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Carlos Díaz’s Teatro El Público for the public

By Margaret Atkins / Posted April 10, 2013

Carlos Diaz, the renowned director of the Teatro El Público theater company wanted to be an actor since he was a child. He did not find the theater–he was born with it.  In his school days, when he interpreted small roles in school plays, he was already aware of the need for order in a scene and for each element to be in the right place at the right time, so his journey into stage direction was quite smooth.

Diaz studied theater at the University of the Arts (ISA) because he positively knew he wanted to direct, but it was a time when there was no academic training for directors in Cuba. After graduation, he worked as theater consultant and assistant director with Roberto Blanco for Teatro Irrumpe where he had the opportunity to do everything but direct. From 1988 to 1990, he was artistic director and general consultant for Ballet Teatro de La Habana. In 1989, the director of the National Theatre, Pedro Renteria, gave him the chance to direct, provided he produced three plays in a year. Those first three productions, A Streetcar Named Desire, Tea and Sympathy and Glass Menagerie, were billed as North American Theatre Trilogy. This was the origin of what would one day become Teatro El Público.

Carlos met with me at the Trianón Theater, which has been home to the company since the 1990s. He tells me that during the early years of the Special Period, the Trianón, a former movie house, became the National Symphony Orchestra’s headquarter for a brief period. One day, Carlos was passing by the Trianon and said to himself, “This cinema is going to be mine and it will be a theater.” His dream has come true, though not without some effort.

Today he is working with fourth year students of the National Theater School where he is a teacher. This gives him the chance of producing a play every year with undergraduates who will soon take charge of Cuban theater. In his view, the new generation of theatre graduates from the National Arts School (ENA) and ISA are very talented and that some of these young graduates go on to join the ranks of Teatro El Público. “ You have to draw on that generation and youth,” he confides. I recall a time when an 18-year-old character was played by a 40-year-old actress but I believe you have to give 18-year-olds the chance to show off their age on stage.”

A small image that represents a partial eclipse of the moon adorns his office. It has become a kind of logo that has accompanied him since his Teatro Ensayo days. He assures me that he does not want to possess it, like the emperor Caligula, but that he can look at it every night without tiring. “The moon,” he adds,” “has a theatrical significance and is a special element used by playwrights, like Lorca and Shakespeare, in their works. It is a symbol of love and of madness, and we need a little of both when we make art.”

For Carlos Diaz, the most important thing in theater is communicating with an audience. Having inherited the festive tradition of his native town, Bejucal, which has named him Distinguished Citizen, he believes that theatrical art should be made to entertain the public. “I prepare a play as if I were preparing a party,” he says.

It is not easy to achieve chemistry between a performance and an audience, but Carlos seems to pull this off quite successfully. Teatro El Público has worked hard to win its own public. “People come here and don’t know what they’ll see, but they have a pretty good idea of what will happen,” says the director who, instead of success, prefers to talk about communication. This man who loves packed houses and maintains that the theater is made for the public considers it a great achievement that he has never had a performance with few people in the audience. A carefully chosen repertoire and a consistent style of work are factors that Carlos believes are responsible for the long lines outside the Trianón. We might also add that his provocative, inordinate, irreverent, unconventional and sensual way of dealing with key topics–conventions, double standards, intolerance, lack of spirituality, the right to defend sexuality in all its tendencies–of everyday life in Cuba today have a lot to do with his success.

“I can’t spend nine months in the production of a play. A child is born in nine months. But neither can you kill a show in one month.” And even though in Cuba today many plays succumb by the twelfth performance, director Carlos Díaz holds that a play needs to be in contact with audiences for a long period to really mature. The façade of the Trianón has several plaques that mark 100 performances of different plays–an unmistakable sign of the success of the Teatro El Público troupe and its director.

The Company’s extensive repertoire includes many successful plays, such as La Celestina (which ran for 150 performances); The Twelfth Night; Ay, mi amor; The Crucible and many others. Right now, the company is presenting Caligula, a rerun of Albert Camus’s play that premiered in 1996 and toured Spain extensively. The play was also performed then at the Merida Classical Theatre and Rio Escena festivals in Mexico and Brazil, respectively, and now it was recently produced at a gay festival in Miami. Actors Broselianda Hernández, Fernando Echevarría and Miguel Caballeros repeat their 1996 performances while other actors make their first appearances in this play, like Alexis Díaz de Villegas, who plays the main role along with Echevarría.

While Caligula is playing at the Trianón, Drops of water on Hot Stones by Rainer Werner Fassbinder is being performed at the Adolfo Llauradó Theater as part of the German Theatre Week.  Carlos tells us that this play has given him the opportunity to revisit Fassbinder, whose The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant he had already produced in 2008.

A lover and admirer of the cinema, Carlos has had close encounters with a number of film directors, like Fernando Perez and Gerardo Chijona, who have requested his assistance in several film productions. However, he does not yearn to make movies. “I feel fine doing what I’m doing right now,” he avows and adds emphatically, “The idea of not doing theater makes me feel terribly unhappy.”

And before we say goodbye, we ask the famed director just who is Carlos. “Carlos Díaz,” he tells us confidentially, “is a very happy man who asks very little of life, only the possibility of going every day to the theater, who strives to be humble, who has been very much loved and has loved immensely, and whose major responsibility is to never stop doing theater.”

Margaret Atkins

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