Being An Actor or Actress in Cuba

By Lynn Cruz

Beatriz Viña in Crematorio, En fin el mal.

HAVANA TIMES — Every day, actors are asked to do more and in less time. Current production plans are designed for seasoned actors who do not need to ask many questions and are able to efficiently execute what the director asks for or demands.

This is a common experience during a shoot, where there’s always time to change a memory card, adjust lights or wait for a cloud to pass. When actors are asked if they’re ready and they reply that they need a moment, then the whole crew gets stressed.

A good question would be: how do Cuban actors and actresses manage? It’s natural that they should be expected to train, as their bodies, voices and minds are their tools. Being a good observer, devoting more time to the profession than to oneself, is the advice one hears most often from teachers at art schools.

Now, you’ve trained, you’ve bettered yourself and are ready to take on the most difficult part. Most of the actors that continue working in Cuba have to work miracles to survive. Abandoned to their own resources, they are represented only by Actuar, an agency that serves only as a credential and which gets a cut of all the money they make, in exchange for calling them for a handful of auditions.

Lester Martinez in “Memories of Development” by Miguel Coyula.

There is no real work being done to make this institution operate like a real agency, such that actors must become their own representatives and publicists – and, as is known in the trade, it is better for others to speak about us than for us to do it ourselves. The agency’s raison d’etre has ended up being indifference and discredit.

If you manage to get a part, you then have to discuss the terms of the contract. If it’s a foreign production, so much the worse, for the legal jargon leaves you totally in the dark and you set your signature without understanding half of the agreement, only to find out you’ve made a mistake along the way. Then you realize you ought also to have studied Law. That is how desperate the lucky few who manage to find a job in a depressed film industry are.

Considering the number of actors out there – both those who have recently graduated from an arts school and those who already have gray hair – the number of soap operas produced in Cuba is ridiculously low. This is true of radio plays, dubbing jobs and all other productions by the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT).

Yasmani Guerrero in Jirafas by Kiki Alvarez.

Actors enjoy greater exposure in television, but the fact you work well and make an extra effort, rather than rewarding, can truly be irrelevant there. “The people love you, but we need new faces,” is one of the arguments wielded to explain why you can’t work in more than one soap opera. Apparently, given the institution’s inability to employ so many actors and actresses, the instruction to rotate these has been “handed down,” and, this way, they begin to imitate Christ and to multiply the bread and fish.

The ICRT may be bread to some this year, while in production, but it will mean hunger for them next year, for the soap will be over by then. Very few people can make a living in theater anywhere, but, if you’re a theater actor in Cuba, you work in near abject poverty.

The truth is that actors have become weak as a species and a profound void has been left among the new generations: emigration and decreased production makes it next to impossible to follow in the footsteps of the most renowned artists.

You can’t go into battle without a weapon, and the careers of directors and screenwriters (many a time the directors themselves) are no less difficult, for they find it increasingly hard to develop projects where actors and actresses can take on characters characterized by introspection and silence. Verbal banality is rather what prevails in today’s scripts, as though the crudeness of reality made it impossible to develop an inner world that can rise above that day-to-day reality.

Mario Guerra in La Obra del Siglo by Carlos M. Quintela.

Within this context, works that stand out for their autonomy have emerged, in large part thanks to the fact they are produced independently and have no commitments with the State industry. Thus, many a time these are silenced for presenting a more controversial take on reality, but they enjoy greater creative freedom and allow actors and actresses to play psychologically more complex parts.

In The System of Nature, Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach writes: “Remorse does not exist or cease to exist in corrupt societies, for man steers all actions for the sake of the opinions of others.” How can we differentiate between good and evil, then?

Art has a great challenge ahead of it: rebuilding morality, for the loss of values in society and double standards, the result of opportunism and the imperative to survive, has spawned totally unethical subjects.

There is much inertia and our values are topsy-turvy. This is the emotional underdevelopment of an incredibly complex society facing a kind of Kafkaesque underdevelopment which drowns out truth or distorts it with caricatures that deprive art of its ambiguity. As someone said: “art doesn’t imitate life, life imitates art.”