For Webster University student and actress Cherlynn Alvarez, performing in Havana, Cuba with the Conservatory of Theatre Arts was a personal moment because it was the first time her father would see her perform.
He was deported when Alvarez was a freshman in high school and currently lives in Cancun, Mexico.
“To me, this was the performance of a lifetime because I do not know when he will see me again,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez and 20 others who were part of the Conservatory’s production of the play Big Love packed their bags Oct. 18 for Havana, Cuba, where Alvarez’s father was able to see her perform.
They performed three shows at the Havana Theatre Festival Oct. 23-25 and returned to the United States Oct. 26.
Recreating the stage
Moving Big Love away from the Loretto-Hilton stage it was built for was challenging.
Not everything required for the show could be brought with them. Webster actor Robert Riordan said it is easier to produce shows in America because it is easy to go out and buy props. It is a different story in Cuba.
“In America, you say ‘where can I buy this?’” Riordan said. “In Cuba, you say ‘where can I obtain this?’”
The company walked the streets of Havana and talked to locals about borrowing a box of nails, flowers, a cake, a knife, a record player, fabric, over 30 tomatoes and a bathtub, among other things. Some of the crew walked the streets for an hour and a half just looking for nails.
“Even stuff like gaff tape, which we use in the theatre constantly, is gold there,” Director Jef Awada said. “It is one of the hardest things to get and for us, it is like 12 bucks for a roll. That stuff was a wonderful challenge.”
Alvarez, who knew the Spanish language, asked a biker if he knew where to find nails. She and other members traveled approximately 20 blocks to the house of an artist the biker lived with. They found a box of nails and prepared to tip the artist, which he denied.
“You just assume that all they are looking for is money,” Alvarez said. “No, they don’t have much, but they are doing it because they want to help. They give so much and it makes you realize how much we take for granted.”
Awada said the challenge allowed for more creativity, such as the case with the bathtub the show used.
A truck brought a bathtub to the theater. Four men carried the tub, which was dirty and did not hold water, to the stage. Instead of water, the bathtub was filled with flowers, which also helped cover up the dirt.
“It was gorgeous,” Awada said. “It was better than the water.”
Alvarez said the challenge improved teamwork, since they had to rely on each other more than ever. She said she is grateful for the opportunities Webster has provided her as an actress, but Cuba is a different environment entirely.
“It [Cuba] brought us closer together as a unit than it did here,” Alvarez said.
A new kind of audience
Riordan said the people of Cuba showed something he believes the people of the United States can learn from: community.
“People are so full of love and so warm and welcoming [in Cuba] and we tend to be really cold here and really distant from each other,” Riordan said.
During one of the shows the company watched, a cell phone went off. The audience turned towards the sound, shushing the person with the phone. The only sounds made during productions were translators speaking.
“I would [say] Cuban audiences [are like] American audiences at a concert,” actress Jen Sinnen said.
People had their cameras and phones out and would walk in late which is not generally accepted in American theatre. The distance between the audience and the performers on stage was much smaller, like the space between two people sitting on opposite ends of a small table.
The first night of the festival included a satire of the French Revolution by Flora Lauten and Racquel Carrio, the co-founders of the company Teatro Buendia who invited the Conservatory to perform Big Love in the first place.
“At the end [of the production], these fantastic actors came out and they bowed,” Sinnen said. “I have never been part of an audience that stood up so quickly and clapped for so long. They truly love the arts and they push boundaries that Americans just are not comfortable with.”
Alvarez said after night one, they got used to the environment and were a lot more free in their work. As a result, the energy of the audience played into their performances on stage.
“You could feel them [the audience] with you there the entire time,” Alvarez said. “They were getting it and they were so invested. That kept inspiring me to keep wanting to tell my story . . .It was a very filled space and it was filled with support, love and passion and you can see it in their faces. Every night was a standing ovation.”
Awada said there were questions about how the language barrier would influence their views of others’ performances or the audience’s view of their performances.
“To play in front of an audience where they will not always get what you are saying is difficult,” Awada said. “It is hard to judge the reactions of the audiences. Are they quiet because they are listening? Are they talking because they are bored?”
Awada said the immediate reaction to the play was a standing ovation, with many yelling “Bravo!”
“The level of appreciation there was just wonderful and more direct than one is used to here,” Awada said.
In addition to performing three nights, the company saw productions from other companies all over the world.
“We saw beautiful, challenging, difficult theatre,” Awada said.
Alvarez said the Cuba trip taught her to be confident in herself. She said she learned to not care what others think and to let herself go in the performance.
“For the first time, I was able to own what I do,” Alvarez said. “I was able to do the show for my entire cast and do it for these people, who graciously took time out of their days to sit there and watch art.”