Toff de Venecia on Leading the Country’s Creative Renaissance: ‘I think this is a crusade that I’ll be part of all my life’ - LA Lives

Reflecting on his own creative career and now championing a bill that will help the Philippine creative industry thrive, the Congressman pours his heart out to usher in a renewed sense of artistry and creativity.

Christopher “Toff” de Venecia has played many memorable and important roles on stage and in real life. 

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In the ‘90s, he was a child actor who starred in several TV shows, films, and commercials. As a student, he dabbled in theater, where he evolved from performing under the spotlight to directing and producing shows. At present, he continues to work in the industry through prominent theater organizations and his own company, the Sandbox Collective. 

Alongside his thespian journey, de Venecia also played multiple parts within the publishing industry. Building from his experiences as a writer for school newspapers and magazines, he has built a prolific career and portfolio as a columnist and editor for Manila’s major broadsheets and glossies. 

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His most demanding and complex role to date is in Congress: representing the Fourth District of Pangasinan in the House of Representatives. He is also the head of Arts and Culture and Creative Industries Bloc (ACCIB) and the Chairman of the Special Committee of Creative Industry and Performing Arts. 

With 301 bills under his name (232 as principal author, 69 as co-author) de Venecia advocates not only for arts and culture, but also agriculture and tourism—sectors that require more policies and programs for them to thrive. From promoting urban agricultural development in metropolitan areas to declaring the municipality of Manaoag as a tourist destination to aid in its preservation and development, the young congressman has fought for his causes with much optimism and drive. 

But perhaps it is the Creative Industries Development Bill where de Venecia’s energy is currently at full force, and rightfully so—not only does it draw from his own experiences as a creative practitioner, but the bill has been transmitted to Malacañang and awaiting the final signature of the President. 

Simply speaking, the bill seeks to specifically identify the Philippines’ creative industries, pinpoint their needs and challenges, and allow them to recover and thrive through solid plans and infrastructure. Central to these goals is the creation of a centralized agency that can help provide more education, financial support, marketing and promotions, research and development, intellectual property rights, grants and subsidies, and among other benefits for the country’s creative sector. 

It seems that whatever role de Venecia finds himself in—whether it’s on stage or in the political arena—the show goes on and on for his limitless creativity. 

A creative childhood

Given de Venecia’s lineage and artistic background, it doesn’t come as a surprise that creativity comes second nature to him. As the scion of the family who led Sampaguita Pictures, young Toff grew up mingling with the luminaries of Philippine entertainment: Gloria Romero, Susan Roces, and Kuya Germs, to name a few. 

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His parents, former House Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. and former congresswoman Gina de Venecia, also exposed him to the wonders of Broadway and the West End. “In a sense, creativity was being fed to me, and it inadvertently became my nourishment. At school and even at work, creativity became my go-to side,” he says. 

De Venecia fondly recalls that his early days as an actor and writer felt like all fun and games. “I enjoyed being an actor and sharing my talent to the world. I made many friends, and I was even able to save money,” the former child actor quips. 

However, it was only when he got to dabble in publishing and professional theater that he realized how creativity and artistry can allow people to thrive and make a living. 

While studying at Ateneo de Manila, de Venecia got the opportunity to write for Young Star, the youth-oriented supplement of The Philippine Star. “To be able to write something and make a difference, get email feedback from readers, meet amazing people, and make a living [while doing so] were game changers for me,” he shares. 

As de Venecia navigated the publishing industry further—becoming an editor, being tapped to write cover stories, and joining press trips locally and abroad—the idea of building a thriving professional career as a creative stuck in the young congressman’s mind. 

His stint for a children’s theater musical back in 2005 further solidified this insight. “After I attended a summer workshop, I decided to audition [for Repertory Philippines,] and I got in. Again, I was able to be creative here while earning money,” he recounts. 

De Venecia says that these moments led him to “this headspace where I’m advocating for creative industries and economies—that there is, indeed, money and a living to be made in creativity.”

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These are just some of the numerous experiences that de Venecia draws from to fight for the Creative Industries Bill. “I want to create a space where young artists and creatives are encouraged, rather than dissuaded, to pursue the humanities. [I want to fight] this stigma that there is no money to be made in the arts, because it is definitely possible. I think this is a crusade that I’ll be part of all my life,” he stresses. 

Sharing the spotlight

Much as arts and culture were the foremost advocacies that the young congressman had in mind, de Venecia understood that, in his early days in public service, other sectors and concerns had to take center stage first. 

“Initially, I wanted to introduce arts and culture to the district, guns blazing,” he admits. “However, it  was only halfway through my second term that I got into this advocacy.”

But, of course, he needed to listen to his people first. Even before working on the arts and culture sector, he had to reshuffle his priorities after getting to know his district better. This led him to focus first on initiatives related to tourism and agriculture, for instance. 

“Many of our towns are agricultural, and we have many farmers—most of which need dire support. I needed to focus first on alleviating and intervening with the farming sector’s problems through policies or programs,” he notes. 

De Venecia also acknowledged that he needed more time to mature as a public servant to confidently fight for his advocacies and his constituents. 

“I was a freshman in Congress. I was known as the son of my [politician] parents. [Hence,] I felt the need to prove myself, share my own story, and make my own relationships and connections with my colleagues,” he stresses. 

The young public servant had a breakthrough in his third executive course at the Harvard Kennedy School, the public policy school of the Ivy League institution. In his class on using behavioral science in designing public policy, de Venecia gained valuable insights on prioritizing and following through with commitments.  

