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Havana at dawn. (Adrianne Koteen)
Havana at dawn. (Adrianne Koteen)

It’s Sunrise in Cuba. Will the Light Reach the Stage?

With the long-awaited normalization of U.S./Cuba relations, theatre artists may be uniquely poised to make the most of the new climate of exchange.

On your mark, get set, go!

The announcements of normalization made by Barack Obama and Raúl Castro last Dec. 17 resulted in instant optimism for significant segments of the U.S. and Cuban populations. In Fidel and Raul’s hometown of Santiago, the largest city on the eastern side of Cuba, near Guantánamo, a celebratory Afro-Cuban conga procession materialized in the streets that same day. The Cuban people hope to finally approach the end of what seems a near-eternal era of suffering from an embargo imposed on them from the outside, and totalitarian micromanagement from the inside. As these yokes begin to be lifted off their shoulders, Cubans have already started taking advantage of a more international information flow, a wider range of products and technology and a boom of visitors from around the world—visitors with whom they can build new economic, scientific, agricultural and cultural alliances.

In the U.S., approval of President Obama’s announcement was expressed through a flood of media attention on Cuba: Ongoing editorials have flowed steadily since the end-of-year holidays in almost every major newspaper, magazine and blog; 2015 is likely see twice as many Americans in Cuba as last year, traveling on new general licenses in 12 categories of purposeful travel. The wave of Americans eager to be the among first to reconnect with Cuba include not just tourists but businesspeople, scholars, politicians, medical professionals, farmers and artists.

Dec. 17 marked a fundamental change of philosophy in Washington, D.C. During previous administrations, the long-pursued strategy was to isolate the Cuban government and its citizens until their system eventually imploded—no access to products, services, information, aid, communication or culture from the U.S. would result, the theory was, in inevitable political collapse. The Obama Administration’s foreign-policy shift now recognizes that both citizen and state diplomacy are actually our most powerful levers for creating a more politically and economically open Cuban society—that U.S. innovation, culture and resources are exactly the things that will empower Cubans to evolve beyond its government’s archaic 20th-century Leninist methods. Since the old approach of isolation didn’t work after 56 years of enforcement, the solid new reasoning goes, maybe engagement is really what is needed.

TCG’s 2013 delegation at Estudio Teatral of Santa Clara. (Photo by Sage Lewis)
TCG’s 2013 delegation at Estudio Teatral of Santa Clara. (Photo by Sage Lewis)

Sixty-four percent of the American people are in agreement with ending the embargo. And there is a race in various fields to establish connectivity and be the first to take advantage of the benefits of Cuban and U.S. collaboration. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that they want their states to be the first to establish an economic foothold in Cuba, following up with the first governors’ trade mission to the island in April. Netflix has already announced service to Cubans at $7.99 per month. Apple recently removed Cuba from its list of trade-restricted countries and has launched services on the island. Google executives recently visited.

Rob Manford, Major League Baseball’s new commissioner, has asked the U.S. government for permission to start ongoing exhibition-game activity in Cuba. He told reporters “it’s obviously a great talent market—it’s a country where baseball is embedded in the culture, and we like countries where baseball is embedded in the culture.” Even Conan O’Brien went to Cuba to take Spanish lessons, roll cigars and learn to play and dance salsa, taking with him the first U.S. talk-show to visit the country in decades. “Maybe it isn’t a bad form of diplomacy to send a comedian over. Maybe that’s not a bad first wave,” he suggested. Even selfies of Paris Hilton at Havana’s Cigar Festival were streaming on Instagram last February.

It’s as if there is a gold rush happening, not just of money but also of press, buzz, strategic alliance, talent and fun.

In the arts, there’s the same race to reestablish contact. The Minnesota Orchestra has announced plans to perform two concerts in Cuba in May. (In order to be the first U.S. symphony to perform there since Obama’s announcement, their international tour was coordinated with record-breaking quickness; they beat the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is also hoping to perform on the island soon.) The Bronx Museum of the Arts has announced an historic collaboration with Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts, representing the largest artistic exchange between Cuba and the U.S. in the past 50 years. The show, titled “Wild Noise,” will feature works created from the 1960s to the present addressing questions of identity, urban life and community, and will include exchange programs for artist and teens.

