At the interception between Linea and Paseo, two important avenues of Havana’s Vedado, is located the headquarters of Teatro El Publico, one of the most daring, derisive and unconventional theater companies in the Cuban theater scene.
A large sign on the door of the building recalls former plays and invites passers-by to enter. Theater lovers have stood in endless queues more than once to purchase a ticket here or paid well above the original fee in a country where the price to witness a show in the performing arts hardly ever exceeds twenty pesos (about 0.80 USD).
Carlos Díaz, the Soul of Teatro El Publico
This is the home of Teatro El Publico, by Carlos Díaz, an inseparable pair that, regardless of the shortages and the financial distress, has made the best theater that could be made in Cuba, staging daring works, such as “La Celestina”, “Antigonon, an epic contingent”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, or “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant”.
To get to know the directors and the actors of Teatro El Publico, PanamericanWorld came to this place that draws a smart audience every week.
We went through the door and arrived at the same hall that is often packed with theater lovers. Perhaps the most striking feature is the broad walkway connecting stage and auditorium, which allows actors to interact more closely with the audience.
Today every single seat is empty because it is midweek and the actors are resting while the troupe’s headquarter welcomes the fourth year students of the National School of Arts (ENA) who train under Carlos Diaz and renowned Cuban actor Fernando Hechevarria.
Related article: Cooking up some Cuban Jazz?
You’ll find Carlos Diaz sitting on any of those benches and although he won the National Theater Award in 2015 and has been presented with many other prizes, fame has not changed him a bit. He started theater performances almost 60 years ago, and today he has directed more than 40 plays that have garnered public acclaim. Carlos puts the same effort in each production and this is perhaps due to his tireless personality and undying stamina.
When you speak to him it is as if you were talking to the same intrepid young man who appreciates the small joys of life: going to the theater every day, helping out young actors and newcomers, rewriting classical plays and witnessing the public’s reaction at every premiere.
Meet Carlos Díaz, Director of “Teatro El Publico”
“Everything started when I was a kid,” he says, as he showed me into his workspace, a small office where you can find everything from books to make-up and fabrics for everyday work.
“As a child I wanted to be an actor and I was involved in all the amateur theater groups in my district, but one day I realized that it was very important to organize theatrical performances because there are many actors, but few directors”, narrates Carlos Díaz, who majored in Theater at the Higher Institute of Arts (Instituto Superior de Artes).
The first theatrical event that won him widespread acclaim took place in 1990, when he premiered an American theater trilogy at Sala Covarrubias of the National Theater, with broad support from the critics and the public.
“Director Pedro Renteria told me: you want to be a director, I said:” Yes, I want to do “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And he answered: “If you want to be a director you have to come up with three plays in a year. That was a big challenge because I had no idea what else to do. Then I went to my house in Bejucal and decided to also do: “Tea and Sympathy”, and “the Glass Menagerie”. This was my theater debut”.
This was the run-up to Teatro EL Publico, born in 1992 and named thus in honor of spectators, who are at the forefront of all productions, and in homage to a play by Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. The so-called Special Period was then instituted in Cuba, and while many groups were being dismantled, Diaz was putting all his hopes on fulfilling his dream of directing Cuban theater.
Teatro El Publico Fits Everybody
Renowned Cuban actors, such as Fernando Hechavarria, Osvaldo Doimeadios, Alexis Diaz de Villegas and Broselianda Hernandez have performed with the troupe, and today both experience actors and newcomers to the world of acting converge on this stage.
“Having talent and a deep desire to learn and work are perhaps the only requirements to be admitted,” says Carlos, and this was confirmed by all the actors with whom we spoke. “Is there a province of the country that is not represented at El Público Theater?”, I asked Carlos, who laughingly responded: “No, they have all come through here”.
The stage of the Trianon Theater is now busy with the students of the National School of Arts (ENA), who prepare, together with Teatro el Publico, their graduation thesis, which involves the production of the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
“I am a professor at ENA and Instituto Superior de Artes. Every year I organize graduations for those schools and I try to bring into the troupe the best students I see,” explains Carlos Diaz.
One of the young actresses that is part of Teatro El Publico is Alicia Hechavarria, daughter of renowned actor Fernando Hechavarria. She has been around the company since early childhood.
