Lisa Taylor and David Lozano of Cara Mia Theatre Co., traveled to Cuba as guests of Theater Communications Group. This week, the International Theatre Institute celebrated World Theater Day. Seems an appropriate time to share this guest blog on the trip. Lisa’s account is first, followed by David’s summary.
The Theater Communications Group organized a group of theater professionals to visit Cuba for a cultural exchange with its theater and dance companies March 15-22. Three of us attended from Dallas. David Lozano, Frida Espinosa-Müller, and I represented Cara Mia Theatre Co. The other 15 delegates were from around the U. S., with the majority from the East Coast.
Coincidentally, before I left, I was asked to publicize the upcoming reading by Andrei Codrescu tonight at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff. I remembered I had purchased his book Ay, Cuba! when my husband and I were planning a trip to Cuba a few years ago. So I took that on the airplane as my source for my 8 day trek in Cuba. In Ay, Cuba! Codrescu foreshadowed what I would witness and hear, that to the artists in Cuba: “Culture wasn’t a luxury, but food for creative survival.”
National Public Radio sent Codrescu to Cuba in advance of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. Codrescu’s background growing up in socialist Romania until the age of 19 gave him a special perspective about this complicated country. The book was just the introduction I needed. It’s a journal of his trip to Cuba, and it gave me a taste of the hypocrisies and confusions that you can feel when you’re there.
I felt these issues most poignantly when we attended a performance by students of the National Circus School in Havana. When we (about 10 of us) arrived at the Big Top, our host asked a group of adults to move from their front-row seats to give them to us. One of those adults, gave our host what for…deservedly I believed.
We had the great fortune of meeting with two to three dance and theater groups a day whose leaders spent time after their performances/rehearsals/classes talking with us. They explained their good fortune in not having to determine their programming based on whether it would bring in revenue or not. But, it was very obvious that even though they had stipends from the government, their resources were very slim and that they did not have the benefit of the ability to raise money as theater companies do in the States. There are only six foundations in Cuba, which were founded during the “special period” of the ’90s. We met with one of them, the Ludwig Foundation, which was created to protect and promote contemporary Cuban artists, along with other high minded ideals. The Director told us that Cuba is “facing the strong challenge of a cultural tsunami.” The Ludwig has created partnerships for Cuba with Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and The Joyce Theater, among other important cultural institutions around the world.
Susana Pous, a Spanish choreographer and dancer who works with Danza Abierto in Havana, provided an interesting example of what it feels like to be an artist in Cuba. She told us, after a thrilling performance by her company, that she moved to Cuba because she doesn’t have to apologize or explain herself in Cuba like she does elsewhere. She feels respected for her artistry.
That respect is duly earned in Cuba. The artists we encountered were dedicated and hardworking and very talented. To enter the world of the arts in Cuba, a high school-aged student must choose and audition for an arts school. If accepted, they go through serious training. The best news we heard is that the graduates are guaranteed a position in the arts. Many of the theater directors are professors to these students and find them for their companies that way.
The other positive information I took in was that working in the arts in Cuba is considered social work. Why doesn’t the USA consider it that? Teatro de los Elementos, which was my favorite, has social transformation at its heart.
Teatro de los Elementos transformed us via its magical offering of a walking procession through bits of Cuban history along a long country road. Greeted by a young girl blowing from a conch shell, we passed an actor dressed and frozen in place as Cuba’s national hero, the poet Jose Marti.
Then we were trumpeted to the entrance of a young cabellero who led us down the path to the office where an actor who trained with Marcel Marceau mimed some fun. After looking through photos and hearing tales from the founder, we were escorted by the mime to a nature trail that led to an outdoor amphitheater where musicians from the local town played and the company’s actors sang and danced. The musicians and actors then led us via their music to a rehearsal space that was created in the tradition of a bohi (farm house). The scenic and costume designer showed us his theater work as well as his paintings. We then saw the children’s theater office, which housed the children’s director and her family along with a garden and chickens (the theater was self-sustaining as far as I could tell and put new meaning to doing more with less).
We learned that the children’s director had been a student with the theater and that that cycle would continue. One of the young girls I spoke to at the reception they held for us told me of all her talents. I had no doubt that she would be encouraged and respected and would help her town be a better place.
As the trip came to a close, I remembered Codescru’s interview with the Cuban baseball star Orland “El Dugue” Hernandez and grabbed my Texas Rangers World Series cap out my bag and gave it to our tour guide, whose smile is and was perhaps the best part of the trip reminding us that baseball is also culture.
Here’s how Cara Mia‘s David Lozano summed up the trip:
“My North American friends and family have always insisted that Fidel’s revolution of 1959 was a disaster for Cuba. In Mexico, friends and family insisted that the revolution was one of Latin-America’s victories against US imperialism. I wanted to decide for myself. For the first few days, I felt more confused than ever. However, the confusion began to make sense when Yoel Saiz from Estudio Teatral (Santa Clara) spoke to our delegation of theater artists from TCG. He said that he has always lived with confusion towards the revolution. He was born seven years after and he only knew about it through other people’s experiences. The wealthy, he said, who lost their homes after the revolution, believed that it was a disaster. The poor such as his parents believed that it was a victory for the people. Still, since he didn’t experience the revolution himself so he could never definitively say what the revolution ultimately meant for Cubans.
“My observation is that the Cuban people live with an acute awareness of this confusion. Or for some, it would be more precise to say that they live between solidarity with the revolution and anguish regarding its shortcomings.
“In one individual, especially in artists, both the dissident and the patriot seem to exist. And in an active mind, these oppositions can play out as an internal struggle, an internal dialogue within each person. In Cuba, the most dynamic theater companies confront these oppositions in their work. A dynamic, courageous and poetic self-examination can take place regarding this struggle. The work is especially powerful when the art begins to daringly look into the future. For Cubans, a post-Fidel future is unknown, simultaneously full of fear and ecstasy.
“I realized that Cuban theater is full of life because it embraces its culture’s contradictions and poetically works through them on stage. I was especially inspired to pursue collaborations with the Cuban artists involved in this kind of work. I felt that it could be an opportunity for North Americans to identify our own culture’s contradictions while in the company of Cuban artists. If we could also embrace the contradictions of being North American artists, we may be able to also courageously look into the future with the Cuban people and envision a new world. As one Cuban director said, “Creation is the only thing that can save us.”