The change in tides has not only affected Americans—there is also a 16-percent increase in the influx of Europeans, Latin Americans and Canadians, who are now eagerly traveling to Cuba since the New Year, as if Obama’s changes applied to them, too. Cuba and the European Union recently concluded a third round of negotiations for a bilateral agreement on political dialogue, cooperation, trade and economy; France’s Prime Minister François Hollande is traveling to Havana on May 11 to make the first visit to Cuba ever by a French head of state.

This détente is happening at a time when the islanders might need it the most. Younger generations of Cubans are starving to engage with the rest of the world—they want to connect with friends and relatives abroad, discover new business opportunities, access information and upload personal media feeds to participate in the online zeitgeist. They’ve been missing out on the technology, communication and globalization trends that now mediate almost every interaction for the rest of humanity.

Cuba’s Communist Party has also recognized that it should reconsider its relationship with the U.S. After its partnership with the Soviet Union ended, the Cuban economy fell on its face. Then Venezuela came to the rescue and helped lift Cuba out of its “special period.” But as Venezuela’s own situation spirals into crisis, Havana has no one left to turn to other then its neighbors and family members 90 miles to the north.


Our Shared Stage
To understand what effect a normalized political relationship might have on American and Cuban theatre, we must look closer at our shared history of performance collaboration. Havana’s theatre has always been heavily influenced by New York. Before the Cuban Revolution, theatre was a major commercial entertainment, mostly taking the form of musicals and cabarets. The Cuban zarzuela, for example, was a mix of music from Spain and musical theatre from Broadway.

In the 1950s, such Cuban directors as Adolfo de Luis and Vicente Revuelta went to live in New York and worked on and off Broadway. They studied Brecht and the methods of Stanislavsky through contacts with Lee Strasberg; they returned to Cuba with repertory by playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. In 1958, Long Day’s Journey into Night was produced in Havana only six months after its premiere in New York. Directed by Revuelta, it was the first staging in Cuba in which all the actors were using Stanislavskian technique. The production marked the beginning of an explosion of modern performance on the island, and established the company Teatro Estudio as a force in Cuba’s theatre history. Out of these roots, experimental theatre emerged in small performance spaces around Havana, created with scarce resources and surviving only through the support of its audiences. America’s influence had been cemented into Cuban theatre, just on the eve of revolution.

Commercial theatre’s era ended with the disappearance of capitalism. But Cuba’s vanguard was distinct from other socialist countries in the fact that it continued to remain quite focused on what was happening in the West. In 1960, The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were performed in Havana by Teatro Estudio, and in the years since, Cuban theatre has remained committed to presenting work that critiques the social realities of Cuba—artists were able to win the attention of their audiences by offering work that examined the complexities of an unjust society. That stance notwithstanding, the companies continue to receive funding from the government and tickets are priced very low. During the Revolutionary years, Cuban theatre achieved large audiences of diverse age and social and racial backgrounds.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the International Theatre Institute helped Cuba form new relationships with other companies in the U.S., including those operated by Latinos in New York and supported by the Chicano movement on the West Coast. Helmo Hernandez founded the Havana Theatre Festival and invited the San Francisco Mime Troupe, La MaMa ETC and Bread and Puppet Theater to perform in Havana. The Living Theatre never came to Cuba, but the still-extant troupe did have a significant influence on Cubans for establishing new paradigms of interaction between performer and spectator and breaking the fourth wall. The ideas of postmodernism started to arrive in Cuba though these exchanges.

Repertorio Español, an Hispanic-focused theatre company in NYC founded by Cuban exiles Gilberto Zaldivar and Rene Buch, brought the first play (Broken Eggs by Eduardo Machado) written and performed by Cuban exiles to Cuba in 1998. Shortly after, they invited the Cuban writer/director Abelardo Estorino and actor Adria Santana of Compañía Teatral Hubert de Blanck to New York for a year-long residency and performances of several Cuban productions. Repertorio’s executive producer Robert Frederico remembers that “we were warmly received in Cuba. Aside from the governments, Cuba is probably the most pro-American country in Latin America, if not in the world.”

