Sketches of a Semester with Salvador Bernal

Like his immense creative reputation, the rapping of his walking cane preceded him. The third leg was a concession to the effects of a sickness he had around a semester ago. But as to why the administration rewarded a hobbled senior faculty member – a national artist at that – with a third floor classroom in a building without elevators was beyond me.

The stairs never seemed to succeed in impeding his spirit, though. He would always enter the classroom with a passion that was restrained only by an air of dignity. That would last until he reached the front of the room, wherein he seemed to feel most comfortable. He would sit down behind the desk, and then seemingly in disdain of it, throw his cane to rest at the table’s edge. Then he seemed to kick back, scan the class in a glance, then proceeded to teach.

Like a man of the theatre, he used the cane as a prop. He would hit the board to emphasize a point. He would lean on it, point to a student with it, twirl it once just for effect. He had it, he might as well use it.

Right off the bat, as soon as he described the materials the students needed to procure for his class, I wondered again what I was getting myself into. There were the pencils with numbers, watercolour pencils, the T-Square, rulers, and the drawing board. I almost thought I had enrolled in an architecture course. Bernal was serious.

I was on my last semester in college. My thesis was done. Almost everything I had wanted to do was complete. Except reunite with the Stage. Throughout Grade School and High School, I had always been part of the theatre group. Through Years 1 to 3 in college, I sort of pushed it aside, for reasons I am still unsure of. But that last semester was to be, in my own way, a comeback. To fulfil that, I auditioned for one of the theatre groups and got a part. Then, with a free elective, I got Salvador Bernal’s class on Production Design for Theater.

I was ready to have fun with my last semester. Sir Badong was all business. He took every bit of the class seriously. My eagerness to reconnect with theatre was soon being pushed and shoved by the doubt of whether I could handle Sir Badong’s class. I was running for honors, after all. This could have been the class that would give my grades a bad leg, too.

But Sir Badong wasn’t strict about design just for the heck of it. Actually, he knew that we weren’t all Fine Arts Majors. He said we could use the problem-solving mindset we used in class for whatever field we were getting ourselves into. But he never forgot to stress the importance of whatever it was we were doing. Perspective. Management of Space. Color Combinations.

But this was all because he was more serious about another thing: The Story.

He wasn’t just a designer. He was a poet. He was concerned not just with lines, and color, and fabric. He was concerned with them only because they helped tell the story. Red and Green, he said, created a certain natural tension when put together. Thus, it made perfect sense to have the warring families of Verona in shades of red and green. (“Complimentary? Don’t be distracted by the terms,” he said.) The Management of Space in The Glass Menagerie wasn’t just about placing stuff in a new condo unit – it was about how the characters communicated themselves in each of them: the distance between dinner table and fire exit and the actual menagerie were all of vital importance.

For my Finals, he tore my work apart. We were working on Oedipus Rex. We were to design everything – from costumes to stage to props. I was ambitious with my concept: lights and shadows with a Filipino Twist. That’s where I got carried away. I mixed the Greek influence with the Filipino traditional costume. The item that could not escape his ire was the Pinoy terno crossed with the Greek women’s clothwork. It took him all of ten minutes to tell me I had no sense of style (“Ang taste – nadedevelop yan…”).

Sure, I felt disappointed that I was not able to come up to his expectations (especially since I worked on the project all night after rehearsal). But I carry with me all those lessons, and the fact that he didn’t just brush my work aside as disgusting. He took his time to pick it apart and explain to myself and the class why it just didn’t work. Harsh? Maybe. But that’s what good teachers do. They put you through the fire to churn out strong metal. And besides, now I know that the terno can’t be crossed with Ancient Greek fashion.

I will not pretend that I knew Sir Badong personally. Nor will I pretend that he could even remember me a semester after our class. But when he died, I was shocked.

Somehow, I thought his death would be a bit more… poetic? Theatrical? Or to someone whom story certainly meant a great deal more, wouldn’t his own story have a bit more of a flair in the end? But maybe that’s just how he wanted it – not in front of the lights and audience, but quietly supporting those who were in front.

I am a writer now, and one of the things I sometimes forget is the most crucial: The story. What’s the story? How does every detail weave into the tapestry of the narrative?

Sir Badong, as we continue to tell stories (novels, novellas and short ones) about you, I just hope we care for the storytelling as much as you did.

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