Discovering Your Authentic Voice As a Playwright
My path as an American playwright has been a bit unconventional. While I am currently entering my fourth year as playwright in residence at the San Diego Repertory, prior to that I had spent three and a half decades writing and performing with Culture Clash, the veteran Latino performance troupe that opened the regional theatre doors to a generation of Latinx writers.
Despite having all these years of writing behind me, it wasn’t until recently that I started thinking of myself as a “real” playwright. Maybe that’s because I don’t have a formal academic background in theatre. In fact, I still haven’t gotten all the way through the long list of American classics or even seen half of Shakespeare’s plays. Instead, I grew up watching the San Francisco Mime Troupe, El Teatro Campesino, and reading plays by obscure South American playwrights.
In 1978, after I had co-founded the Latino community theatre group Teatro Gusto in San Francisco, I drove to Los Angeles to see a play that everybody was talking about: Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez. I was amazed to see a packed house of well-dressed, working-class Chicanos eager to see a part of their history performed by people who looked and sounded like them for the first time in their lives. After ten minutes, I knew I wanted to do Chicano theatre and write new American plays that reflected Latino history and stories like Valdez.
Several years later, in the middle of the Reagan years, Rene Yanez, co-director of Galería de la Raza, wanted to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in an untraditional way by organizing a Cinco de Mayo Comedy Fiesta. Back in those days, the Bay Area was a breeding ground for stand-up comedy and performance art, and Rene wanted to combine both through a hip Chicano point of view. I was invited, along with a few other people—including Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas—to perform an evening of stand up and sketches. The original Comedy Fiesta lineup lasted only two years, but at that point Richard, Ric, and I were itching to write a real comedic play that would give us a sense of legitimacy. Culture Clash was born from the urgency we felt to express our Chicano angst.
The three of us shared a need to say something about our unique upbringing as urban, college-educated, bicultural, bilingual Americans who also watched healthy doses of MTV. We wrote what we knew. All of us were from broken homes and were equally illiterate in American, European, and Greek theatre and literature—unless it had appeared in an episode of The Bullwinkle Show. Our writing style was unique and unconventional because we wrote what we knew and experienced in an honest manner, which spoke to a large segment of people who grew up just like us. Since we didn’t know any better, we didn’t adhere to strict academic norms (the three-act structure, for example) and this was probably a good thing because we collectively created our own style—a loose structure of modular scenes. Additionally, we were the only ones who could perform our material because we wrote it to our specific personalities, traits, and talents.
I still haven’t gotten all the way through the long list of American classics or even seen half of Shakespeare’s plays. Instead, I grew up watching the San Francisco Mime Troupe, El Teatro Campesino, and reading plays by obscure South American playwrights.
Paul Codiga, the artistic director and producer at Intersection for the Arts, had a small theatre tucked away in a former haunted funeral home. When he heard about Culture Clash, he gave us the keys and said, “Write a play and I’ll produce it.” Collectively, over the course of two weeks, we wrote The Mission, a piece about three out-of-work Latino actors who kidnap Spanish superstar crooner Julio Iglesias and keep him hostage until the three get a one-time shot on national TV. Not exactly Pulitzer material, but it was irreverent and honest. The show got us our first theatre review, and we eventually toured it up and down California’s “burrito belt”—small colleges and cultural centers in places like San Jose, Fresno, and Bakersfield. We found a hungry, appreciative audience like the one I saw watching Zoot Suit—a combination of progressive Chicano college students, Chicano professionals, working class families, and adventurous White folk. We were now a legit theatre company that, over the years, would develop a loyal and large fan base.
Our work took on a more urgent and deeper tone after 7 September 1989, when Ric was shot at close range—a senseless random act that almost took his life and shook us to our core. While Ric was recuperating, we wrote A Bowl of Beings, a compilation of short acts that talked about life, death, and pizza. One of the acts (don’t call them sketches!) was The Return of Che Guevara, which questioned the apathy of the Left and the death of Chicanismo identity in a post–Cold War world.
The play was a huge success in Los Angeles and even mimicked the buzz of Zoot Suit. In 1992, it was filmed for PBS and aired nationally, putting Culture Clash on the mainstream cultural map. However, as writers we felt that cultural identity navel-gazing was going to limit us as artists and limit our audiences. We needed to explore and examine other cultures outside our own if we wanted a lengthy career.
In 1993, the Miami Light Project commissioned Culture Clash to write a site-specific play about the city. We took a tape and video recorder to Miami to interview a wide spectrum of residents about why they lived there and what they thought of their neighbors. As the video rolled, we could not believe the barrage of stories we heard from people who were not Californian or Chicano. A new canvas of possibilities and themes opened up for us that was outside our cultural comfort zone. We became American chroniclers or cultural anthropologists, examining the American dream through a Latinx lens.
By the 1990s, Culture Clash was the most-produced Latino theatre group in the nation. We opened the regional theatre doors to younger and educated writers like Karen Zacarías, Guadalís del Carmen, and Carlos Murillo. Yet, in academic history books we never got the credit I think we deserved. The reason for this, I believe, is because we were a writing collective, which is traditionally frowned upon; collectives don’t represent one individual voice. On top of that, we were proud writer/performers of political comedy, which automatically disqualified us from being bona fide “playwrights.” Everyone knows playwrights don’t act, right? Plus—and I don’t want to sound like Rodney Dangerfield—comics get no respect!
