A Cuban Puppeteer who Acts

Helson Hernandez 

Yerandi en un balcón.

HAVANA TIMES, July 11 — Yerandi Basart Ramos is one of the most outstanding young exponents of children’s theater and puppetry currently active in Cuba.  As he stated during our interview, “What started out as an adventure later became a problem for me.”

HT:  You graduated from the National School of Theater? 

YERANDI BASART RAMOS:  In 2005 I graduated with a major in performing arts from the National School of Theater (ENA).  After spending five years studying there I understood the “why” of acting.  Prior to that we were all going along doing the best we could though with an amateurish character, but academics helps you to know the history of the art form and the various disciplines that will in turn help you.  The training doesn’t turn you into an actor at the beginning; rather, it gives you the tools of an actor, one’s that you’ll use to develop yourself later while working in that profession.

HT:  But I know that much earlier, as a child, you had already been involved in important children’s theater productions.   

YBR:  Yes, it’s very difficult for someone who’s devoted to professional artistic work to not have previously participated in some workshop or amateur project, because that’s the principal pool from which professionals are later developed through academic training.  I was in a children’s theater company called “Los Juglaritos,” which is still directed by that actor of theater, stage and screen, Manuel Romero.With this group I had a lead role in an extravaganza that premiered in the Mella Theater.  It was called “Almacen de cuentos famosos.”  My character was Geniecillo.  I believe that part of the ingenuousness and innocence of childhood make you succeed at things like these.  In my case I was helped by acting in a theater as big as the Mella, because now I think about acting more attentively and I believe that otherwise I’d be a little scared to go up on such a large stage.   That’s why I can say that when you’re a child you lose the fear of everything and you’re more daring.

HT:  Why puppets in your professional development?   

YBR:  Well, in my third year at ENA I became curious about going beyond what they teach in the regular program.  I say third year because that’s when I began to go deeper into this area of my major, though in a very elementary way.  What began to catch my attention was that I was always discovering something new about marionettes.

Yerandi performing Los Zapaticos de Rosa

Researching into that art form, I found some very interesting things; I came to understand that a wide and rich track record of Cuban puppetry existed before and after the revolution.  I even discovered that a group existed in Matanzas called “Teatro de las Estaciones” that did very special work.  I studied their work to learn more of the world of tableaus and everything related to puppets and performing for children.

HT:  Tell us then how you got into that theatrical group that you just mentioned.   

YBR:   When I was in the third year of my major, I acted in a play for my thesis that would later take me to the city of Camagüey, and through that piece’s author, Norge Espinosa, who was the dramatic adviser of that group, we were able to agree on the work that we later presented.  When I was there I was thoroughly moved when seeing the staging of “La caja de los juguetes.”  I told myself, I want to work in “Teatro de las Estaciones,” and I explained that to the managing director Ruben Dario Salazar.

Happily, when I finished my studies, they gave me that opportunity to join them to fulfill my post-graduate social service commitment, and later I was able to stay on as a member.  I feel realized because I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do in life.

As I was from Havana, I was only able to live in Matanzas thanks to another actor in the group who let me live in his house.  This vital support helped so that I could work there with the collective that I appreciated so much.

HT:  With “Las Estaciones” you became a figure of international renown.  What were the events and countries that you visited along with Ruben Dario Salazar and his troupe? 

YBR:  This group has always been like a kind of bridge between puppeteers from Cuba and the world.  It serves to establish ties between professionals in that specialty.  The first thing I did with them outside of Cuba was at the Bengala Festival in Venezuela, with the soliloquy “Historia de Burros.”  Incredibly, converging there were many exponents of this specialty from other countries, including the most important ones from Latin America.

Historia de burros.

I represented Cuba there.  I traveled only with a sound engineer, so you can imagine the commitment that this demanded on my part since I didn’t have anyone else with me.  When I was beginning in the profession my director, Ruben Dario Salazar, gave me this show of trust, which I learned to pay back with the outcome of my participation.  What was most beneficial in this experience was seeing what was being done with puppet theater all around the world, and believe me that it was good for me to note that we Cubans weren’t too far behind in that specialty.

Cuba has an immense platform in this work with regard to other countries, where this type of theater lies on an inferior plane of interest and development.  Then with “Ugly Duckling,” I was able to attend another festival in France, where we traveled through several regions, including Paris, this time the trip with the whole group.

HT:  There were two productions that we considered essential in your work as an actor: “Los zapaticos de Rosa,” where your performance was splendid and poetic; and in your soliloquy “Historias de Burro.”  Do you think these shows were the ones that allowed you to perform in the fullest manner, allowing the splendor of all your potential?  

YBR:  Yes, that’s really true.  It happened in this order: First “Historia de Burros” was the first work I did with “Las Estaciones.”  This gave me the opportunity to demonstrate myself before the rest of the group, who had already been together for ten years.  No one else had joined them until I came.

