Culture Clash’s Herbert Sigüenza: Theater, the Last Soapbox

The performances of the Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash range from sketches to full-length plays, charged with political and social satire. The company is known for its irreverent approach to topics ranging from social justice to Greek playwright Aristophanes’ The Birds.

Culture Clash was founded in 1984 in San Francisco. The ensemble, now based in Los Angeles, includes Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza.

On Friday, June 18, as part of the Theatre Communications Group conference in Los Angeles, Sigüenza emceed a Playwrights’ Slam at the Millenium Biltmore Hotel. Engine28’s Laura Spencer caught up with the Culture Clash co-founder during a short break.

Engine28: The theme of this year’s TCG conference in Los Angeles is: “What if…?” — a question to encourage theater professionals to examine and discuss the future of theater.

What’s your “What if…” question?

Sigüenza: We (Culture Clash) have been doing theater for 27 years. And we’ve seen all the “What ifs.” Since we began in 1984, theater always seemed like it was on the verge of extinction because of TV, MTV and radio … technology always threatens us.

But technology is actually helping us now because now we’re using the technology in our pieces. For example, we just did a piece called American Night: The Ballad of Juan José (2010). I just did a piece called A Weekend With Pablo Picasso (2011). We used a lot of video images, and high-tech digital sound in new and exciting ways; it really enhances the theater experience. Theater adjusts with the technology. I don’t think it’s going any place because you really can’t substitute a live performance.

I think theater has to keep up with technology and keep it very entertaining. Of course, content is very important. I believe in a theater that has content, thas something to say that you don’t get in Hollywood, that you don’t get in TV. I think theater is really the last soapbox where we can actually get up there and say something that’s honest, that’s urgent, that people want to hear ultimately.

Engine28: Culture Clash has been together for 27 years. What’s sustained the group for that long?

Sigüenza: I think what’s kept Culture Clash relevant is our society, unfortunately. The themes that we were dealing with in 1984 when we started are still with us: immigration, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, racism, xenophobia. All of these things are still in our society, if not more.

When we started, it was 1984 and Reagan was in office. And people put Reagan up as a god, but I remember Reagan invading El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua. These were our Iraqs back then. These were wars that we waged in Latin America. And now we’re waging them in the Middle East. And our society is paying for it. Our middle class is paying for it.

When you’ve been around as long as we have, you see the patterns, the patterns of governments coming in, invading countries, feeding the  machine – the military machine. You see the middle class going down, you see gas prices going up. So I’ve seen all this. Nothing really worries me. It’s going to get better before it gets worse.

Engine28: The current mayor in Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, is Latino. And the Latino population of Los Angeles is growing (note: according to the 2010 census, white: 49.8 %, Hispanic or Latino, 48.5%). Do you feel that your relationship with Los Angeles changed?

Sigüenza: Yes. After 27 years of being in the business in theater and living here in Los Angeles, Culture Clash has become an institution. We didn’t set out to become an institution. But after a while, you do become an institution and you do have a legacy.

The city of L.A. has been really nice to us. They just donated a home to us: the Westlake Theater, which is in MacArthur Park. And it will take maybe a couple of years to renovate it, if the funds are there from the state. But the city of L.A. has embraced us, although we were founded in San Francisco. They have really embraced us as their group. And a couple of us (in Culture Clash) are commissioners, mayor-appointed commissioners. (Siguenza is on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority Commission).

I’m very proud to be an Angeleno. I think Los Angeles is a very exciting city because it’s on the Pacific Rim. We get all those influences. We get influences from the south, from Mexico, from South America. And influences from Asia. So it’s a very great influx. There’s another energy, there’s another point of view here in California that you just don’t get on the East coast.

And it’s a theater town. We have over 200 non-equity theaters here. And that’s something to celebrate.

Engine28: Did you attend the recent discussion hosted by the Los Angeles Times: “Is Los Angeles a theater town?”

Sigüenza: I did not attend that. But I know that L.A. is a theater town. I’ve been doing theater for 20 years and I’ve been making a living. Culture Clash has to tour out of the state to make money to sustain us. But have had successful runs here in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the shadow of Hollywood is always looming. And so I think that influences the work a little bit. I think that people are looking for a job. They’d rather go to another audition, to audition for TV rather than a play. So it has a big influence on the scene here.

But at the same part, it’s very refreshing when you see experimental theater here in L.A. And it’s very experimental. It’s probably more experimental than other cities.

Engine28: Could you talk a little bit about Pablo Picasso? You wrote and performed in the one-man show A Weekend With Pablo Picasso earlier this year, which included painting on stage. Reviewer Philip Brandes called your ability to paint credibly as Picasso “a visual tour de force as the commissioned artworks come to life.”

Sigüenza: This year, Culture Clash took a sabbatical so we could work on other things. And I wrote a play called A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, which was produced at San Diego Repertory Theatre, Alley Theatre and the Los Angeles Theatre Center… . I had an opportunity to do my play there (LATC) and it was a big hit, a great hit. And it was real different from the Culture Clash stuff. This was about Picasso, a European, a Spaniard living in Europe painting. A master of 20th century art.

As an artist I was very influenced by him and inspired by him, and so I wanted to write a play about this man. That’s something that I couldn’t do with Culture Clash, but that’s fine. We have to branch out and do whatever is on our minds.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Laura Spencer

Laura Spencer reports on the arts for Kansas City's NPR member station, KCUR.

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