“For me, Teatro El Publico is a very authentic company. We are always fairly bold in our proposals, and there is no fear in expressing things. I’m not saying that we are the only ones to do so, but we have taken it to another level. We are also very open. We all fit here, there is no gender, no race, no social class. Everyone converges in one room and everyone fits”, says Alicia.
For her father, actor Fernando Hechavarria, Teatro El Publico is home…like the Jordan River where one goes to shed and cleanse, he assures.
“When I decided to leave the Escambray I had interesting proposals with me, but what determined my choice is precisely the way Carlos operates. I decided to overcome the challenge of reinventing myself as an actor every day, follow new guidelines, explore unknown territories and play different characters, and that is what this company provided.
“Carlos has always given me the possibility of moving up and looking for more ambitious goals, and that’s why I’ve always worked with El Publico, and I think that I do not see myself working with another director in the future”, confesses Fernando Hechavarria, right after finishing the class that PanamericanWorld was part of.
Nudes without Taboos at Teatro El Publico
Perhaps one of the most controversial matters within the company is the nude issue, because several are the plays where actors have come on stage with nothing more than their own body. In fact, for Carlos Diaz there is no taboo in showing your body as is.
“For some to be dressed others have to be undressed. Some plays require it, others do not. What worries me is when people call the theater to ask if there will be any nude scenes in the play in order to decide if they will come see it, “explains the director.
On this subject we asked the opinion of young actor Alejandro Lázaro, who told PanamericanWorld that he had already done three plays and nude scenes had not yet come up.
“So far none of my characters have required it, but whenever the need arises, I’ll have no problem with it. Many people think that when you enter Teatro El Público you are going to strip naked, or that Carlos works with nude bodies, but that is not the case. Many times if I as an actor see that my character has nude scenes, I suggest it myself. Carlos is never going to have to tell me that I have to undress. The actor proposes it when he deems it necessary.”
Alejandro Lazaro is one of the young actors involved in the most recent play of Teatro El Público, “Everything is fine between us”. He was born in Trinidad and before being spotted for the ENA he had never seen theater in his life.
“The good thing about this company is the vitality infused by the new actors coming in every year, together with the confidence that Carlos has in his actors. He allows us to create and never tells us to hold back. When you join the company he asks you what you want to say, what stories you want to tell and he lets you do just that. He always shapes you with the help of theatrical techniques and his experience, but always lets you have your own narrative and express what you want”.
For him, as for many of his comrades, it has not been easy, as many of the actors in the troupe come from other regions of the country. Mayabeque, Sancti Spiritus and Holguin are some of the provinces that were mentioned. They assured me that when forming part of Teatro El Publico became a possibility, they didn’t even think twice about the opportunity to be part of one of the best companies in the country, but the sacrifice has been great.
Cuba’s Economic Distress has not Stopped Teatro El Publico
Doing good theater in midst of economic problems and in an underdeveloped and embargoed country is a great challenge. We asked Carlos how he managed to work and never stop despite the shortages. He didn’t complain about it when he spoke to us.
“I go out looking for whatever is missing. Everything I need is here”, he tells me and points to a stack of suitcases on the floor along with a huge pile on his office table. “I have a lot of friends, and if there is something I should be thankful for is the amount of people out there who help me out so that I can keep doing theater. This right here is makeup that I recycled from my last trip abroad because in Cuba we have no makeup”.
Is there anything left for Carlos Diaz to do? I asked almost on closing the interview, and his answer came with the same humor that is characteristic of each of his answers: “But of course, do you want to kill me? I’m not ready to die yet”.
Carlos Diaz dreams that in the future, when he is no longer around, people who walk past this corner of Havana’s Vedado and see the facade of the Trianon theater say without hesitation: “Good theater was presented here”. This is what drives him.
“I have done the kind of plays that I’ve wanted, the kind that resembles no other, and I believe that in Cuba there had to be a group like this, where you could hear beautiful word or something atrocious, with the same talent and the same dignity”.
“With the plays we have set up, we have gained support in Cuban theater and, of course, one day I will no longer be here, but I will continue to be around. I know El Publico will not die because there are plenty heads that can carry the torch”.
Text: M.C. Ramon Photos: Abel Rojas