If he were a film, Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) president Arsenio ‘Nick’ Lizaso would be an adventure series packed with Indiana Jones-like scenes.

He’s like a bouncing ball that ricochets everywhere, packing in a lot of power along the way.

Lizaso may be 83. But he’s anything but a doddering senior. He goes for less talk, more action. Even in his free time, he’d rather swing his tennis racket and hit that ball, rather than wait for things to happen in the Greenhills condominium that he shares with his lovely wife Belen. He took up the sport at the mature age of 56, and surprised even himself by becoming a two-time Wimbledon champ.

“I’m a late bloomer in the sport,” he chuckles.

But this is not the case in the world of arts, which he has embraced as a way of life and and a birthright. The maternal grandson of Balagtasan King Jose Corazon de Jesus a.k.a. Huseng Batute has been breathing art since he was a boy who sat mesmerized on the church patio in his native Sta. Maria, Bulacan, staring at a USIS service jeep. The jeep’s projector showed film on the cycle of water.

Lizaso recalls every detail of the film as if he saw it only yesterday. “Water from the sea is raised by the wind into the sky. Clouds hold it until it can’t keep the water any longer. Then, it falls as rain on the trees, the rivers, etc. Then it goes back to sea.”

Now that the awe-struck boy who ran like the wind and jumped pell-mell into pieces of broken glass is a man, that image has refused to go away. The USIS jeep is Lizaso’s inspiration for CCP on Wheels.

Tapping on his gift of gab and a passion for the arts, Lizaso got a donation for a brand-new bus from Victory Liner the very next day after he visited the giant transportation firm.

The bus comes with a huge LED screen (seven feet by 14 feet) on one side that shows ballet, symphony, and other cultural shows. The bus, with a mini-library inside, tours the entire country, spreading the gospel of art, not to the elite who can afford expensive shows in Manila, but to the masses who live in the provinces.

“CCP belongs to the people,” says Lizaso explains. “That’s why we go to Antique, Davao, Bacolod, Baguio, and Muñoz, Nueva Ecija.”

“I look at projects as ladies I have to woo. I’m confident of winning their hearts once I court them. I don’t give up without results.”

He plans to field two Victory Liner buses. The first will bring the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO), one of the eight CCP resident companies, to the north— Santiago in Isabela, Tuguegarao, and other areas. A van loaded with medics and guards will go with it.

The second will go south, to Iligan City, Naga, Legaspi and Sorsogon in Bicol, among others.

In the drawing board are tours outside Luzon—Palawan, Cebu Dumaguete, Samar, Leyte and others.

Following an annual tradition, CCP on Wheels will cheer up children with cancer at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) after the performance venue is repaired on the first quarter of the year.

How did he push the envelope, extend CCP’s reach and thereby literally and figuratively going where others didn’t?

Lizaso points to the age-old tradition of courting the lady of his dreams (he and Belen have been married for 27 years).

“I look at projects as ladies I have to woo. I’m confident of winning their hearts once I court them. I don’t give up without results.”

Getting results also means talking to heads of companies that are potential sponsors. The hands-on president doesn’t rely on his managers to do the job. He himself, armed with his infectious passion for taking Filipino art all over the world, knocks on company doors.

Executives are only too happy to usher the big boss into their offices, and grant Lizaso’s requests.

He plans to draw on this convincing power once more to get sponsors that will take PPO and the Tanghalang Pilipino theater company to Tokyo.

In-between trips, Lizaso proudly reports that young artists, amazed at hearing the renowned PPO’s version of say, the bouncy song “Arimunding Munding” (revived by young singers today), are inspired to take up Music in college and attend workshops that go with every CCP on Wheels tour.

Lizaso refers those who want to study in Manila to the University of the Philippines (UP), the University of Sto. Tomas (UST), St. Scholastica’s College, Sta. Isabel College and other institutions that offer music courses. Those who’d rather stay in their home province go to schools that offer degrees in music in their area.

Those who want to go to the next level are invited to join the National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA), which opens new doors for them as they perform with PPO on the CCP stage no less.

This doesn’t mean getting young people to take up art has become easy. Many young people still approach Lizaso, a former professor at La Consolacion College in Manila, and tell him, “But sir, there’s no money in art.”

Lizaso responds by citing his life as an example. “I’ve seen the world. I received a (Fullbright-Hayes) scholarship (on theater arts, film and television) in the US and London (via a British Council Grant Attachment with the Nottingham Playhouse and the Royal Shakespeare Company).”