“The class helps a public servant dig deep and understand why they want or do not want to do the things that they want to do,” de Venecia explains. “I learned that what was getting in the way of pursuing my advocacies was this fear of getting judged—that I wasn’t enough to champion my causes, especially within the halls of Congress.”

From this insight, de Venecia realized that teamwork was a key solution to combat this fear. “Public service is not a one-man show. You need to work with other people, especially when you’re fighting for particular advocacies or pushing for legislation,” he shares. 

It dawned on the congressman that he didn’t need to know everything all at once. “I can get the ball rolling and I can invite more people to join the crusade,” he says.

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For instance, in understanding the economic side of creativity—its productivity as a sector and how much it contributes to the economy—he cites his economist colleagues in the House, Rep. Joey Salceda, Rep. Stella Quimbo, and Rep. Sharon Garin as experts that he could turn to. Or, if he needs insights on heritage preservation, he could consult Rep. Loren Legarda. 

“What got in the way of pursuing my advocacies was this fear, and it took me four and a half years—and a pandemic— to snap out of it,” de Venecia admits. It’s this culture of teamwork and understanding that his role affects the lives of many constituents that pushed the freshman in Congress to confidently speak up and fight for his causes. 

Eventually, de Venecia was able to balance addressing the foremost concerns of his district while also promoting arts and culture in the locale. 

For instance, he has authored a bill that pushes for the establishment of the Edades and Bernal Museum in Dagupan. This is in honor of two major cultural forces in Philippine arts: the “father of Philippine modern art,” Victorio Edades and the “father of theater design in the Philippines,” Salvador Bernal. Both are National Artists who hail from Pangasinan. 

Learning by example

Throughout his career, de Venecia is grateful for having esteemed mentors who have shaped him into the professional that he is today. 

In his creative life, the congressman credits lifestyle editor Millet Mananquil for teaching him resourcefulness. 

“Whenever I’d be assigned to cover something abroad, I’d always ask Tita Millet if she had any specific instructions. She’d just always tell me to ‘get a scoop.’ It stuck with me because it showed how I needed to be resourceful and scrappy to get exclusive stories, especially with minimal resources,” he notes. 

He also lauds Tessie Sy-Coson for teaching him discipline. “I learned systems from her. She was my direct boss when I worked for SM Department Store—that was my first job after college. I don’t think I would have the discipline I have today, if not for her.” 

Of course, his parents—both esteemed veteran figures in public service—were his foremost mentors. “I don’t think this interview is enough to list all the lessons that I learned from them, though!” he quips.

As far as role models are concerned, de Venecia also looks up to luminaries in theater. 

Through Anne Bogart, de Venecia learned about “Viewpoints,” a technique in dance composition which, at its most basic, is a form of improvisation. This has also been adapted to theater. “It’s a way of seeing things that helps you be in the present, discover beautiful things in the moment, accept everything that comes your way as a stimulus,” the thespian explains. “I try to apply this in my own work, whether in theater or public service.”

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He also cites Joseph Chaikin as an inspiration. “He said something about theater as [a way] to launch revolutions in small spaces. That’s a mantra that I bring with me wherever I go. I can help spark revolution in a space that I am given, no matter how big or small the platform is. If I bring myself wholly into an experience and live out loud, it will create ripples and change.”

Closer to home, he considers Salvador Bernal as another key figure. 

“He once said that the poverty of resources is not the poverty of the mind. I like that, because it reminds you that you don’t need to have everything to be creative or to make a difference,” he says, noting that this “back-against-the-wall” creativity is such a special driving force. “It’s so inspiring when you get to move past your limitations and see the creative possibilities.”

The future is creative

One of the fearless forecasts that de Venecia stands by is that the Philippines will become a top creative economy in the ASEAN region. This was something that he declared last year during Creative Futures, a two-day online conference that gathered industry leaders and experts to inspire and discuss the future of the Philippine creative scene. 

And with the Creative Industries Bill patiently waiting in Malacañang for that crucial signature, de Venecia’s optimism is at an all-time high.

“I’m confident that we’ll get there. Even without government support, our creatives are achieving so much. What we just want to do with this bill is to accelerate it,” the congressman notes. “Our craft is of artisanal quality—it’s not like we’re starting from scratch. We just need to streamline, make solid plans, and address the bottlenecks that prevent us from allowing our creative industries to thrive.”

De Venecia also emphasizes that the Creative Industries Bill will be able to usher in a wave of creative development throughout the country—not just within our urban centers. 

For instance, parts of the bill also include pushing for more creative schools and centers to be developed in the regions; defining “creative cities” to showcase the power of artistry and innovation to develop better cities; and allowing local government units to understand the role of creativity in “branding” their respective locales. 

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These are just some of de Venecia’s proposals to help young creatives—especially those who may not have access to opportunities that may propel them forward—thrive in their chosen artistic field. 

“Just the other day, I met a local creative from my district who won an international competition for photography. It was so heartwarming to see him in my office accompanied by his mentor and father. His father told me, ‘I didn’t know that my son was creative. Seeing how he takes beautiful photos, I will help him accomplish his dreams.’ Those words were so encouraging, especially for us creatives who always live in doubt,” he shares. 

More than the economic and nationwide benefits that de Venecia envisions once the bill is passed, these tender moments remind him that his work in the creative sector is something that can potentially change the lives of young creative dreamers across the country—and perhaps the whole creative scene in the Philippines. 

Sittings Editor DONG RONQUILLO
Creative Direction MARC YELLOW
Art Director PAOLO TORIO
Hair & Grooming CATS DEL ROSARIO
Shoot coordination MAE TALAID & MJ ALMERO

Shot on location at JAPONESA
Special thanks to Vani Altomonte, James Thomas, and Notorious Concepts.

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