All Revolutions Have Conflicts, Ruptures, and Contradictions

ENcontrARTE’s Akaida Orozco interviews Cuban Playwright Rafael González* on the development of Cuba’s Teatro Escambray and his 41 years contributing to a theater for social transformation. González discusses his participation in Venezuela’s Culture Mission and his views on the nature of revolutionary culture in societies working towards social change. 


Rafael González (1950 – ) was born in Ranchuelo, Villa Clara province, Cuba. Since 1977 he has helped to consolidate Cuba’s Teatro Escambray, serving as the theater group’s theatrical advisor, chief of socio-cultural investigations, author of many performances, and since 1995 is the group’s general director. Since 2001 he has served as professor of dramaturgy at the Villa Clara School of Art Teachers. He holds medals of distinction for his participation in Cuba’s historic literacy campaign and for his service in the Cuban armed forces, and he is an active member in the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).

AO: How did the Teatro Escambray theater group end up in Venezuela? What was the link that allowed you to present your playwright workshop on the [state owned] Vive Television Network?

RG: The idea that led to the Playwright Workshop was first discussed during the International Meeting of Theater of the ALBA Countries held in Caracas back in 2008. We were there thanks to an invitation by Rodolfo Porras, Director of the Institute of Scenic and Musical Arts (IAEM), who had first seen our work in Cuba during an event we put on called Theatrical May in the House of the Americas. He saw us present ‘She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah’ which is the same performance we brought to Venezuela.

This Meeting of Theater of the ALBA Countries was really very important because there we had the chance to exchange ideas and discuss different themes, meaning it wasn’t just a meeting full of hot air. In addition, there was an important connection with the communities. At that time we began discussing the possibility of Teatro Escambray coming to Venezuela and working directly with the Cultural Mission ‘Into the Heart’, developing numerous activities in the low-income neighborhoods of Caracas most strongly affected by violence, drugs, and robberies – the communities in most need of a richer spiritual life.

Teatro Escambray is a theater group established in the 60’s as an alternative to urban theater underway in Havana at that time, and which addresses problematic social and cultural themes that affect the community. It crossed our mind that through the practical application of Teatro Escambray in Venezuela we could collaborate in some way. We then agreed to a proposal to come and work in Venezuela for a year, as a group, since in total we are 11 members. In the end, we’ve worked separately since we arrived; each one of us assigned to a different neighborhood and matched up with a teacher of music, another one of arts, and a third in visual arts.

AO: What makes up the work you’ve done with the Cultural Mission ‘Into the Heart’?

RG: It’s basically an educational effort in a range of artistic disciplines geared towards children, young people, adults, and the community in general. Of its many objectives is the goal of activating people’s creativity, discovering the popular artists in each community, and directing the community towards an enriched spiritual life. The idea is to separate them a bit from that excessive materialism as well as that excessive daily violence in which they are forced to live. From this point of view it ends up being a very interesting line of work. I think that perhaps our work as Teatro Escambray might have been even more effective if we had all been able work together in one concrete area, but that’s the design of this program between the Ministry of Culture and the Cuban government – the formation of trios or quartets trained in different artistic disciplines. Either way, we came and we implemented an educational effort, we provided instruction.

AO: How would you evaluate the results obtained from the work you have done in the Caracas communities?

RG: Well, I can speak to you about the work done by every one of our [theater group] colleagues because although we were all in different locations we were always in touch with one another and we always met to discuss the activities that we were planning on implementing. All of us were located in Petare – some in Graveuca, others in La Bombilla, in Filas de Mariche, in Palo Verde, and I found myself in the area of Pablo Sexto and El Encantado Sur. There I worked almost entirely in two elementary schools – Raúl Leoni and Ricardo Zuloaga. These were truly poor communities, strongly marked by violence. During vacation periods I worked with the entire El Encantado Norte community where I carried out a small investigation into the history of that community. I leave satisfied with the work we’ve done…

AO: Were any theater groups established? What is the continuity that comes with these efforts in the communities?

