Diavan: Painter, Actor, Pilot & Playwright

By Irina Pino

As a pilot at age 17.

HAVANA TIMES — Diaven Molina Valera is a Cuban painter, actor, pilot, parachutist and playwright. He believes that art knows no frontiers, that everything is connected. “I’ve liked aviation since I was a kid. I always thought that, if I couldn’t study painting, that I would become a combat-plane pilot,” said Diaven in his interview with HT.

HT: Diaven is an unusual name – I’d never heard it before. Who gave it to you?

D: It was a name my dad made up. My siblings are named Dianelys, Diamin, Diariel, and my name is Diaven. All of our names start with “Dia.” I like it, because, whenever anyone says that name, I know it’s me they’re talking about and no one else.

HT: Where were you born?

D: I’m from Nueva Paz, but I was born in the town of Guines, (30 km south from the capital) – that’s where people from these peripheral municipalities used to be born at the time.

HT: You studied painting at the National School for the Arts (ENA). Then came theatre. Tell us how the two arts became connected in your life.

D: I started painting out of sheer need. I think all children do this. As a kid, I was drawn to cars, planes, ships, the technological gadgets of the real world. I thought that, by putting those things down on paper, I was somehow taking possession of them. This need stayed with me as I grew up.

For me, painting is a way of living, of seeing the birth of something. While still a painting student at ENA, I developed an interest in the theatre. I would act in amateur plays in my free time, first as an extra. Later, I began writing and staging my own plays with friends. I was looking for a different medium through which to express my ideas.

After graduating, I worked as an art teacher at a vocational school and at ENA, but I continued to write plays. We would stage them at different gatherings. I even organized a community project. I’ve been a professional playwright for ten years and I’ve worked with different theater groups. Currently, I’m with the Teatro D’Bolsillo (“Pocket Theatre”) company.

Diaven as a parachutist.

HT: You told me you were also a pilot. Tell us about this.

D: I’ve liked aviation since I was a kid. I always thought that, if I couldn’t study painting, that I would become a combat-plane pilot. The planes that soared over my house would leave me fascinated. I was studying at ENA when the Society for Patriotic and Military Education (SEPMI) began to offer a night piloting course at the Saul Delgado High School. When I completed this course, I was in second year at art school. That break, we started to fly. I was 17.

HT: Is this were you learned to parachute?

D: Yes. The first thing we learned was to do parachute. Then we were taught to pilot a plane.

HT: What does one feel when one sky-dives?

D: It’s something sublime, I can’t describe it. You feel a certain uncertainty before the jump, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Your legs go numb, your body feels very heavy. After you’ve gone through the hatch, everything happens very quickly, it’s like falling through nothingness, through outer space. In only five seconds you fall down to 200 meters above the ground. The air hits you hard in the face and your whole body. You almost can’t look down, the air pressure doesn’t let you. All you see is something blurry down below…

HT: Does one need to be in any specific physical condition to fly? How high have you parachuted from?

D: Yes, you have to be checked by an aeronautical medical commission every year. You have to be in optimal physical condition. My first jumps were from 800 meters. Today, I’m doing it from 4,000 meters. Free-fall is much longer, from 35 to 45 seconds. In that time, you fall some 3,000 meters, and have to release the parachute 700 meters before hitting the ground.

HT: What does a painter do while flying?

D: It’s not a question of a painter flying, it’s all part of my identity: I fly, act, skydive…

To supplement his meager acting salary, Diavan paints urban scenes showing vintage American cars and common Cubans. “Tourists like those kinds of paintings very much.”

HT: What kinds of paintings do you do?

D: I say what musicians often say, that I fuse genres: from the figurative to the abstract. I identify with Dali’s paintings, their spirit, the de-contextualization of the real object which manages to retain the object’s beauty: the photographic rendition of an object in the midst of a dream-like context. I sometimes drift towards impressionism and expressionism. I am eclectic.

HT: Do you make money from painting?

D: I obviously have to. As an actor, I make 640 Cuban pesos a month, which isn’t enough to go on for even a week. I paint urban scenes showing vintage American cars and common Cubans to sell. Tourists like those kinds of paintings very much. Though I like doing it, it’s a banal kind of art. It’s not what I really enjoy doing. I’m practically giving away my art.

HT: Do you follow any particular acting method in the theatre?

D: Not one, but many methods. I like to experiment, and all methods are good for that: Stanislavski, Grotovski, any method can be used to make something believable for an audience. I’m something of an experimental actor.

HT: Tell us about your plays.

D: Theater for children, recently The Other History of Cucarachita Martina. I’ve been staging playwright Abilio Estevez’ one-person play El enano en la botella (“The Dwarf in the Bottle”) for a year. It’s a very demanding literary monologue which entails a lot of physical and mental exhaustion, but it’s been well received by the public.

HT: What characters have you played?

D: I’ve loved Othello ever since seeing Nelson Dorr’s performance. The character has become something of an obsession for me, it’s re-kindled something of a forgotten desire in me. Shakespeare has been very important for me. I think all of his works are still relevant today. I would like to one day be able to play Othello, that’s my dream. I also want to play a transvestite. I haven’t had the opportunity yet.

Diavan at the Raquel Revuelta Theater in Havana.

HT: I’ve seen men playing women in the theatre. Are they taking these roles away from actresses?

D: No, it’s been done since Elizabethan times. Then, only men were allowed to act, it was forbidden for women. I think there’s been very good performances, it’s all a recycling process, and art isn’t immune to it. Today, we have different conceptions, different ways of seeing things. People write plays for certain actors, and vice-versa. I would like to play a Mata Hari, as the great film star Greta Garbo did.

HT: Why do so few people go to the theatre?

D: The vicissitudes of life. People settle for what’s easiest. Before, we had traveling theatre companies, just like the circus had. Now, only a certain elite goes to the theatre. There’s not enough publicity, very few theatre-related publications. There should be a regular theatre-news segment. Spots for theatre pieces aren’t aired on the most-viewed channels. That said, more young people are going to the theatre than before.

HT: What do you think of what’s happening on the Cuban stage?

D: Original and elegant plays are being staged. At the recent theatre festival we had in Havana, I saw that Cuban theatre is no longer as stuffy as it used to be, that it now has an irreverent way of expressing things. It’s been successful in Europe, without running into any language barriers. Interesting playwright and theatre directors have appeared in Cuba, and you can notice that in today’s plays.

HT: You’ve told me you’ve done some film and television. How do these two industries look upon black actors?

D: Yes, I actually started there. I started acting at the film school and then in some regular spots on television. It’s easier to be hired by a foreign producer for a film when you’re in the film industry. Recently, I worked in a Cuban-Italian co-production. I was one of the main characters.

You run into fierce, latent discrimination in television. It’s very harmful, because it is not acknowledged. They’ve gone as far as saying that there are no good black actors, something entirely false – the theatre is full of good, black actors that no one calls back, even after they’ve gone to the casting session. You see more black people on Norwegian television than here.

Racism is bleeding this society dry. It’s shameful that a multiracial country should need to hold meetings to deal with this issue. You don’t see a single black character on Cuban television. They squander resources on drawn-out soap operas that go nowhere. Mediocrity has become institutionalized.

HT: I’m going to conclude by throwing three words at you. Define them using only one word. Painting.

D: Life

HT: Theatre.

D: Passion.

HT: Flying.

D: Devotion.

Diaven Molina Valera is currently writing a one-person play. Might it be a biographical piece? We’ll know only when he has given his character its finishing touches and set him free, to fly.