Thirty Years and Counting
2015 marks thirty years since the founding of Culture Clash. After seeing ArtsEmerson’s presentation of Culture Clash’s Muse & Morros in March, I had the pleasure of speaking with Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza in Boston at Emerson College.
Jamie Gahlon: Comedy is clearly integral to your work. Where do you feel comedy becomes a tool that goes beyond entertaining?
Ric Salinas: I think it becomes a tool when you’re dealing with hard subject matter. In everyday life there’s comedy within the tragedy. So I think when we use comedy, when we’re talking about subjects that are dealing with homophobia or transgender issues or sexism or racism, as you deliver the truth of what a character is or what their intent is, the non sequitur which is a comedy tool, which means a surprise of something that you don’t expect—that’s the comedy. Comedy is subjective so you don’t really know.
Richard Montoya: In Seinfeld, the stand-up discussion about comedy goes back to a Woody Allen film. It’s kind of a math—tragedy plus experience equals comedy. And I just want to encourage other ensembles and theatre groups to go for that risk. We’ve been accused many times of going too far and we have pushed people out of our audience, like just the other day a man got very upset and left, but it’s tricky stuff, it’s a boxing match and we are always in pursuit of finding the drama and the commentaries firmly in place—and in that it’s the laughter that allows us to go a little bit deeper.
Ric Salinas: There’s not a school on how to do comedy. But comedy is based off the masters. It’s based off vaudeville, off Jewish comedians, off—
Richard Montoya: Aristophanes.
Ric Salinas: Aristophanes! When we were younger we would watch all these TV shows—The Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Cheech and Chong—we grew up with that. The skillset is to really know the dynamics of comedy—the setup, the punch line. There’s a math to it.
Herbert Siguenza: If you know our work, you know that behind the comedy, there’s a message. We do that intentionally because we feel that comedy is kind of like a lubricant to open your heart and your mind for these other heavier subjects… Richard Pryor said that comedy comes from pain and I really believe that. And I think collectively the world is in pain and I think comedy is a form of release of the absurdity.
We don’t even have to write it, the world is writing it itself—ISIS and destroying artifacts—it’s almost like all you can really do is cry or laugh so it’s that duality. It’s a real fine line.
Richard Montoya: I will say, Jamie, that we thought we were a sketch comedy group, but within two years that changed because I was a horrible stand-up and we wanted to do other things. But as we’re driving a stake through the heart of the idea and, I hope, killed off the idea of a sketch comedy group, we found by the mid-90s we were using equal parts poetry, comedy, and magical realism in trying to go deeper, trying to find what it really is we were trying to say and now as mid-career artists, I think the question becomes even more urgent—what the fuck are you trying to say and in what part of the country are you trying to say it.
We did not formally study theatre, which separated us because we didn’t come into the theatre with all this theory. We just did what we liked… I’m proud of that—that we’ve stayed like that.
Jamie: In watching Muse & Morros, I felt like, in a lot of ways, it was really through expressing these differences that you were touching upon the universal archetype, that yes, we’re all different, but that we’re all fundamentally—
Richard Montoya: Human.
Jamie Gahlon: Exactly.
Herbert Siguenza: I want to talk about technically how, in this show, we keep the fourth wall totally open. Like stand-up, like performance art, how the audience is part of the show. We’re listening to them and their response as much as they’re listening to us, so there’s this give and take. If someone sneezes, we say gesundheit. That right there is not traditional.
Ric Salinas: Someone said that we, Culture Clash, use a heaping mess of theatrical styles, and if you look at our shows, we do stand-up and sketch and slapstick, we do monologues and scenes—
Richard Montoya: We do drama—
Ric Salinas: We do vaudeville. It’s all part of the tools we have.
Herbert Siguenza: And I know why because we’re tapping to what we like, probably our ignorance—we’re not academics. We did not formally study theatre, which separated us because we didn’t come into the theatre with all this theory. We just did what we liked… I’m proud of that—that we’ve stayed like that.
Jamie Gahlon: How has your process of making work together evolved over thirty years?
Richard Montoya: I think it has been a painful process at times… because we’re out in our own separate worlds trying to survive and we don’t realize always we’re in the room together, this is magic. That there is nothing quite like that….
When we did Culture Clash in America ten years ago, there was no Ferguson; there was no Trayvon Martin. There was a suspicion that there was, but now we know…And we’re able to kind of speak to it now with our hearts awakened, as Father Greg Boyle, our favorite Jesuit priest in Los Angeles says, our hearts are awakened to each other and the audience benefited from that. And that’s kind of heavy; it’s a little different. We were kind of funning the other day about washed up guys and it was all jokes, but it made me think why do we come back together? And we come back together because no one can say or do things the way that we do.
Ric Salinas: Now we choose to be with Culture Clash when we want to. We're still "counter-culture,” not formally "trained actors.” We’re messy. The theatre we do is raw and real, still after all these years. We’re like old jazz musicians now; we’re gonna get together and create that magic whether we like it or not.
