Carlos Díaz has made a career out of giving people – theatregoers, in particular – what they least expect. His first production with Teatro El Público, the company he founded in 1992, was billed as a “North American Theatre Trilogy,” fairly atypical fare for Havana, featuring “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, and Robert Anderson’s “Tea and Sympathy”. Operating out of the Trianón Theatre on Calle Línea, Teatro El Público has gone on to become a Havana institution, premiering more than 40 plays over the past 15 years.
“I think El Público was a necessity,” Díaz, 52, explains. “Cuban theatre needed some fresh air. This troupe – El Público is first and foremost a theatre troupe – is a product of the 1990s, but I think we’ve become a necessity for the Cuban public and we’re very happy about that.”
Díaz studied dramaturgy and theatre at Havana’s Superior Institute of Art (ISA), became a theatre and art critic, then started directing: “It occurred to me that there are a lot of critics but fewer directors. I always felt better about making theatre than criticising it.”
The Cuban writer Senel Paz allowed Díaz to develop his short story “The Wolf, The Forest and the New Man” into a play called “Strawberry and Chocolate”. The play at El Público starred Vladimir Cruz, who gained international fame in the 1994 film version of “Strawberry and Chocolate.” Díaz zeroed in on the sensuality and expressiveness – the Cuban-ness – of the story and expertly adapted it for the theatre.
Díaz is drawn to plays with a connection to Cuba even when they aren’t written by Cubans. He first staged “The Respectable Prostitute” at another theatre, the Ensayo, in 1985 and brought it to El Público 2007. The play was written by Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most visible and enthusiastic early supporters of the Cuban revolution. In Díaz’s mise en scène, members of the audience are served Cuban rum and, as the play ends, they’re invited to join the actors on stage for another Cuban moment – a conga line.
“I believe that Cubans have a very particular way of speaking and moving,” he says. “How do Cubans move? What kind of symbols and colours do they use? What does it mean to be Cuban?”
Audiences have responded well to this line of theatrical investigating. El Público troupe has been to Ecuador (1994), Spain (1997), Colombia (1998) and Venezuela (2000). They’ve also made frequent trips around Cuba (Santa Clara, Pinar del Rio, Santiago de Cuba), but, as Díaz points out, home is in Havana, where El Público can always expect a packed house. (At this writing, though, “home” for El Público has shifted from the Trianon, which is being renovated, to the considerably smaller Adolfo Llauradó Theatre on Calle 11.)
El Público has never shied from controversial or complex works. “The Audience” by Federico García Lorca proved to be both. The Spanish poet began working on “The Audience” when he was in Cuba in 1929, and he was well aware of the play’s inherent difficulty in technique as well as subject matter. Like “Strawberry and Chocolate”, Lorca’s play considers homosexual love, and caused a scandal when it opened in Havana at El Público in 1994. Díaz responded by bringing the play back for a repeat performance two years later, then once again in 1998.
“In the 1990s El Público was labelled an upstart, and became known for its unconventional approach,” Díaz admits. “We weren’t able to shake that perception, but neither are we unhappy with it. We’ve never done anything other than work hard and try to challenge certain taboos that until only recently were in place in the theatre.”
Díaz says El Público is “open to any kind of theatre trends and to any challenge”. So what might be a good challenge for the future? “Comedy,” he says with a slight smile. “I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to be a serious person. I think comedy is very important, but it’s also very difficult to do. Making people cry is easy. Making them laugh is a lot harder.”