RG: One of the things that gets to me is precisely that, for me it is still an enigma who will follow-up on these efforts…For example, I worked in the Raúl Leoni elementary school with a short story by Julio Garmendia entitled La Manzanita Criolla (the little Venezuelan apple) – I wrote the theatrical version and I prepared it for the children. I was schedule to leave at the end of January, but all of the sudden I’ve been told that I should leave now (December, 2009) since the Mission comes to a close at this time of year. So I’ve had to leave the process mid-way through. The kids know the content and the movements but they still need to divide up the different roles, intensify the process, obtain the costumes, the music, etc. as we’ve done with other stories we’ve adapted to the theater. In that school a young Venezuelan women will remain but she works more in the realm of the visual arts, meaning there is no one left to continue with the work I was doing and it’s possible that this remains stalled and without recourse. We believe, if this program is to continue on in the future, that a revision of the program should be done. From within the Venezuelan Ministry of Culture this proposal has been made as well. There should be a perfectioning of the program, including a much more in-depth integration between Venezuelan and Cuban artists-intellectuals because I feel like there’s a type of segregation between us, a divorce of sorts, and I don’t like that…

AO: What are you referring to?

RG: For example, I know that here there are many playwrights who do this same type of work in the communities but I have not had the opportunity to share with them. Meetings between the different parts are not held – cohesion is not achieved.

AO: Let’s talk about the workshop on dramaturgy. How did the idea to give this workshop come about, since, as I understand it, the workshop included a diversity of grassroots social organizations from the Latin-American ALBA TV Network that includes people from Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, as well as numerous community media networks and workers from Vive TV?

RG: The folks from Viva TV contacted me because there is a French cinematographer and professor of philosophy who long ago had done a documentary on our Escambray grouping and who wanted to communicate with me directly. She was very interested in coming to Venezuela and seeing the continuation of our work in a different political and cultural context. That’s what linked me up with Vive. They invited me to present that documentary on Vive and later the Department of Education invited me to give the workshop on dramaturgy or on dramatic creation in which their technicians, personnel, members of numerous community television outlets, cultural promoters, and etc. would participate. All of this because they [Vive] want to develop a film, a socialist soap opera of sorts, that is, they have a few dreams of making short films…That all began in August of 2009, and I had already been engaged in the Culture Mission since January.

AO: How long was that workshop?

RG: The workshop took place from August to December of 2009. These were people who had never ventured into the realm of writing a script, or perhaps some had begun taking the first steps to be able to do so. The workshop consisted of providing them with tools for different elements of dramaturgy, dramatic creation, the rules for written and visual discourse, the spectacular nature of theater, mostly just that. There was also a Venezuelan professor giving an acting course and she is trying to form working groups so that the technicians have a higher level of culture – they are trying to create a type of profession known as an integral producer, someone who can do everything.

AO: At what point did the grassroots social organizations from the Latin-American ALBA TV Network incorporate themselves?

RG: What happened is that in the middle of the dramaturgy workshop the first steps were taken in the development of a television channel for the ALBA nations with Venezuela selected to serve as the center of the project, allowing ALBA countries as well as others who have wanted to become involved to include their community television networks. So, a number of these community networks began participating in the workshop. It was interesting at a number of moments. In my classes I was started from a film-maker’s perspective, since they are going to be working with film, with television, initially with short films and later with full-length films. Basically, they are non-commercial cinematographers in search of different alternatives in terms of language to tackle the contemporary world, its themes and the formal concepts associated to the field of film. This is a language that is not found in the doctrines of commercial film. It is found in a film that seeks other forms of expression, from an artistic point of view, and from universal human themes such as the issue of women, the female condition, problems of childhood, etc. At one point I proposed the theme of theater within film…

I also had to develop a type of workshop on techniques in socio-cultural research because they were interested in inserting themselves in the organized communities and often those are contradictory spaces. As such, it’s important to investigate these communities well so that coming out of that reality one can create works of fiction or documentaries, or even poems, whatever, developing a creative project based on that research.

AO: What was the focus of the workshop on Socio-cultural Research?

RG: I think that social research should be conducted in a scientific manner. They should not be handled as a simple participatory observation because later, at the moment in which you translate things into an artistic language, you can remain on the surface of things. That is, you have to really get to the essentials of the human, social, and cultural problems and try to project them in the least populist way possible. I think that a good community-based cultural effort, work conducted with the grassroots, has to be an effort that touches on essences and that has depth to it, where the priority must be the art.

At the same time, during the workshop I became aware of the ignorance that exists about cinematography that is today at the forefront of film worldwide, in the universal film, cinematographers that are truly alternative such as those from South Korea, Iran, the Philippines. These are films from countries classified as third world, films that address themes that have a lot to do with our problems and with our way of viewing the world. They aren’t themes developed from the first world, from the centers of power…In my classes, I first began by showing films where there was barely any speaking, where the script was basically a visual script so as to begin with the visual discourse more than the written text. The students were very diverse, and one day there might be 20 students and the next day 80…when the people from ALBA arrived it was huge, at which point I had to observe them and I decided to tell them that we really couldn’t advance if each day I had a different student because I had to go about explaining everything over again – in the end about 20 or so stayed in the workshop.