The CASA Latino InternationalTheater Festival in New York (and later the Public Theater) invited such Cuban companies as Teatro Escambray and Cuatro por Cuatro, and in 2001 the Lincoln Center Theater Lab invited one emerging director from Cuba per year to visit New York for workshops at Lincoln Center and the Lee Strasberg Institute. During the second Bush Administration, artists were rarely allowed to travel back and forth, and the few exchanges of the ’80s and ’90s ended.

"The Closest Farthest Away." (Photo by Adrienne Koteen)
“The Closest Farthest Away.” (Photo by Adrienne Koteen)

The single collaborative theatre work between the two countries in the decades between 1960 and 2014 was one in which this writer was involved: With a group of Cuban and American theatre artists, filmmakers and musicians, I cocreated The Closest Farthest Away | La entrañable lejanía, directed by Chi-wang Yang. It premiered in Havana in 2009 and in Miami in 2010. We devised a way of using holographic video projections of Cuban actors onstage as virtual substitutes for their live bodies. We told a story of a young American and a Cuban who were in love but couldn’t share the same physical space, investigating the traumatic psychological effects this has on families and communities separated by the political conflict. A maze of magical and digital interventions created an illusion of a world where cultural exchange was possible. This dramatic use of technology allowed both countries to reflect on the absurdity of our situation. In the end, we achieved a real-life friendship through a die-hard persistence of authorization, ideas and the bits and pixels required to connect our two countries onstage.

It was in 2010 that President Obama eased travel restrictions to liberate performing artists from both countries to start traveling back and forth to present work—as long as the Cuban artists weren’t paid. This has opened the door to an increasing number of new tunnels of communication.

Teatro Buendia performed as part of the Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s fifth biennial Latino Theatre Festival, winning kudos for being “unlike anything we ever see in the United States—because of its power, but also because of its simplicity.” In Miami, presenters such as FUNDarte, Miami Light Project and the University of Miami have hosted Cuban troupes including Teatro El Público, El Ciervo Encantado, Teatro de la Luna and Teatro de Las Estaciones. Many Cuban actors, such as Lilian Vegas and Carlos Caballero, have migrated to Florida and are working in Miami theatre.

Late last year, a new Cuban production of Rent, presented by Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, opened at Havana’s Bertolt Brecht Teatro, marking the first Broadway musical with an all-Cuban cast produced in Cuba in more than 50 years. The Spanish translation of the musical opened on Christmas Eve, playing to dignitaries invited by the Cuban National Council of Performing Arts. It was consistently sold out through its run, which ended March 22, with tickets costing the U.S. equivalent of 50 cents. Robert Nederlander Jr. told the Miami Herald, “After several years in the making, we’re thrilled to bring this authentic Broadway production to the people of Cuba, and hope to continue working with the Cuban National Council of Performing Arts for years to come.”


The Art Of Change
During the next few years, a normalized relationship with Cuba could be one of the most significant turn of global events. Over the centuries, our countries have alternated between amity and rivalry, but we are getting another chance to build a friendship. It’s significant that through the periods of greatest political conflict between the U.S. and Cuba, artists have been the ones who have always gotten along and communicated best. Now we have an unprecedented opportunity to help our societies better understand each other when it matters most.

Theatre’s focus on critical thinking enables us to better understand details of culture, time and place. It inspires community to gather together and reflect on our world. Helmo Hernandez, one of Cuba’s leading international advocates for Cuban artists, expresses it this way: “Theatre is a way to live and feel life in a much more profound and intense way; to understand emotions, fears, illusions, aspirations, frustrations and rage.”

Beth Boone, artistic and executive director of Miami Light Project, reflects that “50 years of separation has caused a lot of trauma on both sides of the Straights, and meaningful work will involve artists and companies from the U.S. going to Cuba to make and present work as well. We need to remain vigilant that it is a two-way street. We have a huge responsibility to play a leadership role in these efforts as the floodgates inevitably open.”

