Webster University student and actor Robert Riordan told his mom he was going to Cuba to perform with the Conservatory of Theatre Arts’ production of the play Big Love. He said she teared up because she remembered the tensions between the United States and Cuba.
“My mom grew up during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Riordan said. “She was in school when they would draw missiles on the chalkboard coming to America from Cuba.”
The conservatory will take its production of the play to Havana, Cuba. The cast and crew will perform the play at the Festival de Teatro de La Habana (Havana Theatre Festival).
From February to March 2015, Cuban theater duo Raquel Carrio and Flora Lauten, co-founders of the Cuban theater company Teatro Buendia, spent time in St. Louis as Global Leaders in Residence in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Director Jef Awada met the two at a faculty event welcoming them to Webster and invited them to view Big Love.
“Their company is known for adapting sort of Western classics into contemporary productions,” Awada said.
That was what Big Love was when it was adapted by playwright Charles L. Mee.
The play is inspired by an old Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’ The Suppliants. The tragedy revolves around the 50 daughters of Danaus who flee to the island of Argos to escape a forced marriage to their 50 cousins. Big Love is about 50 brides who escape to a manor in Italy to avoid marrying their cousins.
Awada said thinking about a play’s themes are not the top priority when planning out the season. It is about giving the cast and crew different styles and challenges to work with. Awada had been pitching Big Love as a possible production for around three or four years.
“I thought it was a great opportunity with really interesting problems to solve,” Awada said. “I saw a production 15 years ago that I remember loving.”
Webster student Sigrid Wise, who plays one of the main wives, said she was drawn to the different aspects of love each character represented. She said it is easy for playwrights to focus on one aspect of its theme and expand on that. With Big Love, different aspects of love are explored.
“I know I don’t love in the same way as someone else loves,” Wise said.
After seeing the production, Carrio and Lauten told Awada they would like to bring their production to Havana, even though the two did not have the means to make it happen.
“I said ‘that seems impossible, but let’s try,’” Awada said.
The conservatory received a formal invitation May 7, 2015 from the Ministry of Culture in Havana to perform at the festival.
The first question was if the production was transportable. Awada said the play was staged in a way that was specifically for the Loretto-Hilton Center. Awada started to really think about the flexibility, seeing that it was a possibility. They got commitments from returning cast members and current students.
The second question was if it could be funded. Awada said he thought the idea of the conservatory going to Cuba and interacting with a different culture would help persuade others to their side. He worked with others to get the needed funding.
“I told the cast and crew this could really happen, but there are many ways it could all fall apart,” Awada said. “We needed to celebrate that we got this chance.”
He put together a two-page proposal for the administration about Carrio and Lauten’s work, the opportunity given to the conservatory and the university and the projected budget. He sent the proposal in and was messaged back. They were going to help fund the trip. He also worked to get donors and grants.
The funding was completed. The student visas were approved, thanks to help from the festival. All passports were in. The application to fly on a Charter private jet to Cuba was approved.
The conservatory’s production of Big Love was going to Cuba.
Wise remembers going around with other members to different rehearsal spaces to let them know.
Wise also called her parents to let them know fall break plans were changing.
“I still, to this day, don’t believe I’m going,” Wise said. “I don’t think I’m going to believe it until I step foot in Cuba.”
The U.S. and Cuba officially reopened their embassies in each other’s respective capitals July 20, 2015. This marked the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries since they were severed in 1961 during the Cold War.
The conservatory will be one of the first international theatre connections since relations between the U.S. and Cuba were restored.
“As an artist, you dream of being a part of history,” Riordan said. “The collaboration of artists takes so much trust. It’s symbolic of how relations have changed. We’re going to reunite with this country.”
Cast member Caroline Amos, who graduated in the spring and played the role of wife Lydia, will return to perform for the Cuban production. She was nervous that with relations between the U.S. and Cuba just being restored after being rocky, anything could have gone wrong. Now that she is going, performing during a historical time is something she said she is still working to grasp.
“I can study as much as I want about the time period now and be there to appreciate it, but I don’t think I’m going to realize the impact until years from now,” Amos said. “I feel like it is just so big that I can’t see it yet.”
Awada said he has been lucky enough to do international work in places like Moscow, India and Western Europe. He said going abroad makes him think differently about theater. At the festival, they will work alongside different theatre companies from South America, Germany and Australia.
“We are going to be exposed to artists and their work from all sorts of different places,” Awada said. “This is an opportunity to put our work into the international world and see what they think of it.”
The team behind Big Love will leave Oct. 18 for the festival and will return Oct. 26.