Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Bringing Theatre to Remote Communities

Dalia Acosta

CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA, Cuba, Apr 24 2006 (IPS) - In a small village surrounded by Cuba’s largest wetland, the Korimakao Community Arts Group puts on high quality performances combining theatre, dance, music, lights, sets and costumes, making the same effort they would make if they were in the most prestigious theatre in the capital.

“We want to create illusions, to make all these people who have never been able to go to the theatre, feel as though they are right there,” said Manuel Porto, an actor who arrived in this area, about 150 kilometres from Havana, to film a soap opera, decided to stay for a few months to get the group going, and ended up living here for 14 years.

The shows, which combine theatre, dance and music, are carefully rehearsed, and are taken to the most remote towns and villages in the marshes or mountainous regions of the country. Porto is not concerned about the size of the audience: “If there are only 10 people living somewhere, people who have no chance of ever setting foot in a theatre in their lifetimes, we will do for them what we are doing everywhere else,” he told IPS.

At first, when they arrived at a community prepared to spend three or four days sleeping on the floor and cooking wherever they could find an available corner, people would ask them if there was going to be a dance, and where was the truck with the rum. Now “they ask us what we have brought for the children,” said Porto, the director of the group.

Korimakao, an indigenous word that means “man who carries his house on his back”, was founded in August 1992 in the heart of the Zapata wetland, on the initiative of one of the leaders of Cuba’s 1959 socialist revolution, Faustino Pérez, now deceased.

>From the very start it had its followers and detractors. Because that was the peak of the severe economic crisis that Cuba suffered in the 1990s, the concept of spending money on artistic projects was not always understood. For a long time, the group worked out of an old school building, with barely enough resources to work with and live on. The municipality of Ciénaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp) had an estimated population of 8,821 at the end of 2004, in an area of approximately 4,520 square kilometres, making it the largest and most sparsely populated in Cuba. The terrain is mostly swampy, and the population is distributed in isolated villages.

More than half the surface area is covered in woods, which harbour some 900 species of flowers, many of them native to the region, and 190 animal species. The Zapata Swamp has been declared a biosphere reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Based in the community of Pálpite, between Cuba’s most important crocodile farm and the beach, the “Korimakaos” spend their days in the dust of construction work for their new centre, rehearsing for the next performance, taking professional development classes, and attending to visiting groups of students from other Latin American countries, who drop in at any time.

Some people have complained that the site of the new centre blocks the path that local people were using to go to discard crabshells. Others are still upset by the young people coming here from other provinces and interrupting their daily routine. But many locals see the arrival of Korimakao in their midst as an important positive change in their lives.

“I’m building the stage for the next performance. They give me helpers, they pay me for the work, and it’s a big order, the kind you hardly ever get in a small town,” Arnaldo Ortega, 68, a self-employed carpenter, told IPS.

“I didn’t know anything about culture. I only knew about television,” said Lázara Ramos, one of the group’s cooks. “Pepa”, as everybody calls her, watches her teenage daughter rehearsing on the dance floor with pride, and keeps an eye on her brother who is leading the music group.

The Centre will include an amphitheatre for 1,500 people, a library, rooms for dance, music and theatre rehearsals, an audiovisual media area, and three buildings to house the members of the group. The old primary school is only a few metres away, in the complex financed by the government at a cost of over one million dollars.

After a visit to the area by Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2001, the construction of the Korimakao centre became one of the highest priority sociocultural projects in the country. When completed, the complex will be a source of local employment, with more than 100 jobs for support workers.

“Some people come for a few months and then they go. I don’t plan to leave. Every day, I find that the people who are most grateful, are those who need you the most,” said Lenia Torres, a 26-year-old singer and keyboard player who arrived four years ago from the city of Guantánamo, 800 kilometres away from Pálpite.

Thus, what was initially thought of as a movement that would recruit local talent has begun to draw candidates from all over the country.

Torres goes to Havana for one week every month to take an intermediate-level singing course, and like her, almost every member of the group is engaged in professional development. At the centre itself there are classes for those who have not completed their twelve years of primary and secondary education, and each month, a week is given over to studying theatre, dance, music and singing.

“What we’re looking for is ability, not whether they have a diploma. We can give them that ourselves. Young people with behavioural problems have come here, as well as former prostitutes, male and female, and if they have an aptitude for the arts, we welcome them,” said Porto. These cases are kept strictly confidential, he emphasised.

“We hope that in a few years’ time we’ll have our own teachers, and not have to bring them in from outside,” said the actor, who also hopes to promote community arts exchanges with Latin American colleagues.

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