Webster Conservatory Students Perform “Big Love” in Cuba

Students from Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts reunited with the University’s 2015 Global Leaders in Residence Flora Lauten and Raquel Carrio in Havana, Cuba, when their production of “Big Love” traveled to the Havana Theatre Festival in October. The annual festival brings together professional theatre companies from around the world for nine days of performances, panels and workshops. This year, a show by Lauten and Carrio’s theatre company Teatro Buendia kicked off the festival. Webster’s “Big Love” ran for three performances.

Those making the trip to Cuba included two faculty members, three student crew members, and 15 student actors – three of whom graduated from Webster since the show’s first run in St. Louis. The group spent a week in Havana, and had to navigate some of the trickier aspects of mounting a production overseas – including gathering the set and prop pieces that can’t be shipped to Cuba – before taking the stage at Teatro Las Carolinas in Old Havana. “Big Love” ran alongside shows mounted by professional theatre companies from Russia, Spain, Brazil and elsewhere around the globe.

“This was a great opportunity for our students to intersect with fellow artists from around the world, to show their wonderful work to an international audience, and to experience what it’s like to make theatre under much less-comfortable conditions than we are used to in the U.S.,” said Associate Professor of Theatre Arts and “Big Love” Director Jef Awada.

When they weren’t on stage, the cast and crew of “Big Love” took full advantage of the rest of the theatre festival’s offerings.

“There were other performances in the festival for us to see and workshops and panels to attend with theatre makers from around the world,” Awada said. “Students saw performances and encountered ways of thinking about theatre that forced them to consider new possibilities and paths for their careers.”

One of the performances on the docket was Teatro Buendia’s festival opener “Charenton,” directed by Lauten and written by Carrio, which adapts Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade (set during the French Revolution) to address political revolution in Cuba. Teatro Buendia is known for its productions that dive headfirst into Cuba’s history of political turmoil. Awada cites Teatro Buendia as “an amazing inspirational model… for finding the need to make art, to engage an audience, and to promote discussion under very trying circumstances. Sometimes for us, in the States, theatre seems like just a game of aesthetics. For companies like Buendia, it is about the need to communicate, create, and what they create has a social value that isn’t part of our theatre world here.”

Like many of the plays written and produced by Teatro Buendia, “Big Love” is based on a classic Greek drama; its themes of love, power, violence, and gender dynamics echo themes that often show up in Lauten and Carrio’s work. As Global Leaders in Residence at Webster, Lauten and Carrio helped lead a discussion on these themes with the “Big Love” audience after the February 27 performance at Webster, and they fell in love with the production.

“They saw in our work a spirit and a level of professionalism that they compared to the best theatre that they have seen around the world,” Awada said.

It’s no surprise, then, that upon their return to Cuba, Lauten and Carrio helped facilitate Webster’s invitation to participate in Havana’s biggest annual celebration of the theatre arts.

“It was great for our students to see how theatre can be part of the cultural and civic conversation,” Awada said. “Obviously, that Cuba is opening up to Americans, or the other way around – it is fantastic to be part of that conversation. We have an email from our contact in the Ministry of Culture in Havana that said they see us as excellent cultural ambassadors. We all feel lucky to be on the leading edge of this change.”