Hear from Herbert: What is the REP's Playwright-in-Residence up to?

January 2020

Hi curious Rep family! I’m excited to share with you this column where I will talk about what I have been up to as the Rep’s Playwright-In-Residence. My residency is funded through a generous grant from the William W. Mellon foundation.  This grant has allowed me to dedicate myself to the development of new work for the Rep’s stages and beyond. My residency began in 2016 and has been a major success. In the past four seasons, three of my plays –Manifest Destinitis (based off Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid), the audience engaging Beachtown and most recently Bad Hombres/Good Wives (Based off Moliere’s School for Wives—have been produced as full Rep productions! I hope you experienced at least one of my works and if you did, I’d like to hear from you (My email is below)!

2019 has been my most productive year as a playwright and I’m feeling confident going into the new decade. This past year, I have written three plays that I’m very excited about. Of course these are early or mid-drafts and I’m sure they will continue to get better and mature as I workshop them with actors and get dramaturgical notes from people I trust and respect, like our Literary Manager and in-house Dramaturge, Danielle Ward. My play Isaac Asimov Grand Master Funk is an idea I have been toying with since the beginning of my residency. It’s about master science fiction writer Issac Asimov (1920-1992) who was a prolific author and bio chemist that wrote over five hundred books ranging from fantasy to hard sciences. My play begins at the end of his life where his doctor informs Asimov he has contracted the HIV virus through an innocent blood transfusion he received in 1983.  Asimov prepares to leave his personal papers and documents to the University of Boston library archives. He receives unsolicited help from an African American student who turns out to be a robot and wants Professor Asimov to write his last science fiction story that will save mankind from extinction. Pretty Asimovian crazy, huh? This play will touch on literature, world history, astrophysics, climate change, robotics, evolution, transhumanism, futurism and lots of 1970’s funk music! Do you want to hear and see it? Well, you will get your chance at San Diego Rep’s Jewish Arts Festival 2020. The complete schedule of this exciting and unique festival will be announced soon! On December 16th, Amigos del Rep produced my ambitious reading with live music entitled A People’s Cuban Christmas Tale which was my socialist take on Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The play takes place before, after and during the Cuban revolution of 1959. We had a full enthusiastic house of curious viewers in our Space theatre who came up to congratulate me. My hope is that I can get ready for a full Rep production in December of 2021. Another play I wrote this summer is Los Pochos about a Mexican-American family living in Corpus Christi in 1955. I wrote this bi-lingual play in the style of the great American family dramas. Speaking of new American family dramas, come check out the Tony award winning play The Humans written by Stephan Karan and directed by our own, Todd Salovey. The play runs January 9th through February 2nd on the Lyceum Stage.

The project that has given me the greatest heartache is the original musical I have been toying with for four three years entitled Birth Day. I and my music composer/lyricist Mark Spiro have never written a musical before and I think that’s why it has taken us longer to get it on its feet. However, I’m old enough to know that we have something very unique and groundbreaking in the musical genre. What is a “musical”, anyway? A juke box of pop tunes with a weak book? A remake of a cult 80’s move? A classic revival set in another context? All I know is that half the musicals I see are truly disappointing in the creative and thematic scheme of things. So Mark and I truly believe we are onto something special that might take extra time but will all be worth it. New ground is hard to break and we plan to do just that! If we have a public reading of Birth Day in the near future, you will be the first to find out!

Before I go, I want to let you know about a real exciting project I participated in recently. San Diego’s own Blind Spot Collective commissioned me to write a ten minute pop-up play to be performed at the San Diego Airport. Yes, you heard right. Blind Spot is the first theatre company to receive an art residency at a major airport bringing live performance (spoken word, movement, monologues) to travelers waiting at their gates. A very risky and innovative idea taking theatre to uncharted and unconventional territory. I thought long and hard about what I was going to write and in what performance style I would incorporate to reach a transient (literally) audience that was not in the airport to see and hear theatre. If you know my work, I like to educate and engage with the audience. I wrote a ten minute play with four brave actors entitled Resistance Creates Beauty. I wrote the play in a very broad agit-prop style that would force people to look up from their phones and newspapers and take notice. The play began with, “Hello fellow travelers! Did you enjoy your visit to San Diego? We are here to tell you about a very special neighborhood you probably didn’t hear about called Barrio Logan just south of downtown.” The narrator takes the audience on a local historic ride illustrating  the peaceful life of the Kumeyaay people, the discovery of San Diego Bay by Cabrillo, the colonization and the Camino Real era, the Mexican American war and the annexation and statehood of California. The second half of the play was about the history of one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods Logan Heights also known as Barrio Logan. This working class neighborhood has constantly struggled against the City and State to survive and retain its identity. In 1970, the City promised the embattled neighborhood a park under the newly constructed Coronado Bridge. The City reneged on the offer and broke ground for a California Highway Patrol substation. The community reacted and took action by occupying the land and refusing to move. After twelve days, the City awarded the park back to the people. Now it’s called Chicano Park and it has the highest concentration of murals in the world. Chicano Park is now a National Landmark (higher recognition than listing on the National Register of Historic Places) and will soon open a museum. This story was told in ten minutes before people boarded the plane! I loved this new experience and I hope Blind Spot Collective invites to participate again next year.

Well my friends, thank you for reading my column. I look forward to keeping you updated on all I’m up to and what is coming down the pike. I am so appreciative for all the support and positive comments you give in the lobby—it means the world to me and reminds me that I’m doing something right. Please keep in touch and feel free to write to me about anything at siguenzahertbert@gmail.com.