Vivian Martínez Tabares: Nelda, tell us how and when El Ciervo Encantado was founded.
Nelda Castillo: It was founded in 1996 with my students’ graduation that year. We performed a Botero Echavarría play called El ciervo encantado. It is a play about memory in Cuba, the memory of the War of Independence—an analogy of the War of Independence, really. And I chose that story for my students’ graduation. El Ciervo Encantado symbolized freedom, the need to hunt a deer that did not want to be hunted—a very difficult deer to hunt, a symbol of liberty and also, for us, of identity. So the group was founded in 1996 with that eponymous tale. It was the first story printed in Cuba in 1905, and we took it as a premise, as the basis of the group’s meaning, and as a concept for the group: the hunt for identity. We started out with that particular hunt.
VMT: And, in the course of these 17 years, how has El Ciervo hunted identity?
VMT: How has El Ciervo hunted identity through 18 years?
NC: Given my formation as an artist, I started to discover that on a fundamental level, identity or the memory of the nation could be present in the body. I started to discover, or rather, to investigate a very specific psychophysical training aimed at revealing the expression of that identity embedded in the actor’s body. It is memory. I think that it is not really a historical type of research because, as Botero says, history is narrated by the victors. Memory is a different thing altogether. It is embedded in the body of the actor. It is from the body that it is expressed. Memory is somehow sown there. It is not just the immediate memory of the actor that is embedded in his body, but also the memory of all his ancestors.
VMT: What procedures do you use so the actor can externalize and work with material that is generally hidden or inscribed very deeply in his body, in his memory?
NC: The problem is that it is not only a psychophysical training but something more deeply related to needs and interests: the need to awaken these things pedagogically through teaching. The actors have to be really interested in the themes of Cuba and the nation. not as exhibitionism of the actor’s expression, but as a commitment of the actor with his country. That is also the foundation, because if he does not have an interest in expressing the real problems of the country, if they don’t hurt him or interest him, he will never get anywhere, no matter how much I may train him physically. It is also the process of teaching that actor, to sensitize him, given his youth or his immaturity regarding a subject. It all starts from a need, not from the actor’s exhibitionism or, how do you say, his abilities. It is not about displaying his abilities. It is about feeling a need and a commitment. From that starting point we can proceed to a training that is all about energy and a process with that energy, to remove all the residues in order to liberate his being. To liberate that being that is inscribed deep inside him but cannot be expressed through personality. It is expressed through essences. All artists should express themselves with their essences, not with their personality. It is a training, then, where all this scum is gradually cleared, and the actor is free to express that being, to allow that being to emerge.
VMT: What are your sources of inspiration? By what means, with what influences and inspirations did you develop this way of seeing theater?
NC: Well, if you only knew… I have been asked about the people who influenced me. It may be… but it is not about that…
VMT: Or, to put it differently, who are your teachers? Your references in the history of Cuban and universal theater whom you lean on to give shape to this methodology, or those very personal principles that you defend through El Ciervo?
NC: I started to learn about the theater when I was 20-something, because in Cardenas there was no theater or anyone performing it. I started out singing. As a child, my early influences were TV cartoons. That’s a real starting point, because I can’t begin with the moment when I started to study theater proper, whether it is Grotowski or whether it is Antonin Artaud. My sensibility was forged, I imagine, much earlier. I began to know all of classical music, for example, through cartoons. I was very moved by classical music, but from watching Walt Disney movies. I watched a lot of movies; when I was a child I was addicted to films, addicted to cinema. All of that seemed to me a sensible basis of expression, and then, when I started to go to the theater, I became more interested in working with the body. And I started to read Grotowski, and it was there that I found the path best suited to me. It was also through my training as an actor, which I undertook in a very personal way, a very personal training path. And the first thing was Grotowski and Antonin Artaud, with their search for essences and not for the real, not for realism. I started to distance myself from realistic expression per se. I am not interested in realism because there is an artifice. I require a much more metaphoric artifice to express myself because it is very difficult to imitate reality. It is not so much that it is difficult as that it does not interest me—it is like a distancing necessary to get closer to reality. In that sense, I also did much research on Barba. What Barba has done is to examine the essential golden rules of truly investigative theater. My teacher Flora was also my first mentor. It was studying with her when I said to myself: “theater is freedom.” I began with other teachers who said that I was an intellectual and not an actor, because apparently actors cannot be intellectual. Then, when I began [to study] with Flora I realized that I had an enormous freedom to express myself in the way that I needed. So I said, “theater is freedom.” Flora taught me this, and I started working it through with her. And Flora, of course, was closely related to Grotowski. My singing teacher, also, had a very deep artistic soul. I lived with her for many years—because I had nowhere else to live.
VMT: Who was she?
NC: Margarita Urdinier. She was one of the best teachers—the best singing teacher in Cuba—and…she was imparting wisdom from the moment she woke up in the morning. She was constantly teaching me things—all the time, all the time–teachings on the artistic spirit, which I think is very important.