AO: How many scripts came out of the Workshop?

RG: No, in the end we couldn’t finish any. There was one that was completed because the student was to graduate with a special mention in film from the Central University of Venezuela and at the time of the workshop she was finishing up her thesis. In fact, she read through her script, which was very interesting because it provoked a debate, and we were able to do a number of exercises using that script. This illuminated all of the participants a great deal, participants who were at different stages of their own processes of development. I spoke with the Director of Education to tell him that it was vital to secure continuity in these types of workshops.

AO: What importance does the activation of the arts and the cultural movements have on the development and integration of the Latin American people?

RG: Are we truly succeeding in the cultural integration of our people? For example, the 2008 event in which Escambray participated, the International Meeting of Theater of the ALBA Countries, served to reunite cultural groupings that for many years had not seen one another. It served as a space to exchange knowledge about what each of us can contribute to the integration of Latin American theater…When they asked me, I told them that Escambray could contribute themes related to the great challenges faced in the construction of socialism in Cuba since, well, that has been at the heart of our theatrical practice. Of the themes that we’ve developed we have sought to show Latin America not our achievements but our major defeats in that construction of socialism – so that others don’t repeat said mistakes in their revolutionary processes.

If we can teach them what our difficulties have been, our problems and our contradictions, well, it’s possible we are helping them discover things that are important for these processes that are currently underway in our brother countries. A lot of times these processes bring with them cultural confrontations. In fact, many times they are not solely political phenomena but essentially cultural in nature, with all of the transformations and trauma that can be generated within a given national culture. And these are not just in artistic manifestations but in the way by which people understand their surroundings, their context. Every revolution, and all transformative acts, have ruptures, conflicts, and contradictions.

AO: Integration is most interesting precisely there, from a place of self-reflection, and a shared experience, more than just showing off our works in a simple and eventual festival…

RG: One example I can give you…A long time had passed since I had last seen the theater group La Candelaria, from Bogotá, a grouping with which we have had working relations and very interesting interchanges. About two years ago they were in Havana in an international theater festival and I was unable to see them perform. They were also unable to see us perform. Nevertheless, they dedicated themselves to seeing everything they could of Cuban theater during the course of the festival. It turns out that we were finally able to meet here in Caracas, in that event of the ALBA countries. They saw our performance and later told us that they were reassured by it because it proved to them that yes, yes there is a Cuban theater that has always been very in touch with actual problems, linked to the distress of the men/women of our societies. They said that during the theater festival in Havana they didn’t find one performance that addressed Cuba, and noted that they had to come to Caracas to see it. I had to explain to them why we chose to do ‘She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah,’ which is very strong, and the political and cultural situation that it created between the state and intellectuals when we first launched it. They were very surprised because it addressed Cuba and its problems in a very acute, strong, and critical way while all they had seen at the [Havana] festival was very evasive theater.

In this regard, I think we have common bases and common problems, while our cultures have notable differences. The true integration will perhaps arise in the common artistic languages that we discover to show those realities.

AO: Have you seen any theater while in Venezuela?

RG: Almost nothing because I’m fully engaged in the neighborhood all the time. I did see a performance by the Negro de Barlovento and the Negro de Praga theater groups that came not too long ago but really I have seen almost nothing of Venezuelan theater.

AO: And in terms of the regional outlook, do you think that the theater continues to reflect the realities of our countries as it did in other historical moments? Above you told me that it was in Venezuela that the Colombians from La Candelaria theater group had the opportunity to see a Cuban piece that spoke of Cuba because in Cuba itself they didn’t find it. So, what is happening with our theater? What discourses are we managing?

RG: Here in Venezuela, I really don’t know what to tell you is happening with Venezuelan theater but a good Venezuelan theater surely exists. For example, the youngest creators within my grouping love Venezuelan dramaturgy. In Cuba they discovered a Venezuelan author named Gustavo Ott who fascinates them because he develops problematic themes that are based on the limits of Venezuelan reality and turns them into problems of the human condition, social and universal problems, born of the Venezuelan reality or not…Plus, he’s the one who directs the San Martín theater, which is where we performed last year. But if you ask me what is happening today in Venezuelan theater I must confess that I don’t know what to tell you.

