14 Jun 2024

A Cuban Experience

A reflective blog by Mair George & Jade Campbell

Why Cuba?

Doorstep Arts were invited by Ana-Laura to visit the wonderful Havana, Cuba and take part in the Festival Eco Manigua – Encuentro Sobre Infancia Circular Y Arte hosted by La Manigua Creativa. Mair and Jade delivered a presentation about Doorstep Arts and how we use theatre as a tool to explore environmental sustainability with children and young people. They talked about the Protest and Rebellion Project and how, as a team, we developed the project over lockdown as it developed into the Cabbage Rebellion Project. They also introduced our role as Creative Leads on an exciting new partnership with South Devon National Landscapes and a very special project Life on The Edge.

Jade and Mair were also invited to share their practice and they led x3, 2-hour workshops that illustrate their use of theatre as a tool for dialogue and change.


Intro to Cuba from our perspective

This was our first visit to Cuba.  Neither of us had ever been to a Latin American country before and we were so excited to be the ones representing Doorstep Arts and talking about our work and practice. The first noticeable moment was stepping off the fully air conditioned aeroplane and feeling the tropical heat on our bodies. We have never been in heat like that before. It was night time so we didn’t see much on our way to the accommodation, but once inside the reality of the situation dawned on us. The heat was here to stay, but we were in luck! Our bedroom had air conditioning!

We had an abundance of fruit – the juiciest mangoes that seemed to grow everywhere, pineapple, guava, papaya and banana.  It was incredible, but we learnt that food is actually scarce. There is a deep economic crisis in the country, resulting in a lack of food, fuel and other necessary (never mind luxury) goods. The socialist government provides a very basic ration of food to all Cubans and there is free healthcare and education available to all, despite questions about the diminishing quality of all of these services. There has been a lack of forward thinking when it comes to food cultivation and production, so imported goods are selling at such a high price that most Cubans, whose income is very low and who don’t have access to foreign currencies, cannot afford it. 

Another notable point is that for 4 hours a day there is a power cut in most businesses and homes (excluding healthcare). This is to help manage the fuel crisis, which has been progressively getting worse largely due to ongoing US trade sanctions. For us, as visitors to the Island for only 8 days, this meant that we couldn’t have access to air conditioning for that period of time right in the hottest hours of the day, which was mildly uncomfortable for us.  For the people we met in Havana, this was severely disruptive to their work and lives generally, however their resilience in dealing with these challenges is impressive.

Which brings us onto our favourite thing about Cuba – the people we met were incredible. We learnt about their creative community projects, the art they create, the work they do to make Cuba a better place to live. They were so warm, generous, creative and kind. They were welcoming, loving and joyful, and we will never forget them.

As mentioned, we were invited to take part in the Eco Manigua festival which was funded by the British Council, who are doing brilliant work in Cuba to support entrepreneurship in the arts. We are exploring future collaborations with Minerva and Yailet around teacher CPD.

The recipient (our hosts) of the Cultura Circular (Circular Culture) fund that focuses on the development of sustainable festivals in the Americas, was La Manigua Creativa. The organisation is working on a capital project to build a cultural centre for children and young people in a marginalised neighbourhood in Havana. The organisation was set up by Silvia Padrón to honour the life of her father Juan Padrón, the cartoonist who created the much-loved character of Elpidio Valdes, a charming liberation soldier. 

The festival focused on an exchange of ideas, practices and connections around sustainable ways of working with children and young people through arts engagement. Through our ‘Annotated Workshop’ sessions (annotated workshops are designed to share practice, with time after each exercise to unpack, reflect and discuss the importance of them. I first heard it described as this by Sara Rhodes, Creative Director of Theatre Royal Plymouth) the participants were energetic, open minded and grateful. The entrepreneurs who participated are resolute in their aim to be part of a better Cuba, modelling their energies and passions from the grassroots up. It was a total pleasure to work with them. We learnt about community projects that they make happen against all odds. Their passion was palpable.

The workshops we led shared my (Jade’s) practice methodology – using image theatre as a tool to start dialogue around sustainability and the environment. Each exercise was used to offer a distinct outcome to support reflection, discussion and action through creativity.

I (Mair) took the role of interpreter in the workshop sessions, alongside Ana Laura. I’m half Spanish but I speak Catalan with my family so my Spanish was pretty rusty. I was able to read most of the presentation so that relaxed me into the environment. I’ve interpreted once before in a professional setting, but that was from Catalan into English, so translating into Spanish for the participants was definitely harder! It’s been a dream of mine to work in Latin America since I was a teenager and it was gratifying to be at the stage in my career where I was able to reflect on my own practice and share my experience and knowledge with such an inspiring group of people. 

I (Jade) found it really interesting working with this particular group of people. I have delivered similar workshops in different countries and spaces. What stood out most to me was how the Cuban participants, all from different professional backgrounds, were so ready to join in, get creative and move freely. They seemed ready for it, undeniably creative and joyful.  It was also interesting to observe that it took a bit longer than usual for participants to offer opposing views, even when this was the aim of the exercises and games that we played. I noticed that they weren’t used to the freedom of being able to engage or not, it seemed unsettling to them to have the choice and agency. Through my practice I always offer provocations and exercises with the option to disengage if participants are uncomfortable and I reaffirm that they must take care of themselves as participants. 


The British Ambassador to Cuba, George and his wife, Jeannette, warmly hosted a celebration event in their Havana residence for all the festival participants, and this is where something very magical happened! We saw a ‘zun zun’ (a bee hummingbird)! It hovered so delicately and was so small – we both just watched in awe before it flew off. Just. Incredible.

On Saturday, La Manigua hosted a fair which took place in a Havana school. The artists and entrepreneurs offered workshops to over 400 children who visited the school and took part in craft activities, music, song, dance and drama. Ana Laura facilitated drama games and activities and there was an incredible clown performance by a very special company: Las Payasas Terapéuticas (this company offers clowning theatre experiences to children in hospital at their bedside). The performance we saw was excellent, even when a large net full of red noses accidently fell onto the floor prematurely and ALL of the children in the audience ran up to them excitedly and started to run away with them. Ana Laura started a game of collecting them into a big suitcase.  The children helped to clean up and what could have been a destructive end to the performance turned out to be beautiful chaos.

Everyday Arts

We’re sure you can read many articles about the importance and abundance of the arts in Cuba, but we can tell you that we experienced art everywhere, everyday. Cubans are proud of their cultural heritage, visible on street corners, an important part of everyday life. We went to the launch of a photography exhibition gallery (in Yander Zamora’s converted living room), visited the Fabrica de Arte and had so many incredible experiences of Cuban arts all in one space – think contemporary art exhibition, jazz concert, hypnotic AfroCuban rhythms and dancing, old people (in their 80s), young people, tourists, locals, loads of bars but total respect for one another, no ‘boozy’ behaviour here. There is more, so much more we could tell you but in essence it was a joy to be in a country that considers participation in the arts as fundamental to everyday life, we found that hugely inspiring.


Special shout out to Akokán, El Trencito and Aprender es Divertido for inviting us into your community to see and learn more about the work you do- we were honoured to be invited. 


We also want to say that we met so many incredible and inspiring people during our time in Cuba – we haven’t named you all, but we want you all to know that you have made such a profound impact on both of us and you will stay in out hearts forever. We are so thankful and grateful to you all!