When Herbert Siguenza performed his A Weekend With Pablo Picasso at Houston’s Alley Theatre last year, he had a few things to say to The Alley’s Mark Bly about why he paints and why he took on the perilous task of not only impersonating an iconic artist on stage, but also of creating an actual painting on stage.
Mark Bly: What inspired you to write A Weekend With Pablo Picasso?
Herbert Siguenza: I was born with the mysterious gift of being able to draw. Since I was a young boy, I would press crayons against paper and create imaginary worlds and characters. In fact, when I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Sharp, would pull me out of the reading circle and have me draw on giant rolls of butcher paper instead. She kept everything I drew.
Later that semester, we went on a field trip to downtown San Francisco to visit City Hall and the Board of Education building. To my great surprise, there was an exhibit of all my work hanging in the halls! My fellow students were very impressed, and I was immensely proud as well.
That first exhibit made it clear to me that I would grow up to become an artist.
That same year, my mother took me to the dentist. While we waited in the reception area, I picked up a photo book by Douglas Duncan called The Private Life of Picasso. The beautiful black and white photos showed a shirtless old man who painted and played like a child. He also had doves, several dogs and a goat. I turned and said to my mom, “When I grow up I want to be that old man.”
“That’s Pablo Picasso,” she said. “Es loco” [“You’re crazy”]. My dear mother did not discourage me; I knew better. The old man Columbus was not crazy but rather unconventional and free, which inspired me profoundly to later live my own life in that manner. I eventually went to the California College of Arts in Oakland were I got a BFA in printmaking and taught for two years. I also worked for ten years at La Raza Silkscreen Center producing posters for cultural and political events.
All these experiences have contributed to my personal and artistic growth. I see this play as a result of everything I have ever learned in regard to the visual and theatrical arts. It is a perfect and natural marriage for me. A play that I was born to perform starting now. It is a culmination of everything I’ve known since I was a curious child. And yes, I still don’t read very well. Thank you, Mrs. Sharp!
MB: Would you talk about your process as an actor and playwright in creating the play? Where does the painter-artist Herbert Siguenza figure into this stage equation?
HS: I don’t have a formal education in theatre but rather, as I said, a degree in art. To a certain extent that has been very liberating, because I never overthink or analyze what I do. I simply act on a real instinctive level, free from academic philosophies. I just do. My character of Picasso is not an imitation of Picasso because that would be false or impossible. My character of Picasso is me as a rich, old man who paints and lives in southern France. It’s simple and direct.
After 30 years of performing comedy and drama on stage, I feel ready to take on the challenge of portraying an icon. I could never have portrayed him ten years ago, you know? I wasn’t ready to take on such a giant character. He is Falstaff or Big Papa from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Now on the script, I took all the quotes Picasso said during his lifetime and constructed an imaginary weekend in 1957 in his studio, Le Californie. I wanted to recreate the sights and sounds of the pictures I saw in Duncan’s wonderful photographs. My only goal as a playwright was for the audience to experience and feel like they are spending an intimate weekend with a master, a genius but also a Spanish man in exile.
Picasso said that viewing art is a kind of voyeurism. I think viewing theatre is even more voyeuristic, because we are seeing people in their most private moments. In my play I want no separation between performer and audience. The audience is a participant and the reason for the play. There are only a few moments where the audience “is not there” and watches Picasso at his most private and most vulnerable. As a painter I am also vulnerable, I paint and create in front of the audience. No safety net, no gimmicks—just magic and truth in action. Like my acting, I just do it without thinking. I think Picasso would be proud of me.
MB: Picasso’s relationship with 20th century political movements was complex and you explore that struggle in your play. Can you characterize that epic “tug and pull” between art and politics that manifested itself in Picasso’s work?
HS: Picasso’s long-time friend Jaime Sabartes said that, “Picasso is the most apolitical person I know.” I think to a certain degree it was true. Even though Picasso was a member of the French Communist Party and contributed to many leftist causes, he wasn’t politically or physically involved. He was sort of a Communist from afar. As long as he could paint what he wanted in freedom, he was content being in the Party for idealistic reasons.
He was an artist first and foremost and an activist second. I have struggled with that “tug and pull” in my own life as a Chicano/Latino actor-activist. At one point you have to decide what you were meant to do in this life, you know? Are you an artist or a politician?
Picasso remained free and true to his style, he never succumbed to the pressures of the party to paint in a social realist manner. I believe theatre that is didactic and pounds you over the head is the worst kind of theatre and does not accomplish what it wants to do in the first place: make people think. If art does the thinking for you, what’s the use? That’s why Guernica
is so amazingly powerful and eternal. It’s politically charged but aesthetically transcendental.
During the Cold War, Picasso did not fan the fire of nuclear destruction but rather was a global peace campaigner and contributed art and financial donations to many peace organizations and social causes. In fact, the iconography of the Peace Movement—the doves, flowers, children that are used today—was first created by Picasso in the late ’50s.
Picasso was a Humanist who just happened to be a Communist. We are lucky because Guernica, the peace dove, the hands holding flowers were created as if a child had drawn them, and that is why it has lasted so long because it connects with our inner child full of joy, happiness and hope.
This interview originally appeared in the Alley Theatre’s program for A Weekend With Pablo Picasso. Reprinted with permission.