HAVANA TIMES — Looking back on a long and rewarding career on the Cuban stage, actor Jose Antonio Alonso has the privilege of having trained to become a thespian at the time of the great luminaries of Cuban theatre.
Interviewing him, I am reminded of a phrase Havana’s Cabellero de Paris (a colorful, free-spirited vagrant from yesteryear that has become a part of the city’s folklore) was wont to say: “I am king of the world, because the world is always beneath my feet.”
Havana Times: What can you tell us about your generation?
Jose Antonio Alonso: I graduated from Cuba’s Higher Institute for the Arts (ISA) in 1985. Those were good times. I began my studies under the Soviet professors. I then went on to train under Flora Lauten, who is a National Theatre Award laureate today.
When I say those were good times I am referring to the fact that you would be chosen for the discipline, on merit, on the basis of the artistic criteria of those who were selecting the talent at the time. The Soviets were known for this, they would choose only those actors they thought were interesting, not because they were anyone’s son or friend. I can think of many friends of mine from this generation, actors like Cesar Evora and Caridad Ravelo, who became theatre actors and are no longer living in Cuba.
HT: You’re referring to the 1980s?
JA: Between the 80s and the 90s. It was a good period of time for Cuban theatre, particularly because there were still very good teachers. Stage designers like Roberto Blanco and Vicente Revuelta were also creating some rather beautiful sets for our plays. The plays were very beautiful, like I said, but they were also rather conservative in terms of movement. It was around this time that the great director and teacher I just mentioned, Flora Lauten, began doing some research work, drawing from a Latin American school which, at the time, had developed a whole aesthetic known as Teatro Corporal (Body Language Theatre). That’s when the Cuban stage began to acquire a whole new dimension.
On many occasions, we would even omit certain lines from the play to try and express an idea with our bodies, through images that would captivate the audience. This was a new way of doing things which rejuvenated Cuba’s acting tradition. After graduating, we had actually put together an ensemble, directed by Flora Lauten, aimed at doing theatre pieces by and for young people, here in Havana.
We staged some formidable plays around the world, like Bacchantes. Our premiere in Thebes, Greece, was an unforgettable experience for me. I remember that, while in Greece, Flora would make us go to the forest as part of our training, to look for the spirit of the times, to find the inspiration that would later express itself on stage.
HT: Tell us about “A Gentleman from Paris”.
JA: This one-person piece is one of the most famous plays I’ve ever acted in. I had already done a stage monologue before the premiere, so I had, in a way, started to train for it in advance, true to Virgilio Piñera’s maxim: “Know thyself, that is the secret.” My concerns as an artist at the time led me to explore issues having to do with the social masks we wear. One’s always acting a part; you have a whole world of characters living inside you. I was trying to unmask this, unmask my ego, take off my many masks and reveal them to the public.
“A Gentleman from Paris” stems from these ideas. At the time, many people who travelled abroad were not returning to Cuba. Seeing this, I began to ask myself where happiness was, whether one found it here or elsewhere, and to read up on the life of this person, a Spanish immigrant who had lived in the streets of Havana. I discovered this man would say some truly delicious phrases, like “I am king of the world, because the world is always beneath my feet.”
I also found out this man suffered from paraphrenia, an illness which, among many negative symptoms, has one good thing, which is that, when you have this illness, you see life poetically, that is to say, that perhaps you see a garbage dump as a castle. That’s when I came to the realization that happiness isn’t out in the world somewhere, but inside each of us.
So, “A Gentleman from Paris” stems from these reflections. I am happy to say the play was extremely successful, it is a piece that has chased me for nearly 12 years of work as an actor, and I’ve won several national and international awards for it. I think I’ve become a bit like the Gentleman from Paris myself. Hence the name of the theatre company I direct, “The Gentleman’s Theatre.”
HT: How might you sum up what Flora Lauten and her theatre company, “Buendia”, taught you as an actor?
JA: She taught me many things. The main thing is that you can be an actor if you want to, but you have to be willing to work hard to get there. Her training, which was very rigorous, by the way, was always geared towards preparing you for the demands of the stage as such. If you don’t find a different way of preparing for each play you act in, then these plays become rather repetitive, they start to resemble one another. Finding a specific way to prepare for a particular show is, let’s say, one of the hardest parts of being an actor, it is the way in which you manage to convey all of the information contained in the play to the audience.
HT: What led you to leave “Buendia” and to create your own company, the “The Gentleman’s Theatre”?
JA: An independent project is always born of ideas you begin to have as an individual. I had been with Buendia for nearly 20 years, working hard with the other actors, all of whom had their own, individual ideas, working on collective and auteur pieces. There comes a time, however, when even beauty gets tiresome, as the song says.
There comes a time when you want to break away from the group, to try out new ideas, or ideas that you find more interesting than others do. As a director, Flora had her own ideas. She would often say that there always comes a time when children grow up and go their way, when they no longer belong to their mothers, but to themselves alone. That’s how the idea to create my own theatre group, “The Gentleman’s Theatre”, came about. At first, I would stage my own monologues. Then we started staging small pieces, with more actors.
HT: What’s your view of contemporary Cuban theatre?
JA: There are many trends now. The most important thing, for me, is passion. My Soviet teachers taught me to play it real, to be authentic. They introduced me to Stanislavsky’s acting method. I’ve always thought that going back to the roots of theatre is an interesting experience.
These new audiovisual technologies that have been incorporated into theatre performances, video projections and the like, which enrich our experience of the theatre, are valid contributions, but we must not lose sight of where theatre comes from, where its passions and joys are born, and where the impulse of human beings to tell stories springs.
The stage must be occupied by actors who are alive, who are able to convey a message to the audience, who are full of vitality, this is what I believe. Without tasting this passion for theatre, without feeling the actor’s passion, no one can walk away satisfied from a performance.