VMT: El Ciervo Encantado is participating for the first time in a Hemispheric Institute event. It has brought Rapsodia para el mulo, which is quite representative, I think, because El Ciervo, through an 18-year trajectory, usually does not work with theatrical texts, but rather examines essays, narrative, and poetry and, on the basis of them, constructs its own theatricality. It is interesting because that is very coherent with what you last said about distancing yourself from theater or distancing yourself from reality to immerse yourself in something more essential. I think you are also distancing yourself from theater in order to return to theater. But in this case you are here with Lezama Lima [the author of the original Rapsodia para el mulo poem]. Why Lezama Lima? I would also like for Mariela to respond.
Mariela Brito: Lezama’s text was one of the sources for this piece. It served as a spiritual foundation on the level of text. And speaking now on the level of action, I worked on the street investigating the characters that have lived on the street, which have proliferated in the last couple of years.
VMT: I think it would be good, Mariela, if you could refer to the origins of [your] character.
MB: The character emerges out of the investigation that went into Variedades Galiano, which was the previous show. An earlier show because, before Mulo, we put on Cubalandia, which was somewhat of an in-between piece, with several different lines of research. I studied Lezama in that context and within that structure. I already had been working with Lezama since Visiones de la cubanosofía, which has a precursor of almost the same character.
NC: Yes, the jabas [street beggar] character.
MB: …who is also carrying a weight. And I had also been waiting for another show through which I could delve deeper into Lezama, a true continent for research replete with possibilities, given the weight of his work, of his poetry. In the case of Rapsodia… it was also a text that fit perfectly with the subject I wanted to work on, which was the topic of homeless men, but not the everyday drunk homeless man who collects scrap metal. No, it was something with more artistic substance, a kind of textual structure, even though it might be unspoken. But I did work on the text on a physical level. It was the perfect duality of the investigation, a discovery. And starting with this theme that interested me and with the research we did on the streets, [it was good] to find a textual component that would serve as preliminary research for Rapsodia para el mulo. And the mulo [mule]—even today, the people who collect scraps on the streets are referred to as mulo.
VMT: Tell us something else. I know that as an actress you have worked with some elements, such as breathing, for example. How did you incorporate Lezama Lima into these practices? How did you articulate Lezama Lima’s poetry with those actions we saw on stage?
MB: It is rather difficult to explain with words, because one works with the text on stage, or even in one’s own silence. There is a whole practice with breath, with the text recited by Lezama. It is not the text that is in the book: it is the text in the extant recording, which is recited with a particular breathing rhythm, with a shortness of breath.
VMT: With the shortness of breath of an asthmatic.
MB: Exactly. That very limitation, which seems like a limitation, gives Lezama a reading style, and a style to interpret his own poetry. That also was useful to me on a physical level. Although I don’t know how to explain it well, how to translate that rhythm, that manner, that tone…
NC: That difficulty.
MB: That difficulty expresses itself on a corporal level: not to to do something verbally, but on the level of the body. It is like placing those sounds on your body. That is what I practice on a physical level. On a physical level I am not thinking of the poem. I am not repeating it inside. I am feeling the poem on a physical level. Am I making any sense?
VMT: Yes, of course! I think it is very useful to hear this from you.
NC: It also coincides with the tempo of resistance. As a street character used to say, in Cuba what matters is not rapidity but resistance. That, then, is also embedded.
VMT: We are in an event of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. It is not very common in Cuba for theater people to use the term performance. It is seen as something pertaining to the visual arts. There are no systematic practices except, I believe, some younger artists’ isolated attempts, and the work that you have been doing, in which I do see—and I wrote about this some time ago—some kind of articulation, and an interest in erasing the borders and escaping the so-called rules of traditional theater by breaking the fourth wall. But not just breaking that wall, but doing so from a perspective that plays with representation: a presentation that enters and exists and shares. What is your outlook on this, and why did you assume that perspective?