Richard Montoya: I think we do share that blue-collar thing, we come from working class—
Ric Salinas: And from divorced parents—
Richard Montoya: From broken families, now keeping the family together that is Culture Clash.
Herbert Siguenza: We started in our mid-twenties, now we’re in our mid-fifties, and you’ve gotta change, and change is okay. And people expect us to write a play like we used to do, and it’s not that way any more, we all have developed our own voices, we all have our own roads. People want the new Culture Clash play and we don’t know what that is yet.
Jamie Gahlon: You’ve each found success in other mediums—film, television—So why do you come back to do Culture Clash shows in this format, why not do them in another medium?
Herbert Siguenza: there’s nothing like a Culture Clash show and I don’t know what that is. There’s a love, there’s a response that we get that I can’t get in any other form.
Ric Salinas: Well you know when we first started out we all slept in a three-tier bunk bed, we lived together at some point. And as time moves on, you find some magic in your individual self, but it’s what you said Herbert, there is that magic, there is that once-in-a-lifetime situation. There’s something strange about three guys writing collectively, but it’s that kind of Van Gogh recognition we might get after we’re gone but for now that’s what keeps us together...
And there is a friction, like brothers, that enhances our work. If Richard says something and I don’t agree, or I say something, the material is elevated and evolves and might become better than our original thought and all it takes is a confrontation or a different thought. And there’s a magic in the dynamic of three. That’s why we had the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, and there aren’t that many groups around like that if you think about it.
Jamie Gahlon: Where have you most seen the effects of your work? Can you speak a bit to either a particular city or community where the impact was felt and how you knew?
Richard Montoya: Well it’s kind of incredible, but we came to Boston two weeks ago and we arrived on the heels of Chavez Ravine really exhausted. It’s eleven degrees outside, you’re in tech, you’re trying to build a show and everyone says we have to take you to the Roxbury community to be welcomed… So you go, with that fatigue, like I really should be teching right now. And then you sit down as the guest of honor in a community like Roxbury—very African American, very Latino, working class Anglo, along with a healthy group of Anglo-hipsters—I saw a mix of people I’ve never seen in Silver Lake or Williamsburg or Oak Park or the Mission, where there’s tension. There were Anglo people that wanted to be there. They got up and sang Brazilian tribal songs—it was real, it wasn’t show and tell for us, what it was, was a community inviting us, showing us their work and midway through, I see all three of us just lifting up with an energy and saying this is what it’s about.
We don’t do this work strictly for the elite, for a well-heeled audience that enjoys those entitled seats and tickets. It’s also about twenty elementary and grade school-aged kids doing their skit for us with their hearts pumping.
We don’t do this work strictly for the elite, for a well-heeled audience that enjoys those entitled seats and tickets. It’s also about twenty elementary and grade school-aged kids doing their skit for us with their hearts pumping. And then the capoeira kids are out and the poet from Panama or the MC and you listen to an African-American man tell his story about Boston—it’s about that sense of community.
Herbert Siguenza: I think over the thirty years it’s so nice just to meet individuals. People who come up to me saying “I saw Bowl of Beings on PBS, or I saw your play twenty-five years ago and it changed my life.” And they really mean it. “I became an activist because of that. I went to school because of that. I got married at your show, I met my boyfriend that day.” I’m proud that a lot of professors teach us at colleges all over the United States. I feel real proud that we’re part of that history.
Ric Salinas: It’s about legacy. Now all we can do is have a legacy. It’s multi-generational. Sometimes in the audience now we have three generations of people who saw us as kids, who got married, who bring their kids. I think we’re so busy doing our work and our art that we don’t always realize or know what we leave behind.
We had a little kid who was with us in Detroit many years ago who was an intern, and we see him like twenty years later and he’s married to a Latina and he says, “You guys changed my life.” Or we see someone who’s a dresser who said, “I was going to enlist in the army but I heard what you guys said and I’m not anymore.” We don’t know. We’re building brick-by-brick, little-by-little. We’re doing what Richard says, blue-collar work. We’re doing it city-by-city, college-by-college, community center by community center. We’ve pounded the streets like little soldiers of theatre. There are lists of people that didn’t make it thirty years—bands, poets, theatres. I remember going to a Latino Theatre Festival and there were sixty theatre companies and they were thriving and then we went through the Bush years and that changed. There are just so many people and just so many shoulders that we stand on. Even the people we’ve interviewed—Woody is gone now, Brother Blue is gone, Piedro Petri is gone. It’s not so much a sadness as it is a we must carry on, we will carry on. In the end it’s something about the American culture and character that is coming at you in the audience by way of three Latino men. That’s kind of a little mini-miracle in itself because we are pushing back against those ghosts—
Richard Montoya: Pushing back against the ghosts of colonialism, which in so many ways makes us no longer a comedy troupe.