FEATURE by Willard Manus


Havana, Cuba

"This is a good moment in Cuban theatre," said Abelardo Estorino, the country's leading playwright/director. "Many young people have come into the field in recent years and there is a new spirit and energy in the air. There is also a new audience for theatre, thanks again to interest on the part of young people."

The 76-year-old Estorino, who has won three different fellowships to the United States in the past two decades, has not always been sanguine about the state of Cuban theatre. For a long stretch in the 70s--known as "los anos jodidos," the hard years--his work was banned by Cuba's cultural commissars and he could only write in silence. Estorino was "rehabilitated" in the 80s, though, and since then all his old and new works have been performed in Cuba and abroad, without censorship.

"Cuban playwrights must know how to write to be able to have a work staged," he explained. "Short of attacking the Revolution or Fidel Castro, you can write anything you like, especially if you use the right metaphors."

Today there are about twenty playwrights in the country whose work is regularly performed in Havana's dozen-odd theatres or in such provincial cities as Holguin and Santiago. Everyone in the theatre, playwrights included, is a state employee, entitled to a small salary (the average Cuban wage is $17 a month), cheap housing, free food (such staples as rice, beans and pasta), free medical care and schooling.

"To survive most playwrights and theatre people in general must find other work outside the theatre," continued Estorino. "Some teach or work in radio and television. I do it by directing the work of other playwrights."

While production budgets in a Third World country like Cuba are necessarily small, theatre artists such as Estorino and Carlos Diaz (a talented young director) enjoy the luxury of unrestricted rehearsal time. They do not have to mount a show until they feel it is ready. Diaz, for example, spent nearly a year polishing his stage adaptation of the successful Cuban film, "Strawberries and Chocolate." The gay-themed romantic comedy was a big hit and was eventually seen in South America and Spain.

The freedom and openness of the current theatre scene are quite remarkable, especially when contrasted against the backdrop of the hard years, a time when government repression was so severe that such talented playwrights as Eduardo Manet and Jose Triana fled the country, along with poets and novelists like Reinaldo ("Before Night Falls") Arenas and Zoe Valdes. Permission was even granted in the late 90s for the work of banned playwright Anton Arrufat to be seen again. After thirty years of internal exile and non-production, Arrufat's play "Every Sunday" was given a major and triumphant revival in Havana. Not only that, his novels were published as well-- and, in 2001, he was awarded the state's highest literary prize. Arrufat's most controversial play, however, an attack on the misuse of state power ("Seven Against Thebes," written in 1968), still remains on the prohibited list.

The contradictions and conflicts humming beneath the surface give Cuban theatre its unique qualities. The fight for change is being led in general by the generation newly graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts. Well educated and highly trained, these writers, actors and technicians come to the ideological battlefield armed with lessons they have also learned from the foreign theatre companies that visit Havana every two years to take part in an International Theatre Festival. Cuba also publishes two lively, combative theatre magazines, "Conjunto" and "Tablas," and the country can also boast of a major critic, Rine Leal.

It must be remembered that it is the Revolution that has made all this possible. There was a theatrical tradition before Castro but it had pretty much run its course by the end of the 19th century, replaced largely by cabaret shows and operettas. (An exception to this pop-oriented trend was the playwright Jose Antonio Ramos (1885-1946), who dealt with social themes and problems in a realistic, uncompromising manner, and the "pocket theatre" movement (Salitas) which lasted from 1954 to 1958. Comparable to Off-Broadway in those years, Salitas sprung up in small, unconventional spaces and offered works like Sartre's The Respectful Prostitute, which ran for an amazing 102 performances.

Virgilio Pinera, whom many consider to be the finest modern Cuban playwright, once described what the Revolution has meant to the Cuban theatre. "After the small pocket theatres, we were able to perform on big stages; out of productions that lasted only one night, we went to professional stagings that ran for weeks at most theatres; from humble stagings we went to ambitious stagings; authors, that before could not publish their plays, saw the state publish their work, and paying them copyright. Finally, what had never been done before was possible: the playwrights were paid when their plays were produced. Simultaneously, theatre groups were founded (with professional actors) as well as Theatre Brigades, Schools for Arts Instructors and amateur groups."

The amateur groups, by the way, are unique in their own fashion. Each community center in Cuba--there are thousands of them scattered across the country--has a theatre instructor. In the case of the Havana-based, 26-year-old Jorge Alberto, he works with local people, teaching them acting by giving them monologues to learn. The best performers are picked for a showcase which is offered free of charge to the barrio (neighborhood). "Once we get the experience, we will attempt to put on a big play," Alberto said. "It's a slow but fulfilling process; I've been working for two years with a 64-year-old woman on a monologue that I wrote for her. It makes my soul feel free to do this."

Although Alberto and his students do not dream of commercial success, they can still go to the mainstream houses to catch the latest plays and musicals if they wish. Theatre ticket prices are uniform across the country: five pesos (about 20 cents). For that reason alone, theatre in Cuba is that rare and admirable thing, a people's theatre.