By MARK HUGHES COBB
HAVANA TIMES, Jan 20. – Cuba is less than 100 miles from the United States mainland, about the distance from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery, yet for 50 years it’s been terra incognita for most Americans.
But over the past four years, Seth Panitch, assistant professor of acting at the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance, has traveled there several times researching Cuban theater, which tends toward visceral, rapid, physical productions, over in 90 minutes or less without intermission, in part because they have no concessions to sell.
On his latest trip, at the end of 2008, Panitch directed a Spanish-language production of “The Merchant of Venice,” the first Shakespeare work to be performed there in 11 years at the Adolfo Llaurado Theater in Havana. Remarkably, it was also the first play directed by an American in Cuba since the revolution, according to the ministry of culture’s theater division, Consejo Nacional Artes Escènicas (CNAE).
CNAE officials had asked Panitch what would most help him in his research.
He thought directing Cuban actors, in a style they’re not familiar with, would be revealing.
“I wanted to work with people who hadn’t worked with Shakespeare, and who wanted to be tested against the hardest material imaginable,” he said. “I asked Barbara Rivero, [CNAE Vice President] why no American has directed down there and she said, ‘I have no idea. No one’s ever asked me.’
“So the door opened; I just walked through it.”
UA operates under a [difficult to obtain] academic license from the U.S. Treasury Department, with partnerships so far including efforts in archaeology, biology, music and theater. The Crimson Tide baseball team also traveled to Cuba in December under the program. Guitarist Tom Wolfe, associate dean in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, another frequent traveler to Cuba, composed and performed for the production. A delegation from the Alabama-Cuba Initiative, including Arts & Sciences Dean Robert F. Olin, driving force behind the program, attended opening night.
On a trip in May, Panitch interviewed actors from the half-dozen major companies, and then studied a dozen available venues. He picked the one without a hole in the stage. Like much of the country outside tourist areas, Cuban theaters have been subject to hard times and neglect. Everyone is skinny, and it’s not from Pilates,
Panitch said. Paper shortages are so severe that a prop letter was treated like a rare gem.
Next came several months of paperwork, obtaining educational visas, and helping six UA graduate students find money, part of it from UA, to join in the project.
Acting students Jeremy Cox, Darin Cabot, Wade Mowles, Karina Croskrey and Sadie Magadanz, with costuming student Emma Cullimore, raised about half the money on their own. Cabot taught Paul Houghtaling’s opera students stage combat lessons in spring and fall.
“I came out of that deal with about $500, and that pretty much all went to Cuba,” Cabot said.
Panitch chose “Merchant of Venice,” making his cutting from translations by picking the one closest to the Bard’s lines, for a handful of reasons. He’d acted in it twice and directed it once, so it felt familiar. Also, Cuba has a history of anti-Semitism, and “Merchant,” with moneylender Shylock, weighs in heavily on themes of prejudice and tolerance.
“But the real reason is that ‘Merchant of Venice’ is about the outsider,” he said. “If anybody knows how to be enemies, it’s the U.S. and Cuba. Shylock and Antonio, to me that’s Cuba and the U.S. Our cultures were blended once. And ‘Merchant of Venice’ asks if that break in cultures can’t be resolved.”
Suspicion was in the air at the first meeting. “They wanted to know who I was, what I was doing there,” Panitch said, “because everybody wants something from Cuba. Once they learned I was down there to work, they began to warm up.”
When the students arrived later, with a week of work until opening, tension returned.
“There was the sense of feeling each other out,” Cabot said, “finding out what the other was about.”
Many of the Cubans spoke some English, but both sides relied on translator and assistant director William Ruiz. Cabot had grown up studying and hearing Spanish in New Mexico, so he helped his fellow students with pronunciation. Cox went to sleep to the sound of Cabot’s recorded voice saying lines.
“But Cuban is obviously different from Mexican,” Cox said. “The Cuban actors were so generous in taking their spare time to work on my pronunciation.”
Cox, the least accomplished linguist, was prepared to be laughed at for his beginner’s pronunciation, but audiences seemed pleased with the effort.
Language barriers fell as the actors began to grasp meaning from body language and inflections.
“The play was our translator,” Panitch said.
His directing style, intense and guided but with room for initiative, clashed with the Cubans at first. In professional settings, he’s used to putting a show on its feet in two weeks. Even at UA, he rarely has more than four weeks to rehearse. Companies in Cuba can rehearse for up to a year before performance; they may take two to four months just to block a play.
“When I told them I was going to block the show in a week, they laughed,” he said. “When they realized I was serious, they were terrified.”
Cuban theater actors get paid the same whether in rehearsal or performance, an average of $15 to $20 a month, which may barely cover their rent, so there’s no incentive to get it up and running quickly. There’s more drive to be great once they do perform: A good review can boost their pay; a bad one costs them, literally. Most book TV work, which pays better, to supplement theater.
There’s not a great call there for heavily worded plays like Shakespeare’s, because Cuban theater tends to be more immediate, violent, sexual.
“They work very much in front of their noses. They deal with what’s in front of them: identity, family, relationships,” Panitch said. “They talk about the thing that most concerns them: survival.
“Astonishingly, even though they have no money, there is greater optimism in the Cuban actor, greater devotion, greater dedication. They share the closeness of people under duress. It’s inspiring to see their commitment. It makes you look at your own work and say what the hell am I complaining about? We have so much.”
They were also warm, affectionate, beautiful people, he said.
“You have to kiss them hello, or they feel offended.”
Issues arose as actors dropped out for various reasons, including health problems; one returned to rehearsal days after surgery for breast cancer. Opening night, Panitch only had six of the 12 Cubans originally cast, and only three of those in original roles.
“There were only about three or four rehearsals where we had the whole group together,” Panitch said. “When I lost my Portia four days before opening, I was on the ropes.”
One of the leading company’s directors had demanded that his actors come to rehearsals, so Panitch, on losing someone, would turn to his rehearsal audience and ask who else wanted to be in the show. Understudies shifted into place.
The multinational “Merchant” opened to much fanfare from TV and local press. It was a hit, selling out most evenings, having to turn away dozens some nights. More importantly, the cast had become more than a group of actors.
“By opening night, we had a company,” Panitch said.
“Merchant” ran for a week with its mixed cast, then two weeks more with an all-Cuban group. It ended its run earlier this month, but there’s talk of taking the production on tour.
CNAE has invited Panitch to return, which he longs to do in the near future.
“Every time I go down there, there’s a sense that we’re so close,” he said, “but there’s also the fear that it could be taken away.”
Reprinted with permission from the TUSCALOOSA NEWS