Watch Me Entertain Myself!

Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

R.I.P., Ony de Leon

There is something intrinsically sad about receiving news that someone you personally know has died. But hearing that Ony de Leon passed away, I felt a palpable melancholy pall drape over me today.

I met Ony in college. He was a few years ahead of me, but he was already an overstaying student back then. We’d ask him for his age, but he’d smile sheepishly and dodge the question. It’s as if he was embarrassed to still be in college when his contemporaries were already working by then.

We were both in the college theater group. When I joined, he already had a reputation as one of Tanghalang Ateneo’s best actors. I never saw him act in any of TA’s plays before I joined the company. But I had the privilege of sharing the stage with him in several productions.

He was intense as an actor, taking his responsibilities seriously, way too seriously if you asked me. We were only college actors, I thought back then. But as serious as he was, he strove very hard not to let it show. He was easy to get along, he kept mostly to himself, and he was extremely polite and self-effacing whenever he was working on his character or his blocking. He never complained, and whenever he’d expressed his opinion on something, he’d always preface them with a polite disclaimer.

Yet during rehearsals, even when he was still struggling to figure his character out, he would always be acting at performance level. It was as if he was in a hurry to capture the character he was playing. Sometimes I wonder if he just wanted to escape into someone else’s life. He had this way of delivering his lines, akin to huffing and puffing the words out. If his character were angry or excited, he’d rat-tat-tat his lines with his eyes closed. Some may say it’s an acting affectation, but part of me wonders if it’s Ony’s way of willing his character to come out of him, by force if necessary.

He smoked non-stop back in college. After a while, the actresses in the company would complain among themselves about his smoker’s breath. He also drank heavily back then. I never witnessed him in his drunken state, but years later I heard that sometimes Ony would go on a drinking binge all by his lonesome. I never got to verify if it was true or false, but for me it was a distillation of how much of a loner and a haunted soul he was.

Haunted. I prefer to use that term rather than “tortured.” If he was tortured, he refused to show it to us. But try as he might to hide his struggle, it was clear to all of us that he was battling inner demons. He was evasive of inquiries on his personal life, and when we would tease him about his crushes, he would grimace sheepishly then laugh. But we were never really sure if, indeed, they were his crushes, or he was just embarrassed of the whole teasing bit. I remember he admitted to admiring one or two girls, but part of me still wonders to this day if he just named them because he wanted us off his back. We were all intrigued, but none of us had the courage or the patience to chip through his defenses and get to know him. Or maybe we just feared that he would merely pull away from us.

After I graduated from college, I worked at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I was elated when I found out Ony joined Tanghalang Pilipino’s Actors’ Company. Whenever I’d see him in rehearsals or bump into him in one of CCP’s halls, he was still very much the same Ony I knew in college. Now that he was on the professional stage, I realized that as an actor he didn’t have the widest of repertoires, given his physicality and way of delivery. But he was a director and co-actor’s dream collaborator. Many have noted how Ony was one of those who’d be the first to drop his script. He would efficiently deliver what is expected of him, and he would quietly disappear into himself at the wings, waiting for his next cue. I bet even stage managers loved him for that.

I left the CCP in 1990, and in the following years I would only see Ony onstage. He gained a bit of weight, and he grew his hair longer, but he was still the same Ony, frozen in time. Then he left the Actors’ Company and seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth.

There is something intrinsically sad about receiving news that someone you personally know has died. But hearing that Ony de Leon passed away, I felt a palpable melancholy pall drape over me today. It was like going back in time, but not really. It was like the past came back to haunt me. For whatever haunted Ony now haunts me, because I may never really know what they were.


_ said...

I cannot believe that Kuya Ony has passed. When I read this post I was paralyzed for a few minutes. He was my mentor at the CCP teenage (or children's) acting workshop, ca summer 1996. I was 13 yrs old, and I had a huge crush on him back then. He showed how a play is made from scratch, from a single grain of an idea, then synthesizing this with other poignant ideas or concepts, until it is executed by actors and seen by the audience with their own interpretations etc. and I just fell inlove with the creative and powerful process of theatre. He still has a huge influence on me until now. He had so much guts and patience as a mentor and he taught us to tap into our innermost reserves of creativity. After the workshop I vowed to pursue a theatre career, but normal life took over, and I still remember being conflicted in college about taking theatre arts or a science course. I still wonder how life would be like if I had pursued theatre arts or writing. I am now a scientist based in the US, but I still can apply the acting lessons I learned more than 15 yrs ago, from that memorable summer with Kuya Ony. Any presentation is based on acting and the more confidence one radiate, the more believable he becomes, no matter what the subject is. RIP Kuya Ony, you will always be missed by your students.

joelmcvie said...

Dear __,

I feel sad that you only found out recently about Ony's passing. But then again, whether you heard it just now or way back in March, sad news is sad news.