Sunday 20 January 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In February 1992 I found myself waiting outside a room in the students’ club that belonged to the then Pablo Lafargue Faculty of Foreign Languages, or ISPLE, as it was known to us. Inside the room were two women, one originally from Boston and the other one from London. The Bostonian was a theatre instructor whilst her sidekick, the Londoner, had plenty of stage experience. I wasn’t alone. There were about a dozen other people with me, too. Some of them were students and one was a teacher. We were all about to audition to become members of the first improvisational theatre workshop in our uni.

My short career as an amateur actor was about to be born.

Not even in a million years could I ever have imagined that my encounter with the petite, blond “American” (as people used to call one of our instructors, despite the fact that by then there were about three or four more Americans teaching postgraduate courses at the institute) was to change my life forever. The main reason why I auditioned was to improve my English, since the workshops, the rehearsals and the performances would be in that language. I had done a lot of drama and public poetry-reading when little but it’d been a few good years since I’d been in front of an audience. Plus, I was twenty years old at the time so self-consciousness was part of my burgeoning young adult persona.

Yet what happened during my audition and my later membership of the impro group had profound repercussions. To the point where a couple of years after and freshly graduated from university, I tried to become a professional actor. Along the way I got involved with another amateur theatre company, did Scene 1 of the First Act of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (I still remember the “Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours/Let's not confound the time with conference harsh/There's not a minute of our lives should stretch/Without some pleasure now/What sport tonight?” It took me ever so long to learn my lines and “live” them! ) and was a member of the Tomas Piard’s experimental video troupe for about a year (think Passolini minus excrement, violence and sex). When I look back on those years, I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons why I blog so confidently now is because of the self-esteem and trust in myself I built up during that time.

Amateur dramatics used to be (I don’t know now) quite popular in Cuba. I know at least half a dozen actors and actresses who came from the non-professional world and they were terrific on stage as salaried performers every time I saw them after. In fact, one of my closest childhood friends began his artistic career in an amateur troupe for teenagers and youngsters.

My reminiscence about my years as an amateur actor was prompted by a recent six-week-long series on Sky Arts that was shown at the end of 2012. Sadly, I was only able to catch snippets of each episode without seeing an entire programme. My aversion to so-called “reality shows” was partly to blame for this.  However, from what I was able to see, Nation’s Best Am Dram was serious business. The three judges, Miriam Margoyles (who, amongst other roles, has excelled as Dickens’ Miss Havisham), Quentin Letts (insufferable, never liked him) and Bill Kenwright (producer and chairman of Everton Football Club) were fair and objective. The biggest winner was amateur dramatics itself.

When people think of non-professional actors and actresses, the first idea that usually comes into their heads is that of unskilled and old wannabe thespians, dusty old rooms that double up as rehearsal spaces and lack of craft amongst the cast. Nothing could be further from the truth. In most amateur ensembles, it’s common to find members with plenty of abilities and the knack of multi-tasking. From making their own costumes to creating their own props, am-dram is all about dedication, motivation and commitment. In fact, I would go as far as to say that those three terms are the raison d’être for most non-professional actors and actresses. Plus, there’s very little of the “luvvie” culture that permeates Theatreland. I forgot to mention at the beginning that prior to my audition for the improvisation theatre workshop I’d seen a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the same students’ club in which one of my teachers was involved. She was absolutely fantastic. The play, directed by the blond “American”, became another reason for me try my hand at drama.

There’s a danger, though, of taking one’s non-professional activity too seriously. As I wrote before, I auditioned once to become a fully paid actor. I’m sorry to say that my endeavour didn’t meet success. I was rubbish. In vain I tried to blame the friend who was meant to help me out on the day with the props and the music but never turned up. The monologue I’d prepared – Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart – didn’t come up to scratch. For a few weeks after I kept wondering if I had perhaps overplayed my triumphs as an amateur. The acting bug never died, though. It’s still alive. In the last fifteen or sixteen years it’s come out mainly in my other career as an Afro-Cuban dancer and story-teller.

Very often we equate quality in art with professionals, be they painters, photographers or dancers. And yet, there remains in most human beings the extraordinary capacity of pledging our time and resources to an art form without remuneration of any kind. Just for art’s sake. It goes with writers (hello, bloggers, that’s us!), singers, of course, actors and actresses and other non-salaried artists. There might not be any monetary transaction involved but we do get a great payback: the public’s honest appreciation and sincere applause as the curtain comes down.

