After interviewing Herbert Siguenza last week at UC Irvine, one question leapt to mind: How does this guy have time to do interviews?
As one-third of the politically infused Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash, he and his two cohorts just closed a three-week run of Culture Clash In AmeriCCa at San Diego Repertory, which will present Siguenza’s one-man show, A Weekend With Pablo Picasso,starting March 21.
And for good measure, the troupe is putting together American Night, the first in a 10-year cycle of plays produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival dealing with revolutionary periods of American history. Culture Clash’s play about immigration opens June 29.
At UCI, Siguenza is teaching a class in community theater—no, not the Neil Simon kind, but rather the plays-about-a-community kind. The results of his efforts will be revealed this week with the Herbert Siguenza Project, an original play created by him and his 24-person group of graduate and undergraduate students.
It’s nice to see Siguenza so busy on the stage. After all, it’s where he makes his living. And as anyone who’s lived in America the past two years can attest, making money has gotten a great deal harder. Hell, so has basic survival.
And survival is where the Herbert Siguenza Project began. Last December, after learning he’d been offered a stint at teaching the community-based theater class that former Cornerstone Theater Artist Director Bill Rauch created at UCI several years ago, Siguenza met with his prospective students and asked them one simple question: What were they interested in exploring onstage?
The answer? Survival. So Siguenza told them to interview someone, anyone, about what survival meant to them, and then turn those interviews into an eight-page monologue that would eventually be whittled down into a four-minute theatrical piece to be performed.
On the first day of class, in January, the students delivered their monologues. Siguenza was delighted to find not only that they stepped up with engaging, profound material, but also that the connections needed to create a spine for a play constructed out of them were already there.
Students interviewed a range of subjects, from friends and family to mentors and complete strangers. All shared different perspectives on survival. But each story somehow related to the issue that most likely prompted the students’ decision to grapple with the concept of survival in the first place: the unraveling of the American—as well as international—economy.
“I think the nature of being a student is always about survival and being broke, but this has been a very special time in history for not only the United States, but also the global community,” Siguenza says, only a few days before an estimated 800 UCI students joined thousands of others in a statewide protest over proposed education cuts. “People have lost their homes, jobs, their life savings. We’re seeing just how fragile the capitalistic system is, how paper-thin it is, and I think that has jolted people into re-evaluating what’s really important.”
Whether characters speak about the past (a mother forced to raise three sons after her money-driven husband leaves her for his career) or the present (a 25-year newspaper employee who leaves his profession in order to fold towels at Santa Monica beach) or express concerns about the future, each is talking about personal survival amid collective uncertainty.
“I think each of these students talked to people who, in some way, are going back to the basics. Faith surfaces a great deal, and people are returning to those things like family and community that maybe they hadn’t thought about a lot in the past few years,” he says. “Whether they’re tear-jerkers or really funny, there’s a sense of something profound and meaningful that ties the pieces together.”
Siguenza doesn’t act in the play, but his influence, based on observing the first half of a rehearsal last week, is everywhere: musical numbers; actors encouraged to break the fourth wall and go big with their characters, fluid transitions, and a breakneck pace.
But even more than the nuts and bolts of the performance, Siguenza’s influence manifests in the same way that makes Culture Clash’s work so relevant and compelling: the personal becoming irrevocably political. “These (characters) aren’t politicians, but if you really analyze the monologues, you start seeing some trends, primarily how the economic breakdown has been such a struggle for middle-class Americans and how truly disappointed they are in that system,” Siguenza says.
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But that disappointment doesn’t necessarily engender cynicism or hopelessness.
“We’re calling the first half of the show ‘Lost’ because characters relate what they’ve lost and express their concerns about the future,” Siguenza says. “The second half is called ‘Found.’ It’s a little more hopeful. People are still talking about the economy, but there’s more resolution in that people are sharing what they’ve learned about themselves through their struggles to survive. And there’s a real sense that they’re committed not only to learning how to live without the things that they’ve lost, but also to pursuing the possibility that there’s a way to live even better without them.”
Herbert Siguenza Project at UC Irvine’s Little Theatre, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, 4000 Mesa Rd., Irvine, (949) 824-2787; www.arts.uci.edu. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. $9-$18.
This article appeared in print as "Clash of the Anteaters: Herbert Siguenza and his young charges at UCI take on the theme of survival in the Great Recession."