The Art Comes First and Foremost

A conversation with Herbert Siguenza on the 25th anniversary of Culture Clash and more

By Lisa Zion, Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: June 13, 2009

The Art Comes First and Foremost

It's a cloudy day in Studio City but that goes away when I see the smiling face of Herbert Siguenza. We meet for brunch at a small caf?®. It's been several years since I've seen my former maestro. I took an Improv acting class at the San Diego Reperatory Theatre with Herbert. One cannot forget his words of wisdom. After all, he is an accomplished actor, writer and producer.

Along with fellow members Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas, Culture Clash was formed in 1984. Herbert is excited that Culture Clash will be celebrating their 25th anniversary. The celebration will take place on October 30 at UCLA Royce Hall. There will be music, comedy and awards.

L: I'd like to know a little more about the history of Culture Clash.

H: It's hard to believe we've been together this long. It's historical. We formed as a weekend comedy troupe that turned into a 25 year experiment. It went from a sketch comedy group to comedy theatre performance and now we're delving into drama. We had a television show for awhile so yes; looking back we have made history. We're very proud of all that we've accomplished but we are not resting on our laurels.

L: Where does the angst come from in your writing?

H: Well, you just have to look around you. You only have to pick up the paper to see there is a lot of turmoil in the world, whether the issue is immigration, unemployment, teens leaving school too early, family values, or if kids are joining gangs. All of these things make it hard for us as Latinos to sustain ourselves. But we don't dwell on the negative. Culture Clash dwells on the positive aspects of our culture. We do show that we get trampled on in our plays but we also show our strengths.

L: What's next for Culture Clash?

H. We have two new shows we are doing. The first project we have is Aristophanes, Peace. It's a 2000 year old play written in Greece. Aristophanes was the Culture Clash of his time. He would make fun of all the politicians. He was very irreverent and is best known for writing Lysistrata and the Birds. Peace is our way of promoting peace in the Obama age. We look at war as not a way of solving problems but rather enhance them. This play talks about peace being kidnapped by war. It's a really interesting play.

Our other show is a play that was written by Richard Montoya and it is called, Palestine, New Mexico. It is about a Native American soldier who is killed in Iraq. His body is flown back to Palestine, New Mexico and his Army Captain goes to the reservation to uncover some secrets. A conspiracy is uncovered and at the same time, discovers that this tribe may also be Jewish. It's a very interesting play about secrets in the sands of Iraq and secrets in the sands of New Mexico.

L: You haven't done film for awhile. Do you miss it?

H: Well, I've been doing plays for awhile now so because I'm always performing on stage; it is a Catch 22 situation. However, I did do a movie this year for the Cartoon Network. It's called Ben 10, Alien Swarm. That comes out in November. I think it's going to be a big hit.

L: As you were growing up, did you have a mentor?

H: I wish I could say I did, but I didn't. I studied for awhile with Luis Valdez but after that, Culture Clash was formed and we developed our own style.

L: So what would you say to the young Latino who wishes to be an actor today?

H: I think we've survived as actors because we are also writers. I think it's very important to write your own material, if you can. Writing empowers you to produce your own plays, in your own voice. Sooner or later someone will pick up on it. I think it would be very difficult to sit around and wait for your agent to get you an audition. I don't have the patience for that so I need to empower myself by writing something. By creating and putting it out there, you do get residuals back. It's very important to get out there and produce your own stuff. I tell young people learn as much as you can. Be an open book. Be open to the world.

L: You went to school and received a BFA in Fine Arts, right?

H: Yes, I went to art school because I thought I wanted to be a visual artist. The acting started out as a hobby and became a career.

L: Are there any Latino actors that you would like to work with?

H: Yes, everyone. We have been isolated as a group. We work with each other and we have had the pleasure of working with some actors. I'd like to work with Benicio del Toro.

L: What's your favorite venue?

H: I would have to say the Mark Taper Forum theatre. It's LA, it's pretty intimate, a world class venue and we are proud that we will be performing there for the 5th time. I think that is a record and we are proud of that fact.

L: Where were you born?

H: I was born in San Francisco. My parents were born in El Salvador.

L: Tell me about your family.

H: I was raised by my Mother. She went to beauty school, opened a salon and took care of me and my older brother. She was amazing.

L: Where did the acting bug come from?

H: I don't know but my maternal grandmother, Rosa did some acting in El Salvador. She would recite poems from memory and she was very proud when I started acting.

L: How does the writing take place? Do you collaborate as a team or does someone take charge?

H: Someone will take the lead in writing and bring it back to the collective. We each contribute, we'll change it. It's getting more difficult and so Richard has taken on a lot of the writing. That has inspired me to write for myself. I've written material for myself such as Cantiflas. And the other project I've written which will be performed next year is called, An Afternoon with Pablo Picasso. I think Picasso is an inspiration because he was a true artist. His art came first and foremost. I kind of live my life that way, too.

L: What would you say to a young, gay Latino actor who may want to follow in your footsteps?

H: Be yourself. It's hard enough to be Latino. So be you, liberate yourself. That is the only way to spread your wings and fly. I don't endorse being in the closet at all.

L: If someone had a really good script, could they bring that to you?

H: Of course. We look at new ideas all the time. I would be happy to give my opinion. We have a writer's lab that we do sometimes. It is called the Portal Project. It identifies writers that want to write and do their own plays. We want to leave our legacy behind and teach people how to collaborate as a group. I'm also going to teach at UC Irvine in the winter. I'm teaching on how to create a community play based off that community.

L: Culture Clash is well respected. How do you get your shows produced?

H: We still have to let people know when we have a new project. Plays are scheduled one year in advance and so it is important to have the beginnings of the play seen by the artistic directors in advance.

L: If something should happen to one of you, would Culture Clash cease to exist?

H: If something happens, it happens. I can't believe we've been together this long. 'All things must pass.' as George Harrison said. It's going to end sooner or later. It's going to be a natural process. It will be sad because I don't see another group like us, coming after us. We wish there was but I don't see anyone doing the kind of stuff that we do. The next thing we want to do is film. We have some great scripts and we want to leave a legacy on film.

L: Thank you so much for spending some time with me today. Congratulations on 25 years of Culture Clash!

H: Thank you.

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