© 2012

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 23rd January at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Dear cuban, I love Sunday morning posts!!
    are always interesting and make me think, nice post!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Dear friend,
    Just yesterday night I was chatting with Darwin, one the student teachers and graduated teachers at ISPLE who told me the Uni won a province theater contest due to his performance back 1997. So it's a coincidence that I read now about you being in theater gruope two. Those were very inspiring days for all of us and they're many of us you who enjoy any artistic trend.
    Well I have to say that I like you blog and I enjoy reading you, I've got a present for you in my blog. It's a lovely blog awardyou can check it in my post today :)

  4. we do get an amazing kickback out of performing be it acting art or poetry...there is something i find almost more pure in the non-paid artist...those that do it more for the love of the game you know....

  5. i agree...we do get a great payback..a friend of mine plays theatre just for fun and unpaid and she's excellent...i think sometimes people lose a bit of that first love and enthusiasm when they do it professionally and money becomes the main trigger

  6. "Very often we equate quality in art with professionals..." You remind me of something I was thinking this week, about how actually we also equate art with performers and audiences, the former active, the latter passive. In fact, we can also (and often do) perform for our own pleasure and the pleasure of those we perform with. (Madrigals were often printed on single sheets, parts orientated to face "North/South/East/West" so one could place the sheet on the table and stand round the table to sing it).

  7. Sounds lie quite the experience indded. So true too, we get to write freely or whatever other creative endeavor we like, but still some dough would be nice haha

  8. A fascinating glimpse into your life.

    I used to do amateur theatrics at uni too! Great fun.

    Just an aside - is there any way you could switch off word verification? It can take up to three attempts to leave a message sometimes...


  9. We grow with each thing that we do, each experience we involve ourselves in.

  10. Wonderful food for thought here.

    Dominic, I agree with you, sometimes we see the audience as a totally passive part of the performance experience.

    Pat, I did get a few bob when I was at the dance company, despite the fact that I was still considered "amateur". ;-)

    Ladyfi, I'm really sorry about your predicament. Word verification is a powerful deterrent against spam. And a couple of years ago I started getting spam quite regularly. One way of going about it is by clicking on the circular arrow until you come up with a combination of word and number you can figure out.

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  11. It sounds like you have had some great experiences due to your interest in acting. We love our local theater and there are some very talented people who participate. It takes so much dedication to work at the craft.

  12. We have an amateur theatrical group in my small town - they are wonderful! Getting paid for your art is great, but I believe true passion gets its reward from the expression of it, as you said. (And I second Lady Fi's request - Blogger has gotten great at catching most spam before it goes through! Just having people sign in does the trick for me on my Blogger and Typepad blogs.)

  13. It sounds as if you had some great experiences with this. This is a very nicely written post.

  14. I think many people spend part of their day acting. To get what they want, or what they think they want, or need. To hide certain screams from deep share other things without sharing too much.

    I could go on, but I won't :0.

  15. What a facinating acting myself, although it never went past high school :) Shakspeare here! I was more a comedy gal!! I always appreciate a play or musical, and try to instill that appreciation for the arts in my children (as they love that quality in me ~ lol!!)
    Once, quite some time ago I got to meet the cast of "Are You Being Served" in jolly old England though...what memories! A friend and I won a trip for a week and spent quite a bit of time on and off the set with them.....
    oh what fun those actors have :)
    Enjoy your week!!

  16. I honestly think that when a performer is unpaid his or her work is more likely to come from the heart...and is therefore in it's pure and unadulterated state.
    And that makes it truly great.

    Many thanks for this piece, Cuban.
    As always, it really made me think!

  17. Whatever you did in your early 20s it sure has worked because your English is flawless.

  18. What a delightful first visit here, to your blog. I do so appreciate a storyteller and details that take me inside the experience--which is why I lapped up this post.

    More than anything, I appreciate that you articulate the value of your time as an actor...and that part of the value came from it "not working out." Great lessons there.

  19. Auditioning for an improv troupe is a bold and innovative way to improve your language. I’m impressed. I hadn’t realized that you once had theatrical ambitions professionally. What an interesting parallel between acting and blogging. You have an appreciative audience here. Bravo!

  20. Many thnaks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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