for the classic films “Anak Dalita” and “Badjao.”

The Avellanas and 48 other friends founded the Barangay Theater Guild (BTG) in 1939. Its last production was a dramatic reading of Ladislas Fodor’s “The Vigil” at the Far Eastern University Theater in September 2006 directed by Daisy when she was 88.

BTG’s weekend productions, mostly staged by her husband, allowed Avellana to play some of the greatest female roles in drama—Medea, Joan of Arc, Lady Macbeth, Sarah Bernhardt, Hecuba, Bernarda Alba, Desdemona, Lupe in Nick Joaquin’s “Tatarin” and, most indelibly, Candida in another Joaquin opus, “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.”

Paring down Joaquin’s “Portrait” to the definitive stage adaptation that then became the basis for the 1965 film was also Daisy’s handiwork. Candida was a role she originated on both the stage and film, and played “countless times” in her estimation. In one run alone, held at the open-air Aurora Gardens in Intramuros, she did the part 200 times opposite Dolly Benavides as Paula (Naty Crame-Rogers later took over).

In a documentary that accompanied Avellana’s conferment of National Artist honors in 1999, Bienvenido Lumbera, now a fellow National Artist (for Literature), recalled watching this play as a young man. For him, “Daisy Avellana’s Candida in ‘Portrait’ was the highest moment of Philippine theater. She was Philippine theater at a time when there was hardly any Philippine theater.”

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