Herbert Siguenza, Ric Salinas and Richard Montoya in SCR's 1998 production of The Birds.
Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza in SCR's 2008 production of Culture Clash in AmeriCCa.
Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas in 2018.
About 20 years ago, South Coast Repertory reached out to the trio of writer/performers known collectively as Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) to ask if they’d be interested in creating a new show with us. In preliminary conversations they expressed interest in developing an adaptation of a classic, which eventually led to the decision to re-invent a 2500-year-old comedy called The Birds, by Aristophanes. The choice was based on a perceived affinity between the contemporary trio and the ancient Greek: like the work of Aristophanes, Culture Clash’s brand of theatrical commentary typically trades upon incisive, humorous investigation of topical sociopolitical matters, using a modular structure that springs from their roots in sketch comedy.
Because the Clash had no grounding in Old Comedy (the genre for which Aristophanes is known), I was invited to team up with them as a dramaturg and co-writer. It proved to be a watershed in my professional life, in that it began a rewarding relationship that has continued to this day. I have had the opportunity to work with Culture Clash on seven productions at three different theatres, usually as their dramaturg (although I joined the writing team again when they tackled their second Aristophanes adaptation, Peace, at the Getty Villa). Three of those collaborations happened at the Mark Taper Forum, where Lisa Peterson became integral to the team as director of Chavez Ravine, Water & Power and Palestine, N.M.
Culture Clash (Still) in America marks the Clasheros’ third appearance in an SCR season and creates the occasion for a happy reunion of the five of us. It reprises some of the material included in their 2008 Argyros Stage production, Culture Clash in Americca, all of it reconsidered and refreshed, with some new scenes and characters created specifically for this iteration of the play.
Like its predecessor, Culture Clash (Still) in America draws most of its material from interviews conducted by Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza over several years, for a series of shows chronicling the lives and worldviews of people living in various cities around the country, including Miami, San Diego/Tijuana, San Francisco, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. The three chroniclers were particularly interested in talking to people who live on the margins of society and don’t often have opportunities to express their points of view publicly. They took the raw material from these interviews, shaped and tweaked it and found the inherent humor in it, and identified the defining gestures of the characters, to create portraits that are sometimes poignant, often funny and always illuminating. As has been the case with every version of the show, their goal in creating Culture Clash (Still) in America is to investigate cultural intersections and societal stress points and to capture both the differences and the similarities among diverse Americans in diverse corners of the nation.
Over the course of the performance, you will see Siguenza, Salinas and Montoya portray people of both sexes (as well as one gender-fluid character) and of various ethnicities. They do so with a gestural vocabulary that zeroes in on the essence of their characters and that maintains respect and even admiration for their subjects. Key to the success of the Culture Clash approach is their ability to poke gentle fun at their characters without ever mocking them. They deliberately feature many characters whose points of view and values are quite different from their own, but they manage to convey a sense of affection for them, nonetheless. And when it comes to presenting characters whose perspective is closer to theirs, they have no compunction about pointing out weaknesses, blind spots and small hypocrisies. That’s one reason they have sometimes been called “equal opportunity offenders,” although you’d be hard-pressed to find anything truly offensive in any of their portrayals.
Their work is also characterized by a kind of comedic spontaneity that allows them to slip in commentary on the news of any given day, meaning that no two performances are ever the same. In a Culture Clash show, the fourth wall is flimsy and sometimes goes away completely—they feel each night’s audience and they enjoy feeding off of and playing with the specific energy coming to them from the other side of the proscenium.
Under Lisa Peterson’s direction, this production will depart from the minimalist approach often taken by Culture Clash (in which a new character might be conveyed by the addition of a single, simple costume element, and the set is essentially an unadorned open space). Peterson has worked with set designer Christopher Acebo to create a more elaborate and evocative environment for Culture Clash (Still) in America, one that takes its cues from American iconography. The physical setting will be further enhanced by the lighting and projections of Tom Ontiveros.
Composer/sound designer Paul James Prendergast contributes a soundscape that helps transport us from place to place and from character to character. And costume designer Carolyn Mazuca has worked with Peterson and the CC guys to come up with complete costumes for each character (meaning, in some cases, some very challenging quick changes).
Many of the interviews from which Culture Clash (Still) in America has been built were conducted as long as 15-20 years ago. With some judicious updating, it’s astonishing how vivid and trenchant a portrait of America the compilation of characters (still) offers.
Culture Clash has been working together as an artistic team for 35 years, adding layers of skillful artistry and finesse to the insight and exuberance that have characterized their work from the beginning. They always blow into Orange County with the fierceness of a whirlwind, bringing thoughtful provocation and irreverent fun with them.
So batten down the hatches, because the whirlwind is back!
Learn more about Culture Clash (Still) in America and buy tickets.