In Cuba there is an attempt to recover and reactivate the spaces for discussion, so that festivals also become spaces to talk, because that practice was last during the 1990’s and 2000’s, very different from what was happening in the 70’s and 80’s. Since then, and up until now, the festivals have been converted into a type of marathon of performances, show upon show with no possibility of interactions. At least the International Meeting of Theater of the ALBA Countries gave us that opportunity. There were moments where we could all meet to talk things over and see the works of others. In Cuba, we are now trying to retake [the spaces lost], fundamentally through the Theatrical May of the House of the Americas which is a very interesting event and in which there are a lot of activities of a theoretical nature, gatherings, etc…

In Cuban theater today I think people are talking about Cuban reality in a number of distinct ways. The theater that was born in the 1960’s that later became the theater of the 70’s and 80’s touched directly on national reality without having to go through the intricacies of preparing a Shakespeare play so as to discuss Cuba. Theater slowly disappeared and we are very few who continue to practice it today. Perhaps now a whole new generation of creative artists will begin from a new perspective to elaborate on that reality.

I don’t think that in Cuba the people or writers have stopped discussing Cuban reality but in many cases they do so seeking other paths, looking to avoid discussing reality directly and instead they delve into metaphors, finding similar situations but without producing a direct elaboration on reality. What might occur now is a rejection of a period in which problems of national reality were addressed in a very elementary and crude way, within a scheme of a strongly insulting realism that ends up tiring people out – that wasn’t the case with Escambray, luckily, because if it had been we would not be reaching our 41 years as a theater group. I think that in fact we’ve opened ourselves up to interactions and to the possibility of being influenced by all theatrical currents that have come to pass and that are still to come. We had to make the necessary modifications and adapt to the new socio-cultural contexts of national reality which look nothing like the reality of the 60’s. In fact, we were criticized at one point when people began to say we had involved ourselves in problematic issues that were distant from our campesino [rural] world. We asked ourselves at that time: Don’t people realize that the campesino reality of the Escambray [mountains in Villa Clara province, Cuba] has disappeared? We can not produce a theater of remembrances, of a reality that has died.

AO: Clearly, the theater underway in Cuba today is another theater; it has to be since the socio-political context has changed. The reality denounced in ‘She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah’ when the Beatles’ music was prohibited would surely today find itself without comparison. Nowadays they wouldn’t prohibit young people from listening to rock, reggaetón, nor hip-hop…

RG: Yes, I see you’re informed about ‘She loves you…’ What happened is that that piece was a show structure upon short stories and fragments of novels from different Cuban authors who were very young during the decade of the 60’s. We were young; we were studying or fulfilling military service, etc. So at the time that the violent military face-off between the United States and Cuba took place, everything that came in English was considered to be of the enemy. The country began to function like a large military encampment facing an enemy because the circumstances were truly violent.

Nevertheless, there were dogmas, schemes and false interpretations around the issue of culture within the new society that was being built. So everything that was in English and had long hair was vetoed. It became a problem of ideology, a series of traumas occurred, and the first five years of the 70’s became know in circles of Cuban history, literature, and art as the grey period. What happened is that certain members of the National Cultural Council tried to import to the island the so-called soviet socialist realism that had very precise norms for how to develop a literary work, how to understand a hero, how to understand narration, how to understand actions, the endings to performances, of a film, etc. Basically, we were restricted almost entirely to the proposal of the ideological department of the [communist] party of the Soviet Union and obviously, this was something that had nothing to do with the Cuban cultural dynamics which while being closely linked to processes of the left, to revolutionary processes, was totally unrelated to art in the terms made available. Nevertheless, the Cuban members [of the Cultural Council] tried to impose those terms and that created serious difficulties in the ability to create because everything that was abstract art, theater of the absurd, theater of cruelty, was seen in a negative light, they were seen as degenerate results of capitalist, imperialist culture.

As a result, anything that had a religious tint, or a sexuality that was not considered “normal,” also had to be confronted. This provoked an exodus of many Cuban artists who really had no fundamental conflict with the Cuban revolution as a whole. On the contrary, the Cuban revolution for them meant an advance in economic terms but, all of a sudden, in the name of the Cuban revolution they had to emigrate. Because that is how it works – revolutions can have ideals but revolutions are made by people, and people make mistakes, and if they make many mistakes they can put at risk those very ideals in a dramatic way. For example, the founders of the Cuban National Theater were harassed as they left the country. An essential theatrical Cuban author such as Virgilio Piñera practically had to store away his works because he wasn’t allowed to present them. That reality was not lived by the new generations, they are completely unaware of its existence. Which is why the objective of ‘She loves you…’ is precisely to connect the current generation of young Cubans with that generation of people like ourselves who in the 60’s suffered that whole ordeal.