This soliloquy is very powerful because it demands a certain delivery.  It is a work with complete acting illustration where you, by yourself, have to bring to life several characters at the same time.  Adding to that, you have to interact with the children spectators making them part of the show.  “Historia de Burros” is a work that I now have in my blood.  It’s one that has given me the best applause and awards.  Thanks to it I won the “Pelusin de Monte Award,” the only honorable mention at the monologue festival and diverse tributes for my acting.

That first experience on stage helped me out enormously to face other collective shows like the ones I’ve mentioned.  “Los zapaticos de rosa” is based on a writing by Jose Marti that we’re all familiar with — or that we think we’re familiar with — because in the staging process we deepen our understanding of the Marti many of us believe we know.

In “Los zapaticos” I worked with the great Cuban soprano Barbara Llanes, which was another unforgettable experience for me.  I have an interesting anecdote that occurred in the same creation process that referred of this work, because we went to the factory of the popular Cuban Lili dolls because we were interested in including them as part of the play.

When we got there we discovered that the place was already dismantled.  The dolls had all been taken apart and the pieces put in boxes because they were going to melt them down to take advantage of the material they were made of.  From the pieces they were then going to manufacture hoses and sell them in “dollar stores” for hard currency.

When we got to that place the manager told us:  “Take all of them, because they’re going to disappear.  Now they buy dolls from the Chinese because they’re cheaper than the ones we manufacture here.”  In short, Cuba wouldn’t be making any more dolls here nationally.  One can say then that we were the last ones who played with Lili dolls, and rescuing that children’s identity was very special for “Las estaciones.”

HT:  Right now you’re not a member of that collective in Matanzas, you decided to return to your hometown, Havana.  What concerns did you have about leaving “Las Estaciones?” 

YBR:  Well, what was an adventure at the beginning later became a problem for me, because after five years working in “Las estacions” and in a province that wasn’t mine, I was having problems with housing.  That’s to say I didn’t have another source of income that would allow me to rent a place, much less buy one.

Los Zapaticos de Rosa.

I decided to return to Havana, to my family’s home, because I was going through a lot of difficulties in that sense in Matanzas.  I’m sincere when I say that I would have never left that troupe where I learned so much and experienced my greatest professional satisfaction, despite having a career ahead of me, keeping in mind my youth.

It’s interesting because the biggest centers of cultural attention are almost always in the capital.  Everyone comes here.  Yet my beginnings were the other way around.  But when I got back to Havana I was able to do some series on television and knock on other doors that were open.  One of those was that of maestro Carlos Diaz, the director of the recognized theater group “El Publico,” where I am at the moment.  All of this was thanks to the references that I had from the Matanzas group “Teatro de las Estaciones.”

HT:  You just became a father, now at 26.  I imagine this is redoubling your responsibilities.   

YBR:  Yes, my son is named Andy, and he was born just recently, on May 29.  It’s clear that now I have a lot more responsibilities, but these present themselves in a way that one can assume them.  I know that I’m very young still, but I believe that to have a child one cannot think too much since tomorrow’s uncertain and I’ve always wanted to have offspring.  Now the only things that are still left for me are to write a book and plant a tree.  It’s strange because when one is a parent you become a better person and life changes 360 grades.  There are even those who affirm that after having a child, an artist becomes better at what they do, better creators, perhaps due to the level of sensitivity afforded to you in that condition.

HT:  How would you define the life of a young artist in Cuba today?   

YBR:  Pretty complicated.  Apparently there’s a lot of openness for artistic creation, but in fact for young creators, it’s fairly limited.  Maybe this is because the youth of another generation with different concerns can end up clashing with previous generations who are out of touch with the current time.

Sometimes you find some institutions directed by people who don’t have a whole lot to do with the new Cuba that is being born and will continue to grow.  But I think that yes, today’s youths will find their road just like those who did that 50 years ago.  As I say, the one who has talent, the one who has the will and desire to do something will undoubtedly be able to find their space to show what they can do.

HT: As an exponent of the newest generation of puppeteers who are interested in keeping that art form alive here, what can you tell our readers about the current health of this specialty, which is perhaps a little underestimated in the world of the theater.   

YBR:  It’s very underestimated, and I think the cause is ignorance.  In fact human beings will always ignore what they don’t know about.  But the theater is an art form that is marginalized in a large part of the world, and puppetry even more.  In Cuba there are many youths interested in marionettes.  I will continue saying wherever that I’m a puppeteer who acts and an actor who does puppetry.  That’s my essence and I’ll never forget it.

I have faith in my generation. I have faith in a generation that has concerns about changing many things, about opening new spaces.  We are a generation that is well informed.  I believe schools can have a children’s theater program that is much more solid than what they teach in my specialty, just as I also have faith in children embracing children’s literature.

HT:  What are the future interests of Yerandi Basart Ramos?  

YBR:  I have many concerns that I want to pursue, but before that I still need to get more experience to be able to be a good director in the future, because I like moving the poetics, moving the actors and having my own language.  I believe this will be my final road.