This grant gives me the freedom to make an impact in other places that have fewer resources and contribute to the theater field as a whole...
Co-founder of the Chicano performance troupe Culture Clash, wide-ranging artist Herbert Siguenza has an impressive resume playing a variety of characters. Some highlights include his voice work in the critically acclaimed Pixar animated feature Coco, where he plays identical great-great granduncles Tío Felipe and Tío Oscar. He also played Victor Validus in Cartoon Network’s movie, Ben 10: Alien Swarm, inspiring an action figure.
But Siguenza has plenty of his own stories to tell. And he has done just that throughout his three-year tenure as The San Diego Repertory (REP) Theatre’s playwright-in-residence, a position made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP).
A long-time supporter of theater, the Mellon Foundation established NPRP as a pilot program in 2012 in collaboration with HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, located at Emerson College in Boston. The pilot placed playwrights on the staff of 14 theaters in 11 cities around the country.
The purpose of embedding residents into theaters of varying sizes and locales is to provide playwrights the time and space to write without distraction, to offer playwrights regular access to the theaters' extensive resources and artistic leadership, and to encourage institutional practices at theaters that are more inclusive of artists' ideas and needs. The expectation is that these arrangements will foster the creation and production of ambitious plays that lend themselves to more effective engagement with audiences and communities. The program is distinctive in its ability to offer a financial security that is often elusive for playwrights. Equally rare is the opportunity for sustained immersion within the theater companies they rely on to present their work to the world.
In March, Helicon Collaborative, an arts and culture consulting group, released Assessment of the National Playwright Residency Program. The report illustrated the initiative’s benefit on the theaters and playwrights that have participated to date. These include positive artistic, financial, and professional impacts for the playwrights and diversity of work onstage. Read the full report for further details around how NPRP, in its short tenure, has served as a "bold and well-executed response to field-wide challenges" across the theater industry.
Siguenza, who is two years into a full-time residency at the San Diego Repertory Theatre that ends in May of 2019, has created San Diego REP favorites Steal Heaven, El Henry, A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, and Manifest Destinitis. During his time in residence, his work has ranged from helping produce Latinx works to mentoring younger artists. He recently communicated with the Mellon Foundation about his experience at The REP and what the playwright residency program means to him:
What do you see as the most salient benefit of the program?
The financial support of NPRP provides a lot of freedom. For a multi-disciplined veteran artist like me, this freedom allows me to be an artist leader in my theater community. I have always had a good relationship with San Diego REP and I am loyal to them as a progressive theater institution, but this grant gives me the freedom to make an impact in other places that have fewer resources and contribute to the theater field as a whole, instead of just one particular institution.
On a personal level, having economic security has fortified my family life and we have been able to set roots in our child’s school and parent community.
Has being embedded in one institution changed how you work?
Being embedded at The REP means I do not need to write every day. It means I can answer emails from young mentees, I go talk to college theater and writing classes, help Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse and his diverse artistic staff read, discuss at length and select a season that represents the community we serve.
I have time to help Patrice Amon run Amigos del REP, now in its fifth year producing Latinx play reading series and developing actors and directors for the main stages. For example, I recently directed Jose Rivera’s magic-realism classic Cloud Tectonics at New Village Arts in Carlsbad. This play was the first of their Teatro Pueblo Nuevo Initiative, designed to produce Latinx work to that theater community.
Many NPRP participants have worked with community members through youth groups, neighborhood associations, churches, schools and even prisons. Tell us about your community experience.
When I do get down to writing and fresh pages are being printed, that’s when collaboration with other artists is essential for me. I’m proud to say that I’m one of few independent artists in the country that can pay other artists to help me develop my new plays thanks to NPRP’s discretionary funds! This arrangement allows me the freedom and flexibility to provide opportunities to other artists without institutional bureaucracy or lack of resources. The artistic collaboration is fast, direct and moves plays along without administrative drag. Eighty percent of my funds have paid actors, readers, dramaturgs, composers, and graphic artists!
What does NPRP mean for the theatrical ecosystem?
Every fellow in NPRP is involved in the program to advance the field as a whole. I can’t speak for my other cohorts but it’s just not playwriting alone that will make a difference. We can only move the chains down field for representation, equality, and theater that matters if we can get our heads out of our laptops and see that we have the freedom, the time, the courage to do so.