AO: That is to say, young people today are ‘white haired’ as we like to say…

RG: The position of the state, of course, was to sanction all those who tried to renew those dogmas. A strong political situation was created. A long time had passed without a conflict of that magnitude. We conducted the performance and we felt it a bit – in those ghosts that show up all of a sudden in some extremist bureaucrat, because behind every extremist there is a great opportunist. And since the times in which we live are very tumultuous, very complicated, with the fall of the socialist world in which the country [Cuba] suffered many transformations of all sorts (economical and ethical), well for all those reasons of course we live in times in which the waters run cloudy and all the traumas of the past (and those yet to come) have come to pass.

AO: To conclude, how does theater serve as an instrument of transformation?

RG: Just imagine. I have spent 41 years working in a theatrical group that seeks the alternative, which seeks to link itself to socio-cultural processes of the grassroots, processes that are contradictory and violent. I did it first trying to get to know the community in depth and in all of its complexity, trying to create theatrical performances based on an understanding of cultural codes, on the cultural world of those men and women with whom I was to work.

Later I developed a series of thematically relevant works that relate to the evolution of that community, making an effort to never influence the works at the moment in which they are performed. Instead, we tried to have each performance focus on the most contradictory and most rich aspects of problems so that the community in any given moment could analyze for themselves the artistic show that we were giving to them after having done our investigation. The people took on this type of theater, and they took it on not because theater should or could resolve their problem – because really I don’t think that theater can resolve said problems – I don’t think theater can resolve problems that not even reality can solve.

In the problems we address in our performances a lot of time the public says to us: but you all never propose solutions to the problems you show in your works. And I tell them no, because if we did it would always be an idyllic solution, because it is precisely a contradictory reality we are presenting, a reality that is always changing, always mutating, always in transformation, in which the human being is trying to explain itself in one way or another through the image that you are offering him/her, which he/she provided to you during that investigation…

I think that theater is a vehicle that allows the people, the community, to reflect on the role that corresponds to each person within a given social phenomena but with its limitations. Theater is not going to resolve nor transform the community – it can be a vehicle that supports and collaborates with those people, who in the end are the ones who transform, change their reality. I do believe that theater can provide you with an exercise in the dissection of reality at the surface, and not through reason. Theater can of course improve the perspectives and the ways in which men/women relate to one another and with their surroundings and it does so in a particular way, but I don’t think we can ask that much of it…I reject the idea that some bureaucrat come and tell you that you should prepare a work that solves one problem or the other, or that your work should leave some specific message. That’s when I tell them that theater is not for solving problems, or in the words of the old Cuban critique, la moraleja. Messages must be left for the media.

Theater, the arts, these are not the Ministry of Communication. Theater can contribute to human betterment, to human growth, perhaps a person can even exercise their will with greater consciousness and understand better in which social mechanisms, in which plot, in which web they find themselves, but that’s as far as it goes. The idea that theater or the arts are going to be the transformer or that which resolves is not legitimate.

After 41 years how many works have we not developed, for example, related to the problem of women’s condition in Cuba. During the 70’s we defended the problems faced by women thinking that, perhaps in a schematically designed way, that with the economic liberation of women would come a more generally liberated condition in society. We thought that her incorporation into social work, overcoming the limitation of the domestic tasks, that with this she would become a more fully integrated and equal member of society alongside men…but now, since the 90’s, we are provoking debate around the issue of a double servitude in which women work in their jobs and also maintain their homes, the responsibility of educating their children, etc. So this makes it necessary to revisit these themes constantly. Nevertheless, reality overcame us, it became ever more complex and the feminine theme became more complicated each time. That is to say, the great conflict and contradiction between the ideal and reality in practice is alive and well. Theater is obviously going to need to continue being there, transforming its own language and the way in which it elaborates certain themes – similar to the ghosts that are present since the beginning of human civilization. I don’t think there are a lot of new themes. What does exist, are new ways and means to elaborate on the old themes, new facets and perspectives.

Interview by Akaida Libertad Orozco Díaz/ENcontrARTE

Translation by Juan Reardon for Venezuelanalysis.com