POLITICS are integrated into our general view of the world,'' says Roberto Blanco, one of Cuba's great theater directors. ``Every human being is a political person. Even he that says `I have nothing to do with politics' is taking part by excluding himself from the process.''
Blanco's well-spoken insights -- shared when he was in Montreal recently with his troupe -- offer a revealing inside view of the artist's place in today's Cuba and the way he and his compaeros have changed since the revolution of 1967.
``For one thing,'' Mr. Blanco pointed out as we chatted in his hotel room, ``the revolution encouraged everyone to delve deeply into the Cuban character.''
Take, for instance, the young theater movement he sees developing.
``It has a lot to do with cultural identification,'' he says. ``This identification process is not yet completed, in my opinion. It has begun very strongly with the Cuban revolution, but up to then there had never been a society which gave this process a basis upon which to stand. In my country there was a tremendous influence of the American way of doing dramatic arts.''
But Blanco also acknowledges what he calls his ``political compromise with the Cuban revolution.'' This means, he says, that ``as an artist I must also be a political man. We don't do a theater against political structures or a theater which discusses matters.''
Yet he's also very quick to point out that ``outsiders don't understand that there are different levels of our lives in which the whole Cuban people is in the same struggle to succeed with our revolution. This revolution is what actually sustains this possibility of art. There are moments when you do political theater, but the aim of political theater is the same as any other kind of theater. If you don't do good art, then you're not doing good politics.''
But what about censorship? Is Blanco the final word, or must everything he does be approved by the authorities?
``Officially, I am supposed to inform the Ministry [of Culture] of my yearly program -- plays I'm going to put on,'' Blanco concedes, ``and I send them a copy of the script. But nobody has ever, as far as I'm concerned, questioned my right to say, `I do this or do that.' If a dispute sprang up, there would be a tremendous discussion, and unless I believed in what this other compaero tells me, I wouldn't do it.''
Although pausing occasionally to search for words, he spoke a beautifully enunciated English (the product, I later learned, of training at a Scottish school in Cuba).
I got my first look at Blanco as his troupe, Cuba's Teatro Irrumpe, rehearsed in a theater here during this city's Festival de Th'e^ater des Am'eriques. Blanco sat in mid-orchestra, elbows planted on a large board laid across the empty seats in front of him. A bespectacled man with a range of intelligent expressions playing across his light-tan face, he intermittently leaned toward a mike and interrupted the action to make a change.
A heady sound was emerging from the stage. It had grabbed me the minute I stepped through the theater's front door -- a blend of deep chants, rhythmic steps, and Blanco's own booming voice.
``My people, Cubans, are very much dancers,'' he explained later.
``There is a sense of rhythm in my country which is incredibly impressive. This, I believe, must find its image in art.''
This image, if Blanco has his way, will be but one part of Cuba's national self-searching.
``I would like to achieve a popular national theater with the highest quality that would satisfy a lot of people,'' he explains.
``To me, theater is like a feast of imagination, feelings, emotions, laughter, tears. If I could achieve that, I have achieved my goal and contributed a bit to the development of a national theater in my country. I'm speaking of an artistic image which should be specifically ours.''
So at the moment Cuba does not yet have a true national theater?
``It exists, but it is not yet fulfilled. It is in the process of getting to be a reality. I believe that the theater of Latin America has a lot to give to national artistic possibilities, and they have not been found yet. They have not been identified.''
Blanco has been working with Teatro Irrumpe since the company was created for him by the Cuban Ministry of Culture in 1983. His 30-year career started when he was a teen-ager, and since then has brought him an impressive list of theater prizes, inside and outside Cuba, covering not only stage direction but other disciplines such as set design.
``When I was very little, I decided I wanted to do that which I saw on stage, because I liked it,'' he recounts. ``I decided to become an actor, and I started doing theater when I was 14. I had to lie [about my age] in order to go into the university theater in Havana.''
His father -- a lawyer whose own parents came to Cuba from Spain -- ``was dismayed,'' Blanco recalls. ``He lamented the fact that I liked to do that, but he didn't do anything against it.''
Since then, Blanco has been a prizewinning film actor. His career has taken him to West Germany's renowned Berliner Ensemble stage company and to a theater group in Ghana.
In fact, his interest in the African roots of Cuba's art was vividly evident in the play he was staging while in Montreal, ```Mar'ia Antonia,'' with its richly costumed gods of Cuba's African ``Yoruba'' tradition.
At present in Cuba, Blanco explains, ``there are many types of theater, but practically all professional groups now are repertory. We are working on the European model. In Havana there are about nine dramatic professional theaters, and they are each looking for their own style of doing theater. And besides that we have in every province at least one professional theater group -- and there are 14 provinces in Cuba.
``There are also many other theater groups which are not exactly professional. The amateur movement in Cuba is enormous. We have around 600 or 700 nonprofessional groups going on all the time -- in factories, at the university, even hospitals. ``There is an annual amateur festival in Cuba, and it goes from municipal to regional to national, and people are very much involved.
``Theater groups go to a given community and deal with problems that people have in their own social structures. You go to a factory or school or office, and you may find out there is a problem with the administrator of the factory because he is not attending properly to this and that and the other, so they do a play on that. They act it out with the workers, and then the workers discuss this. Right now it is very, very common.''
Where do the professional actors come from in Cuba?
``After the revolution, we have now the National School of Arts, and there's a department of dramatic arts. Every year you have applications for this, and there's a jury that goes to all 14 provinces, and you select young people, take them to that national school, and they have to go for four years -- for four years' training. If an amateur is very, very good, he becomes a professional.''
There's one important gap in Blanco's background: ``Unfortunately, I haven't seen the US, and I don't know New York.'' But it's a gap he hopes to fill someday.
Meanwhile, he lives with his family in a suburb of Havana. With obvious delight he showed me a photo of his three boys, including a 10-year-old named Casai after a river Blanco once admired in Africa. And -- somewhat surprisingly -- Blanco has an older brother who works in a bank in Dallas. He hasn't seen him in years.
Because of a typographical error, a front-page story Wednesday incorrectly said the Cuban revolution was in 1967. It began in 1957