Toff de Venecia at the 18th Congress
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - September 8, 2020 - 12:00am

The  founder of an innovative theater company, now a member of the 18th Congress, is enthused about ensuring the future of creative artists, from film makers to fashion designers, musicians, book and print producers, game and software developers, animationists, gastronomists, furniture designers and architects.

This possibility is due, according to Rep. Christopher de Venecia, to the positive response of his colleagues who form the Arts and Culture and Creative Industries Bloc (ACCIB) of the 18th Congress. “We find ourselves in a moment in time when there is a renewed spark of interest in the creative industries both from the private and public sectors.”

Head of ACCIB, de Venecia, 33, is spearheading “a legislative effort at the moment to better understand, consolidate and pump-prime our local creative industries which contribute seven percent to our nation’s GDP.”

Lighting up the realm of possibilities is that the Speaker of the House and the Senate President have identified arts and culture as well as creative industries as a priority agenda for the second regular session of the 18th Congress, says de Venecia.

The bloc consists of 40 legislators. They include Deputy Speakers Loren Legarda, Vilma Santos Recto and Baby Arenas, Economic Affairs chair Sharon Garin and Reps. Stella Quimbo, Cristal Bagatsing, Mikey Arroyo, Lito Atienza, Geraldine Roman, Lucy Torres, Camille Villar and Rufy Biazon.

“So far we’ve touched base with nine sectors of our creative industries,” says de Venecia. “In each of the meetings, we endeavor to understand how government can assist these sectors, then we have exhaustive policy discussions on laws that affect their sector, identifying bottlenecks and pain points that get in the way of their realizing their full potential.”

“I feel so blessed and honored to be working alongside amazing legislators in our bloc, all of whom bring their own dreams and passions, proclivities and energies into our discussions,” says the Pangasinan legislator.

He points to the experience of South Korea on “how it’s been able to galvanize its creative economy for nation-building and economic growth. Interestingly enough, it pivoted in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, so we have here in front of us, an opportunity to galvanize these industries that have been ignored for the longest time, through sound governance structure and policies.”

As if you didn’t know, Toff’s parents are the iconic former five-time House Speaker Joe de Venecia, and former representative “Manay” Gina de Venecia. “They were convincing me for the longest time to enter politics, but I always said no, it wasn’t my thing, I was heavily into the creative arts. But then it was in 2015 when something that my mom said clicked and cleared up a lot of cobwebs in my head. She talked about how I could use my creativity and bring that to the table in providing legislative leadership in the 4th District of Pangasinan.”

He ran for Congress in 2016 under the LAKAS-CMD party that his father had started with former President Fidel V. Ramos and the late senator Raul Manglapus. “It’s a sort of a homecoming of sorts,” says Toff.

Toff was already dabbling in the arts as early as kindergarten, and always enjoyed watching Broadway musicals when he travelled with his parents to New York and London. Months before his sister, JC, died, she joined an acting workshop with Repertory Philippines. “I suppose I wanted to be as close to her and her memory as possible. It was after joining my first workshop, in the summer of 2005, that I was awakened to the full breadth and scale of the musical theater canon.”

In 2014, when he decided to put up his own theater company, The Sandbox Collective, he says he was “able to pursue a kind of forum theater where issues and ideas were ultimately discussed. Our maiden voyage was a musical called ‘Dani Girl,’ about a 9-year-old girl battling with leukemia. A lot of people thought that it was an odd choice for a first musical for a theater company but I suppose we wanted to be different, cutting-edge. Since then we’ve always done shows that are socially relevant. Dani Girl was about pediatric cancer. This was followed by an original monologue series that I co-created and directed in 2015 called ‘No Filter’ about the  millennial experience. It eventually became a book, published under Summit Media.

“Then we took a hiatus because I entered politics in 2016, but shortly after our company returned in full force with the immersive reimagination of Ricky Lee and Vincent de Jesus’ ‘Himala: Isang Musikal’ based on the film starring Nora Aunor. There was something immersive and very much voyeuristic about the whole experience that our brilliant director Ed Ladon Jr. created. This was then followed by ‘Lungs’ which was about love in a time of great uncertainty and global warming, followed by the one-woman interactive play, ‘Every Brilliant Thing,’ which broke open the conversation about mental health.”

Toff has a political science degree from the Ateneo de Manila University. He started taking executive courses at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2017 on a yearly basis while Congress was in recess.  He did an Emerging Leaders program as well as Behavioral Insights to Designing Public Policy and Creating Collaborative Solutions. “They were enlightening to me in a way that they provided a framework in which to understand the world better and the concept of governance.”

“Ultimately my biggest takeaway from the whole experience is that authority does not necessarily equate with leadership. My being a public official gives me some form of authority, as bestowed upon me by my constituents. But leadership is something that can emanate from absolutely anywhere. And it is my fervent hope that with the work that our bloc has set off to do, more leaders will emerge both among our ranks, as well as among the private sector stakeholders that we’ve touched base with. After all, government can’t do it alone.”

Initially Toff thought he could be the arts and culture guy in the 17th Congress, but as he went around his district, he got to know his constituents better and realized that “we were primarily agricultural. Thus agriculture and tourism formed the core of my legislative agenda in the previous Congress.”

Bills that Toff authored and passed in the committee level have to do with encouraging young people to appreciate agricultural endeavors.

His heart belongs to artists, as always. His Freelance Protection Bill, his pet bill in the 18th Congress, seeks to empower millions of freelancers by mandating contracts between them and hiring parties, and his Creative Workers Welfare Bill assures provision of minimum health and welfare standards for workers in the film, television and radio entertainment industries.

Before this pandemic, Toff would go home on a weekly or a semi-weekly basis. “I love meeting with my constituents and every time there is a courtesy call or I go out to the farms to do inspections or meet with our agricultural stakeholders, I usually lose track of the time and then my staff has to tap me gently on the shoulder to say that there is another sortie that we have to get to.”

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