MB: I think that there are important, essential performative themes that are present in all of El Ciervo’s oeuvre. Even from the standpoint of the theatrical spectacle, there is a convention that people go to the theater to watch a theatrical show. Already in this theatrical show—even in Nelda’s work before El Ciervo, in Las ruinas circulares—there is a performative component that is essential. It is what defines that work’s particularity, which has to do not with representation, but with presentation, in the interest of presenting and not representing the distinctive conception of the character, which is like the center of every experience. The actor is the center, but it is not the actor who represents; it is the actor who is. It is, then, a different conception of acting, which consists in how to be and not how to represent. Those elements that are essential within a completely theatrical poetics, within a theatrical field, have certain important, performative elements that are essential. This is also the case with the energy that involves the audience. It is not quite that the audience participates, as was the case in Cubalandia, where the spectator constitutes the spectacle. Rather, even though the spectator does not intervene, he forms a part; he enters into another level of the piece’s energy. People pass from Un elefante [ocupa mucho espacio] to Las ruinas—they enter the theater in a way, and then they exit it because they are involved in the event. That is, the spectator is not a spectator; he is part of the ritual. That concept of the event that is happening, that is not something that only appears to be happening or something that happened in the past in such-and-such an era, but something that is happening as a real event—this is what links it directly with performance. As time has gone by, our work has been drifting more towards the performative, because it has become more concerned with the political, with the here-and-now, with the urgency of the moment. It is as if memory had been flowing more towards an immediate impact in a critical context in which there is a need to express an opinion urgently. That has been moving our work forward. And regarding the issue of the line [between the arts], we have been participating in that discussion since the beginning, because we were even in ISA [Instituto Superior de Arte] in the fine arts department and not in the department of theater. The link was more direct with visual artists. We had many debates with them. With the actors, on the other hand, we did not have such debates, because we were all walking on the same line. They say, and it is very true, that in Cuba there is the theater zone, and there is the visual arts zone, which is the field in which we have always moved. The thing is that, in our last pieces, since Variedades Galiano, that drift towards the performative has become more radical.
NC: Even interventions in contexts like…
MB: Which is not theatrical. Our performances, which are a parallel line of work, are already at the level of public interventions, what is known in performative terms as a happening. They have been works that we develop in parallel. There is a point at which both lines of work have tended to converge, and that is where I locate Cubalandia and Rapsodia. Now, in fact, we are invited to the coming [Havana] Biennial as fine artists.
VMT: Not as performing artists?
MB: As visual artists! That means that we are included in the catalogue of the Biennial as visual artists. That is a tremendous step forward.
VMT: As performance artists, because the Biennial, too, as any other process in its context, slowly undergoes a transformation. The Biennial, too, is broadening its outlook and is not just looking at the normative fine arts in Cuba. We must recognize that they were the first to make the leap…
MB: Yes, we have always been in the Biennial as guests because we have some relation to the world of visual arts. But now we are there as invited artists. On top of that, they want us to do something outside the theater. That is very good.
VMT: Lastly, I would like it, for the sake of [the Hemispheric Institute’s] archives, if you could share what happened here? How did you feel with this diverse audience, this mixture of circumstances, now in Montreal, among artists, performers, and academics?
NC: I personally love the city. I really love it. It is a mix: a European atmosphere that is at the same time American. That mix gives the city an amazing life. There is something in particular that moves me, and it is these particles of cotton that fly around, and it looks as if it were snowing in the summer. This city is a very beautiful thing. Right now they are putting together the jazz thing, the jazz festival. It is all an artistic, human communication. People here are undergoing an explosion of life during the summer that is wonderful. The Hemispheric [Institute] has been amazing because we have seen the level of communication between the artists. We don’t usually see that in theater festivals; it happens less and less. You go, work, cannot see anyone, no time to meet people or communicate, and the next day you have to go back. That is frustrating, and here the case is exactly the opposite.
VMT: There are different conceptions, and there are also festivals like the São Paulo show or others that have a different concept of…
MB: But there are few these days.
VMT: Yes, yes.
NC: Less and less. It is: go, work, and that’s it.
MB: One goes in and another goes out.
VMT: What I want you to tell me now that we are closing the interview is: what happened yesterday? How did you feel, Mariela, in that exchange of energy with the audience? How did you, Nelda, perceive the public’s reception?
MB: I was impressed, because at first I was thinking that this is a spectacle that is, in principle, difficult to watch.
MB: I think it is difficult to watch, but the spectators that see El mulo say that it isn’t, that it isn’t difficult in any way. They are constantly awaiting something that will not happen: exactly what we were aiming to communicate. In that wait, they are constantly in the moment, and that is how the objective of the spectacle is fulfilled. There is no instant in which people can think of something else, consider leaving, because they are expecting that now something will definitely happen. It is a very intelligent audience. It is a luxury to have an audience of specialists, artists, and academics. It is something that only happens in an event like this one, because in other festivals the audience is more heterogeneous. But this was a specialist audience, a public of specialists. It was not that type of specialist audience that is expecting to be shocked. It is a very sensitive audience, which furthermore reacted in a way that we have not even seen in Cuba. They understood, at the level of the image, at the level of sensation. They decoded the keys of the show, which are very intimate for us. They grasped them very quickly. Then they told us: “in such-and-such a moment, that happened—incredible!” And we were thinking to ourselves: “hmm, they noticed it.” It was a very trained audience.
VMT: And you Nelda, you were on the other side.
NC: I was surprised by the laughing. Very interesting. In very special moments. They were reacting all the time. There was no distance or the lifelessness that often occurs when the audience expects something will happen and doesn’t react. It was an audience that reacted to everything. The audience was not so numerous, but those who attended really reacted well. They knew, understood, and perceived what was happening in every instant. Everything surprised them. That is important, that the audience knows how to be surprised.