Since we didn’t know any better, we didn’t adhere to strict academic norms (the three-act structure, for example) and this was probably a good thing because we collectively created our own style—a loose structure of modular scenes.
Up to this point, about twenty years in, Culture Clash’s plays had primarily been comedies. They were very popular and sold many tickets, but they weren’t the dysfunctional family dramas or magic realism that are often connected with “serious playwrights.” We collectively felt it was time to kill the payaso in us and get serious and darker. Our comedy had become sophisticated social-political satire, but now we wanted a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T and nothing gets you respect faster than tackling the classics.
We began with adapting The Birds. We found the irreverent style of Aristophanes to be a perfect vehicle for us to update and say something about the current empire. Years later, we adapted Peace, an obscure Aristophanes anti-war play, and then we did an ambitious musical called Sapo, a modern adaptation of The Frogs. Adapting classics was conducive to our style because and it gave us a hardy frame to hang our political satire on. We translated the original stuffy writing into modern English (thanks to co-writer John Glore) and then we would break down the story to see what was there that still spoke to us as contemporary satirists. Once we agreed on the new setting of the play, we would each take scenes and bring them back to the collective body for input.
Writing as a collective slowly become arduous, though, and almost impossible because we had developed different interests and styles. Richard had taken on the role of head writer for the group, so it felt like I had to branch out if I was going to develop my own voice. The thought of doing anything outside of Culture Clash was frightening—traitorous, even—but I knew I had to do it. I began writing what I knew and loved, which wasn’t necessary the same interests the group had. My first play was a tribute to legendary Mexican comic hero Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno. The play was a tremendous success for me as a writer and performer, and it had its world premiere at the Alley Theatre in Houston in both English and Spanish. Years later, I gave tribute to another twentieth-century hero with A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, a solo show that combined all my disciplines: playwriting, acting, and painting live on stage.
I didn’t grow up seeing or reading Shakespeare and never had the desire to since we wrote and performed our own stories about us, about the present. Yes, I understand Shakespeare is poetic, universal, and a staple in theatre history. It’s just not my cup of English tea. Yet while I was watching a production of Henry IV Part 1—I thought, “This is pretty cool stuff about family, loyalty, and honor. What if I place this exact story in the barrio where these same codes of conduct are still practiced to this day?” So I followed this impulse, writing El Henry, a dark, futuristic version of the Bard’s play. El Henry was an ambitious outdoor site-specific spectacle, and its success motivated me to go back and read the basic fundamentals of Eurocentric and American theatre history—Shakespeare, Molière, O’Neill, Williams—which I had skipped during my time creating original work with Culture Clash. I began to understand the forms and structures used by the masters and started to implement them in my own work.
We collectively felt it was time to kill the payaso in us and get serious and darker. Our comedy had become sophisticated social-political satire, but now we wanted a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T and nothing gets you respect faster than tackling the classics.
Later that year, I was asked by the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival to look into the life and times of sixties bad-boy Abbie Hoffman, part of the Chicago Seven, a group of radicals who were tried for inciting violence at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Initially I wasn’t crazy about this madman’s reputation, but the more I read his writings, the more I believed he was insightful and naturally satirical. Hoffman warned us about the power of big banks, the influence of Wall Street over Washington, the industrial military complex, eroding civil liberties, unjust drug laws, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. Does this sound familiar?
I wrote Steal Heaven in direct response to the unsuccessful Occupy Movement and how the two-party system was failing us as Americans. I positioned Hoffman in heaven as a kind of St. Peter of the Left. So when American radicals die, they go to Abbie who interviews them to see if they are worthy of additional training in order to go back to Earth to wreak some more “lefty havoc.” This play had politics, comedy, and heart—elements that were typical of Culture Clash, but the writing had my own personal touch. I started seeing my authentic voice as a writer emerge.
By 2015, my solo writing career was taking off and my plays had a solid style: a combination of out-of-the-box humor à la Culture Clash with the conventional storytelling structure of Western theatre. I went on to adapt two Molière classics, Manifest Destinitis (based on The Imaginary Invalid) and Bad Hombres/Good Wives (based on The School for Wives)—two dusty French farces—into contemporary statements about our collective American history and the current times, which new audiences could enjoy and relate to. In 2016, I was awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation playwright-in-residence grant through the National Playwright Residency Program, which gave me major validation as a playwright.
Now that I work and live in San Diego, and Richard Montoya continues writing for the theatre and cinema, Culture Clash gets together less often. You might say we are “sun setting” and that feels okay. We only get together if a project mutually sparks all three of us artistically and challenges us as artists, and we decide ahead of time who will do the “heavy lifting” in writing. The days of writing collectively are gone but those valuable experiences still resonate in my collaborative process with actors and directors. My journey as a writer has been unconventional and unique, but I believe it has forged a style and a voice that is uninhabited, intrinsic, and, some might say, important.
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Herbert! Thank you for sharing these words. The work you have done individually and as a member of Culture Clash has definitely shaped American Teatro. Just as you were inspired by Luis Valdez's work, your work inspired me to start a Latinx performance troupe and to tell my own stories. Thank you for paving the way and holding the door open. I will always be grateful. Gracias por todo.