SPOTLIGHT: An interview with playwright, actor and painter Herbert Siguenza

Herbert Siguenza as Pablo Picasso in his play, "A Weekend with Pablo Picasso."

I have to admit that I’ve always been a little frightened by Pablo Picasso, maybe it was his intensity, but in 2009 I traveled to Spain, visited his museum and developed a respect for him. It seems that you discovered your admiration and respect for him at an early age. What was is it that fascinated you?  When I was seven years old I picked up a photo essay book by Douglas Duncan called The Private Life of Pablo Picasso and it made a huge impression on me. I’d never seen an old man with such a sense of joy and life. He was painting, eating, clowning and he had dogs and a goat! I thought from then on that I wanted to be an artist and live like that old man. He was a full time artist in every sense of the word. I respect that and try to live my life with that same wonder and curiosity.

How long have you been working on this piece? I have been working on this piece all my life! It took me 52 years to get to this point and be able to portray such a large iconic figure. Always thinking about it but waited until I was old enough to portray such a legend. It took two years to research and a year of many, many workshops to get it right. After the first live workshop production at San Diego Rep it got another re-write. I think it’s good now. I feel like I have earned it and what I talk about in the play I actually have lived it and endorse it fully!

You’ve always had an uncanny ability to truly become the characters in your plays, what do you do to prepare for such pieces?  During my acting career I have portrayed many legends: Che, Cantinflas, Teddy Roosevelt, Olmos, Prince, etc. One does not prepare for these characters, you just dress like them and do one or two somethings that are them. Remember, you are NOT them, you are YOU always. Do not act like them, BE them.

When do you stop being the writer and start being the actor?  Stop being the writer during previews and performances. Then sit back and think what could be better, clearer and cleaner. Go back and fix it. Don’t be afraid to cut what you think is gold. Less is always more.

You are a writer, actor and in the case of “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso” you have an extra task that is rarely seen on stage…you have to paint live! How hard was that? I was an artist way before I was an actor. So painting and drawing are very comfortable and easy for me. This is the first time I have been able to combine my two passions. I am now going to exhibit much more!

Pablo Picasso had a rather tumultuous relationship with the women in his life, why do you think this is so? And how did you incorporate that into the play? Picasso loved his women truly but he loved his art and his lifestyle more. Of course his women thought of him as selfish and self-centered but look what he shared with the world! He gave us thousands of beautiful art pieces that enriched the world and humanity. He could not be a good husband and a gray artist at the same time! He chose the latter and I’m glad he did. I have chosen my art over my relationships and I have been divorced twice!

 You’ve talked about the “tug and pull” between art and politics that manifested itself in Picasso’s life and artwork. Have you experienced the same struggle? At a certain point an individual has to decide if they want to be an artist or an activist. You can’t be both when you’re coming up. If I went to every meeting and manifestation activists want me to go I would not be successful as an artist. A successful artist can be more effective as an activist later, look at Zack de la Rocha.

Picasso left behind a tremendous volume of work in many different types of art forms from paintings, sculpture, vases, print, and even photography. Why was he so driven to create so much art? Is this something that you have strived to do as well? If you decide to be an artist your only obligation and responsibility is to produce art. People go to work everyday and make whatever. An artist should try to produce everyday. Something. It’s your legacy, your footsteps that say, “I was here and this is what I did while I was alive. Ultimately, death should be a motivator to produce as much as you can while you have health. Even in her deathbed Frida Kahlo painted! What more can we do?

How would you and Pablo Picasso spend a weekend? I would love to just have a glass of wine with him and ask him about his early years in Paris when he was hustling and painting for a living. Then watch him paint for hours.

Herbert Siguenza is founding member of Culture Clash, who recently marked their 26th anniversary as the most prominent Chicano/Latino performance troupe in the country. Herbert has a BFA in printmaking from the California College of Arts, Oakland. He has exhibited nationally and internationally. He is a mayor-appointed Commissioner for the city of Los Angeles. Culture Clash is featured in the upcoming Tom Hanks film Larry Crowne.

“A Weekend With Pablo Picasso,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (dark April 17). Ends May 1. $10 and $35. (866) 811-4111 or http://www.thelatc.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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