TCG’s 2013 delegation at Argos Teatro of Havana. (Photo by Sage Lewis)
TCG’s 2013 delegation at Argos Teatro of Havana. (Photo by Sage Lewis)

Hernandez continues: “Right now we are trying to reestablish the roots of contact between Cuban and American contemporary theatre. We need more American groups to come to Cuba to give advanced workshops and to send Cuban theatre practitioners to study and work in the United States in order to become part of the mainstream once again. We also need to continue collaborating with Latinos in the U.S. in the area of training and managing. How we can raise funds for the theatres? How we can learn to work with a different kind of market? These are things that aren’t taught in Cuba.”

As a hegemonic source of culture and trade, Americans must also be conscious of and sensitive to the negative effects our interventions may have. Cuba’s fundamental struggle with the U.S., from the days of José Martí to those of Raul Castro, has been to defend its individuality and sovereignty from being overpowered by the North. The artistic director of Havana’s Argos Teatro, Carlos Celdrán, warns that “a danger that could happen opening up to the U.S. is if a kind of commercialism takes center stage and squashes or dilutes our smaller aesthetics and investigations of reality. This is something that sometimes worries me about American theatre. But I think we’re prepared to dialogue with the world, with money, and with commercialism without being afraid of it. The fight of the future will be to create a theatre of art that coexists with a theatre of commercial entertainment.

“With more contact with the United States,” Celdrán continues, “we hope to see more resources and technology flowing into our theatre. This would be very welcome, but it is not necessary. What’s most essential is that the artistry and the passion is always here.”

After so many years of cultural isolation, now is the moment for the U.S. theatre field to reengage with Cuba. But let’s learn from our past. As two matured nations, let’s see if together we can figure out how to let the best aspects of our cultures and economies mingle with each other, without letting the worst cross the borders. As theatre practitioners, we’re trained to listen, think, feel, laugh and play. Let’s rise to the challenge and become the model for other sectors of society.

The time has come and the walls are falling. So, as a veteran border-crosser, my advice is to invite Cuban artists to visit your community and build new relationships now. Travel to the island to share your work and experience theirs. Listen closely. Discuss important matters of aesthetic, technique, form and process. The potential here is so great that if we succeed, something magical might happen.

Sage Lewis is a Los Angelesbased composer and a specialist on the Cuban arts scene.

  • Lillian Manzor

    Thank you, Sage Lewis and American Theater, for this timely article. I would like to offer a note of historical clarification
    and a note of warning. History: We should not forget the role that Cuban and Latino/a artists living in the US have played in paving the groundwork for these collaborations. In addition to Repertorio Español’s Cuba Teatro, in 2001 Alberto
    Sarraín with his Miami-based La Má Teodora brought 22 Cuban theater artists to the US, to Miami to be exact (see Festival Internacional del Monólogo Furthermore, the first collaborative theatre work between Cuba and the US was the coproduction of Abelardo Estorino’s Parece Blanca, directed by Alberto Sarraín. Seven theater artists from Miami worked along side Cuban theater artists in Havana and created, against all odds, a new staging of Estorino’s play in 2002. It was presented at Havana’s National Theater, Matanzas’ Teatro Sauto and La Villas’ Teatro Caridad (see Parece Blanca, The coproduction could not travel to the US because the Cuban actors were denied visas as a result of Bush’s change of policy towards Cuba.
    I second Sage Lewis’ advise to “Listen closely.” Theater, as he points out, gives us the ability to critically think about “details of culture, time, and place,” to think about how we want to forge future engagements with Cuban artists. I would urge us to consider our own role as US theater artists, practitioners, and scholars, and would argue that future theatrical engagements
    with Cuba need to be taken out of the race mentality of the business world. Not only should we avoid the “ready, set, go” approach, but we also need to get involved in a serious critique of it, and avoid its replication at all costs. While we could certainly ask ourselves “will the light reach the stage” of economic exchanges, the light has never left the stage of Cuban theater, not even during the Special Period when there were literally no lights. Carlos Celdrán says it best: “What’s most essential is that the artistry and the passion is always here.” In other words, Cuban theater on and off the island has a lot to offer to US contemporary theatrical practice. We should listen to Cuban theater artists closely before we put on our marathon shoes.

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