By Pablo A. Tariman, VERA Files
One wonders how actor-director Behn Cervantes feels about the sudden deluge of recognition coming his way.
Last June, the University of the Philippines gave him a Life Achievement Award. A few years earlier, he got another Aliw Awards life achievement citation.
But as he was wont to say earlier, “I work for a project and a vision, not necessarily with awards in mind. But of course, awards are welcome. After all, we work in what is basically a thankless and profit-less passion. Sometimes, our love is not equally returned so recognition is fine.”
At one time in another awards night, he hissed, “Pero sana perahin na lang nila nooooo?”
Now turning 75 on August 26, Cervantes -- who megged the landmark film, “Sakada” -- is presently confined at the Asian Hospital in Alabang for septic infection of the blood which in layman's language is complication from pneumonia. No visitors are allowed at the moment.
Along with National Artist for Theater Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero, Cervantes’s name is synonymous with UP theater and the anti-Marcos protests he joined along with filmmaker and National Artist for Film Lino Brocka who is a UP classmate in the early 60s.
Cervantes did not limit his theater involvement to productions like Pagsambang Bayan and Sigaw ng Bayan which he labeled as his ibagsak output.
Some of his landmark performances include roles in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” and the title role in “The Mikado” mounted at the Metropolitan Theater. He directed such theater outputs as “Guys and Dolls,” “The Short, Short Life of Citizen Juan” and “Iskolar ng Bayan, ” among others.
But he loved to recall his “informal” stage debuts when at an early age, his elder sisters made him recite a piece a line of which goes, “I shot an arrow into the air” on top of their parent’s large iron bed which served as their stage during their Saturday performances for their neighbors in Iloilo. “That was my theatrical debut,” Behn recalled earlier. “I also sang in our version of the cherubim choir in our Protestant Church in La Paz, Iloilo. Yes, I started early!”
He said his first play was “Hay Fever” performed in Central Methodist Church in what is now T.M. Kalaw. In the cast was Eleanor “Didi” Reyes, the youngest sister of Norman Reyes, the youthful radio announcer who witnessed (with Leon Ma. Guerrero and Raul Manglapus) the Fall of Bataan. “ After a couple of plays like A Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden by Thorton Wilder and Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot in the UP Dramatic Club, I directed a scene from Mister Roberts. “
Cast as Ensign Pulver in that play was Lino Brocka. “I had an auspicious beginning as a director, I must say,” Behn said.
As a student, he said he bravely directed Lawani, an original musical, Idiot’s Delight, A Hatful of Rain and The Play Is the Thing.
When he returned from the United States, he turned to Broadway musicals like Bye Bye Birdie, Once Upon a Mattress, Guys and Dolls and the first production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Soon after, he became an activist and directed Theatre in the Streets and Theatre of Protest. “ I continued to direct such plays after Martial Law was declared and received an A-B-C-B Degree for plays as Pagsambang Bayan, Sigaw ng Bayan and Estados Unidos versus Juan Matapang Cruz and other Ibagsak plays.”
A political prisoner during Martial Law, ABCB to him stands for Aguinaldo, Bicutan, Crame and Bonifacio, the military camps he was detained throughout those years.
Before the UP Alumni Award, Behn earlier got an Aliw trophy for directing the play, Agnes of God. He was also recipient of the CCP centennial award, several citations from activist groups including recognition from the East-West Center Alumni Association.
Of his film-making days, he singled out directing Sakada as his most memorable. “Sakada I would single out because of the challenge of working with movie icons like Rosa Rosal, Gloria Romero, Pancho Magalona as well as with my friend, Robert Arevalo.”
“An experience of a lifetime was producing Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas inside Camp Bicutan with Nelia Sancho, Satur Ocampo, Pepe Luneta, Ed de la Torre and other activists in the cast. The play also reconciled me with my father who always wondered why I was an activist,” he added.
He noted how today’s theater productions are more professional. But he said the young people should learn from the theater pioneers of the past. “In the theater front, they have to recognize the Avellanas, Naty Rogers and Severino Montano who were spurred to work because they love the art and practically did it for freeeeeeee!”
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")
(Those who want to help Behn Cervantes, you can get in touch with the director’s niece, Rosario J. Marquez cell no. 09173200121). Ms. Marquez's account no. is Union Bank # 01-802-002383-6 (current account) under account name Rosario J. Marquez.)