What he’s saying is, excellence will take you places. Just give your best, and blessings will come. As the popular film Field of Dreams put it, “If you build it, they will come.”

Lizaso’s story is one of laying down the foundations of excellence, brick by brick. He has acted in 50 stage plays, one of which cast him as the iconic professor Henry Higgins in classic My Fair Lady.

Lizaso, along with the late cinema icons Vic Silayan and Lolita Rodriguez were among the first actors of PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association). He also acted for the late Zenaida Amador’s Repertory Philippines, which produced Tony award-winning actress Lea Salonga, among other respected performers.

Among Lizaso’s awards for stage are the Dangal ng Lipi in Theater Arts, Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Arts, and the Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan from his hometown.

He was the only Asian invited to sit as jury in the sixth International Student Theater Festival in Belarus, where he held a workshop on Voice for Performance.

In 2011, Lizaso, almost on his own, launched the first Philippine International University Theater Association Festival/ Conference/Workshops, which gathered more than 20 foreign theater experts and educators in Quezon City.

Directors Elwood Perez and the late Joey Gosiengfiao were among his theater workshop students. Lizaso has gone abroad as the country’s representative in international theater events, and brought Tanghalang Ateneo’s Sintang Dalisay to a theater competition in Belarus, where it won second place.

Lizaso recently brought Tanghalang Pilipino to the International Theater Association’s XII World Congress and Theater Festival in Moscow. He and Cecile Guidote Alvarez started the TV anthology Balintataw.

He directed classical musical plays Man of La Mancha and West Side Story and has worked with the late Filipino conductor-violinist Oscar Yatco no less.

After theater, Lizaso ventured into television, where he directed Ipaglaban Mo, Balintataw, Hiyas, and others.

He prides himself in discovering former beauty queen-actress Pilar Pilapil, whom he directed in Tisoy, and giving singer-actress Carmen Soriano her first award when she was with Channel 5.

Film came next as a natural progression, and Lizaso, who directed the who’s who of Philippine cinema: the late Charito Solis, Vic Silayan, Rudy Fernandez, Nida Blanca, and director Marilou Diaz-Abaya. Lizaso also directed award-winning actor Eddie Garcia and was president of the Directors Guild of the Philippines.

Lizaso organized the award-giving body Film Academy of the Philippines in 1983, where he worked with the late National Artist for Film Lino Brocka, Fernando Poe Jr., and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, among others.

In 2003, Lizaso received the Bedan Achievers Award for art and culture from his high school alma mater San Beda College, which was then celebrating its golden jubilee. President Rodrigo Duterte, a law graduate from the same school, got the award for public service.

Lizaso knows he can’t rest on his laurels. There’s a lot of work ahead, especially now that CCP is turning 50 in 2020.

The biggest challenge for him is developing the 47-hectare CCP complex to make it not just an art center, but a sustainable economic hub. Lizaso and fellow committee members that include former CCP Presidents Nestor Jardin, Baltazar Endriga, and Margie Moran-Floirendo have rolled up their sleeves to craft a plan they will present to the board.

They’ve been talking to government agencies like the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), which will act as financial adviser to make sure everything is above board.

Lizaso makes it clear that although exhibition halls and a black box theater will rise, the new buildings will not be another CCP.

Lizaso knows music connects generations, and touches people of all ages. So he’s bringing back the good old days through song and presenting them for millennials to enjoy.

“It can’t be all art,” Lizaso points out. “Otherwise, how can it subsist? Maybe we have a condotel, restaurants, and other incomegenerating establishments. It will combine art and business.”

Lizaso also plans to celebrate CCP’s golden year by paying tribute to movie themes through the years. The grand production, set in September, will take the audience down memory lane to the time when such songs as “Labandera Ko,” “Arimunding Munding,” “Sapagka’t Kami’y Tao Lamang,” “Dahil Sa Isang Bulaklak” and made moviegoers and the general public hum or sway to the beat of the music.

Lizaso knows music connects generations, and touches people of all ages. So he’s bringing back the good old days through song and presenting them for millennials to enjoy.

National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, writer Floy Quintos, and director Dexter Santos will form the grand musical’s backbone.

The action man is on the go again. Whether in a coat and tie or his favorite pair of maong pants which he wears to the office, Lizaso is a whirlwind of plans and projects.

The CCP can look forward better years ahead. — MARIDOL RANOA-BISMARK


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