Herbert Siguenza

Herbert Siguenza stars in “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” which CaltechLive! is streaming through April 4.

An artist who is a painter and actor can tell stories like no other. 

For the last 10 years, Herbert Siguenza has been telling Pablo Picasso’s story.

CaltechLive! is presenting the film adaptation of “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” the one-man play that Siguenza, co-founding member of Culture Clash and playwright in residence at San Diego Repertory Theatre, began performing in 2010. 

It is available on demand through April 4.

The seed for the play was planted when Siguenza was 7 years old and in a dentist’s waiting room. On one of the tables was Douglas Duncan’s book “The Private World of Pablo Picasso.” He perused it, and things shifted for him.

“I was amazed,” said Siguenza, who voiced Tio Oscar in “Coco.”

“I didn’t know who Picasso was at age 7. I saw this old man without a shirt. He had dogs, goats, chickens. I thought, this was a wonderful life. He got it. I told my mom, when I get old, I want to become this man. She said, ‘No. He’s crazy.’”

Decades later, when Siguenza turned 50, he went to the San Diego Rep and told them he wanted to write a play based on this book. They gave him the green light. He researched Picasso’s life and read everything he could get his hands on. The result was “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso.”

 

Painting and storytelling

The play features three fictional days from 1957 in Picasso’s life. Over those days, he paints six paintings and makes three vases for a wealthy client.

Siguenza paints two Picasso-like paintings during the performance. In live performances, he also draws a portrait of an audience member in real time and gives them the drawing after the show. He says that while he does paint live on film, it’s less believable and doesn’t have the same impact. However, he still tells the artist’s story.

“It is nothing earth-shattering,” Siguenza said. “I just wanted people to experience the man himself, the artist.”

Picasso, known as the Father of Modern Art, was a man driven by many demons. During his research, Siguenza found a story that was central to Picasso’s personality — his sister died of dysentery when Picasso was 13.

“The story is in the middle of the play, and I think it is the heart of the story, the reason he is Picasso,” Siguenza said. “He had a vow with God. He told God, ‘If you make her better, I’ll stop painting.’ Then she died and he felt very guilty to be an artist because that meant his sister died because of him.” 

Siguenza has performed the show around the country for the past 10 years. Now, he said, he’s a better actor and painter, something that is reflected in the film that was made last summer. It was the silver lining of COVID-19. 

The Rep wanted to produce a film that it could stream. Siguenza suggested Picasso because it had been developed there and it didn’t require rehearsals. Other institutions are able to stream it.

The play has had subtle changes over the decades, often related to changes in Siguenza’s life as he has grown closer to the painter’s age. There is a change in energy and physicality.

“The piece has evolved as I evolve,” Siguenza said. “I have aged into the piece and I will keep aging into the piece, and it will be more authentic every year.”

 

Finding Picasso’s style

Siguenza’s paintings have always been what he calls “Picassoesque.” It wasn’t a stretch for him to emulate Picasso’s style in the play. He said he is surprised sometimes at what comes out. In the beginning, he practiced frequently to get things just right. 

“It was hard to talk and paint and to do everything at once — acting, painting, remembering the lines and remembering the staging,” Siguenza said. 

“After 10 years of doing the play, it’s second nature now. We did have to change the staging for the movie; that was challenging.”

Siguenza started his career as a painter and a printmaker before becoming one of the co-founders of Culture Clash in 1984. He plans to do this show for the rest of his career. 

“He’s always been an iconic figure and a hero to me,” Siguenza said. “An artist to me is someone who devotes his entire life and being to being an artist, which means being creative every single day, every hour if you can. That’s how Picasso lived. He literally created something every day.”

The show has sold out and received rave reviews, and now it is reaching new audiences during the pandemic. Directed by Tim Powell and Todd Salovey, the film shows the maestro dancing, sculpting, sharing secrets, clowning, drawing, and impersonating a matador.

“Even though many audiences have a long history with Siguenza from his work with Culture Clash, ‘A Weekend with Pablo Picasso’ will be a revelation,” said Michael Alexander, director of public programming at Caltech. 

“Siguenza’s fine acting and painting skills are on full display as he masterfully captures Picasso’s free-spirit character and painting style right before our eyes.”