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A conversation with Herbert Siguenza

Posted: March 26, 2014 - 11:01pm

Herbert Siguenza is a little hard to pin down — in the best possible way. He’s an artist with a bachelor’s degree in painting, but he’s spent most of his career a performer. He’s a founding member of Culture Clash, a Chicano American performance troupe that started in San Francisco on Cinco de Mayo in 1984. The troupe has created sketch comedy, full-length plays, works for television and film, and offers political and social commentary on Latino life and culture in America. In Siguenza’s own writing, he often tackles subjects with political and social weight. But he says he’s an artist first and an activist second.

Siguenza is in Juneau playing the role of Big Daddy in Perseverance Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He says he’s “reinventing himself as an actor” after years of performing his own pieces and that of his collaborators. He’s delighted to take on a classic playwright like Tennessee Williams.

On Monday night, Siguenza performed a staged reading of his one-man show, “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso.” Another reading will take place Saturday at 2 p.m. at Perseverance Theatre. Siguenza says the show is 90 percent Picasso’s own words. Watching Siguenza become the 76-year-old artist reflecting on his life and work, and seeing the moments Siguenza chose to share, the audience got a glimpse of the actor’s own inner life as an artist. So it was no surprise that when Siguenza sat down afterward to chat with the audience, he mentioned that his philosophies are right in line with Picasso’s. The following day, we got together for an interview. Here are some excerpts from both conversations.

•••

“When I was 7 years old, I was at the dentist office with my mom. On the table there were all these art books. He was a cool dentist, and he had a picture book called “The Private World of Pablo Picasso.” It was photographed by David Douglas Duncan, who had total access to Picasso in the south of France. He spent six months with him, day and night, documenting him eating, painting, bathing, playing with his kids. So it’s this beautiful, beautiful book about the life of an artist. And as a 7-year-old, I said, ‘Mom, when I grow up, I want to be him.’ That book stuck with me all my life. Because I’m a visual artist. Acting came after. So, you know that line in the play where Picasso says a painting took ‘all my life’? It took me all my life to write this play. I wanted to do this play of Picasso when he was 76; I couldn’t have done this play when I was 35, I felt too young, I didn’t have the life experience, the gravitas, the body of Picasso.

And so, after I turned 50, I started really considering writing a play from that book. It’s his quotes in different situations that I was able to manipulate and carve into a fictional weekend. What would happen if you were to visit Picasso in 1957 in the south of France? So, I don’t consider it a play, I consider it an experience. I wanted the audience to feel like ‘I just spend the weekend with Picasso.’ That was the whole intention of the play. Just like the book.

Three years ago, I did a workshop of the play at San Diego Rep and it was a huge hit. We took it to Houston and did another re-write of it. Mark Bly, he’s a great dramaturg, helped me shape it even more, and it’s gone on to several cities: L.A., Houston, Denver, San Francisco. It’s a piece that I’m very, very proud of because it’s my ultimate expression as an artist. This is it. Everything I know about art and acting is right here.

The full production of “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso” includes audio voiceovers, music and pictures and video projections of art and photography. Siguenza spoke Monday about that part of the show.

“The sound is all original music by my friend Bruno Louchourn. He’s French-Mexican, and the music is just amazing, post-modern, it sounds like something that’s from the ‘50s. When I first started the play in San Diego three years ago, we were projecting real Picassos, and I was painting ‘faux Picassos,’ pictures you may have seen. But then we got a letter from the estate saying, ‘We understand that you’re doing Picasso, that’s fine, but you know you cannot project his images, you cannot paint fake Picassos, you know for obvious reasons, and so if you want to, you just have to pay us $200,000 a run.’ I said, ‘No thank you,’ so I painted my own imagery which looked Picasso-esque. So all the projections are also my own; I feel like it turned out better.”

In “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” the artist says, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter? Ears if he’s a musician? A lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet? Quite the contrary, he is a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events of the world, shaping himself completely in their image.” Siguenza talked about how his own work continues to be an expression of his own political philosophy.

“I’m currently writing a piece called ‘Steal Heaven’ right now. It’s about the ‘60s radical Abbie Hoffman. I pick people in history that I can relate to or at least have some kind of connection to. He was one of the Chicago Seven and he was one of the first people to use theatricality to protest during the Vietnam War. He would stage outrageous rallies to get attention. He ran a pig for president.

“The play is about what has happened to activism in America. Why is there no activism in America? Why are there no anti-war protests? Why are there no anti-corporation protests? Occupy came and went. I got really excited. And it fizzled. Abbie Hoffman warned us about all this in the 1960s. He said there would be corporate involvement in government, he said the banks would take over, he said the war machine would be bigger than ever. So all these things that he was preaching in the ‘60s when they said he was crazy, he was right. I think it’s gotten to the point where the machine has gotten so huge that we as individual citizens don’t feel like we have any power or any voice. And so we’ve stopped. We’ve stopped protesting, we’ve stopped questioning our government. We just think it’s corrupt and that’s OK now. There’s this huge apathy I feel from America where young people don’t feel like they have a hope. It’s disturbing that people aren’t protesting even for their own survival.”

Herbert Siguenza will present a free staged reading of “A Weekend With Pablo Picasso,” on Saturday, March 29, at 2 p.m. at Perseverance Theatre. For more information, visit www.perseverancetheatre.org.

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