Paul Gateshill catches up with Sarah Finch on her return from teaching Shakespeare in Cuba.
You have been involved in the Shakespeare in Cuba project since 2010. How did that start?
Sarah: In 2009 I had been working with Gen Rosso, directing their ‘Streetlight’ tour. They were invited to Cuba and met Corina Maestre who is a wonderful actress, arts educator and part of the Communist Government. They told her that I had worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the Globe Theatre so she invited me to come to Cuba in 2010 and run some workshops at the drama school. At the end of these workshops it was announced that I was in charge of their Shakespeare course!
I had no idea how this might work, but since then, I visit every two years and work with two different year-groups of students.
During my visits, I work with the students on a Shakespeare play and teach them about Shakespeare. I have just returned from my 5th visit. Over the years the project has grown and when I arrive there is always an enormous expectation and excitement. It has made me realise just how steeped I have become in Shakespeare over my career. I arrive there in a very privileged position as there is such a thirst for learning and the students are a wonderfully open and uncynical people. I always find it an enormously enriching experience.
Which play did you focus on this year?
Sarah: I was asked to direct a Midsummer’s Night Dream. With the help of an ex-student from Cuba I chose a new translation written in ‘old Spanish’. I said to the students: ‘The play is set in Athens, do we want to have it there or would we like to find a local setting?’ So we set it in Havana, which is of course what they know. Instantly because Shakespeare’s work is so universal, placing it in their homeland gave it the dynamism of their own culture, together with Cuban music. It was the most wonderful and enriching cultural exchange. I brought my rich knowledge of Shakespeare and they brought the extraordinary vibrancy of their culture. The marriage of these two things brought about a whole new production. We had nine days to prepare and rehearse and on the 10th day we showed it to the younger students and their teachers, together with teachers from other drama schools and invited guests.
I was amazed at the freshness of the production. As they began to perform it – because the younger students were new to Shakespeare, and because my students were telling the story so well – the atmosphere was electric! There is a fabulous moment in the play where the ‘love juice’ makes people fall in love with the wrong people and hilarious situations arise. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the story but the students had never come across it before. They really started laughing and suddenly I discovered the play anew. I felt I was watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time and rediscovering the story. The way the students filled it with Cuban culture and the way they led the narrative, made it so clear for the younger students. The story was so physical the students loved it. I was overwhelmed by how happy they were. It was deeply moving.
Where next with this project?
Sarah: The initial desire was to help set up a Shakespeare Centre in Cuba, but this has not emerged to date. At the end of this visit I spent time meeting influential people in education as there is a real desire for me to return in 2020 and work with students for six weeks leading up to their Shakespeare exam. This would open up more opportunities to think in terms of a Shakespeare Centre as well as building up Shakespeare resources at the drama school. If I were back for a longer period, there would be time to take this forward. In 2016, during the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, I was accompanied by other actors. They are keen to join me again in 2020 which should add impetus to the project.
What has been your experience of Cuba?
Sarah: I have had the privilege of living as a Cuban and not as a tourist. Everything is accessible for tourists whereas the average Cuban’s wage is around $10 a month, so what is open to them in terms of food, clothing or internet is so much less than for the tourists. I think because tourists can live so well and see Old Havana and the beauty of the places where the nice hotels have been built – they don’t see the real Cuba. The first few visits I lived in the Artists Centre for travelling artists and so I also experienced what it’s like to go without the things we take for granted in Britain. I would never want to live there other than as a Cuban with the Cubans. I want to meet them on the same level and feel that we collaborate as artists and as equals.
How is the Focolare regarded in Cuba?
Sarah: The Focolare is very much appreciated by Corina Maestre. She describes the Focolare as ‘making the world one family’. When she told my translator the story of the Focolare she talked about its vision of a united world and how this could be realised through Art. It was wonderful to hear the Communist version of a story that we know so well. She is a great advocate. As I go there under the invitation of the government, I cannot help but share my understanding of how to build unity, through the arts. For example: I always share something I live. I shared how I had discovered: ‘in the theatre every obstacle is a springboard’. So when a student lost her contact lens during an exam, she remembered it and went beyond this misfortune. Every obstacle is a springboard! Also in theatre we have to be able to build relationships by emptying ourselves in order to live the character we are playing. We also have to speak out or receive what the other is saying to us, because acting is about communication. It’s about communion and not competition, it’s about collaboration. My experience is that an audience is moved when it witnesses this total collaboration between cast and crew.