This post is the last of a series about Cornerstone Theater Company's California Bridge Tour, the culmination of our work with ten communities over the past ten years through our Institute Summer Residency Program. Cornerstone's touring production California: The Tempest celebrates and unites these ten communities onstage, in the audiences, and in the content and themes of the play's script and design. This series uses the communities as jumping off points to share thinking and experiences specific to the project, as well as Cornerstone's longtime practice of creating community-based theatre.
“I sit Californians down in rooms and ask them ‘Do you feel like Californians?’” Sebastia says pointedly, stranded by Prosper’s tempest on a mountain island with handpicked residents from the golden state. “Most of them? Most of them say ‘No’…”
As a Cornerstone artist, I am often not of the community we are working with—an outsider, if you will. So the work calls for a balance between entering the community as a guest while hosting a co-creative process. In the case of California: The Tempest, it’s a bit more complicated. I’ve been a Californian in a compartmentalized north/south kind of way. I’m a community member of two of the ten cities on the tour. Born and raised in San Francisco, I migrated to Los Angeles for college and inadvertently carved out a life here. But it took me a good five years before I could say to myself or others that I lived in LA. The two cities seemed opposites in every way, and may as well have been in different states.
Jump cut to 1992, when Cornerstone gave up their nomadic ways to put down roots in LA, and my life was changed forever. My art making, my path, and my world-view did a 180 from exclusive to inclusive. I began to meet and know individuals, neighborhoods, communities in Los Angeles that in a life untouched by Cornerstone, I might have only experienced as a freeway exit flying by.
Instead, I am in Jordan’s Cafe in Watts, trying to entice folks to come upstairs and audition for a play called Sid Arthur. I’m in a story circle witnessing the talent, passion and heartache of a gay Palestinian belly dancer who introduces us to the Arabic word ghurba—his deeply complex longing for home. I am sitting with a Buddhist priest on a rainy night as she laments an apology to Amy Goodman for not listening to her Democracy Now reports anymore because it had become “just too hard.” I am becoming attached to a smacksmart ten-year-old in our Chinatown cast, knowing she will change the world. Making connections through Cornerstone’s work, work that puts our humanity at the forefront, has brought me to gratefully declare that I am indeed living in Los Angeles. Moreover, this work, this life of engagement, has made me a better artist and a better human being.
Los Angeles was the right choice as Cornerstone’s home base for its infinite and diverse communities. “We could go on making plays forevahhh!” co-founder Alison Carey would swoon. The subtext was and-they-created-happily-ever-after, edged with just the slightest terror. With her chutzpah for tackling terrifyingly big ideas, it made sense that she be the one to write the play that would bridge ten California communities that spanned from Holtville to Eureka (about 850 miles), from Lost Hills (pop. 2,412) to LA (pop 3.93 million) and all the diversity you can imagine in between. So it was Alison who traveled up and down the state, asking folks, “Do you feel like Californians?” And from her harvest she planted in our play stories of California love, California lost, and California found again.
On our tour, first time actors to self-identified professionals from each of these ten communities retell these stories, their authentic voices connecting us to each place, even when some are cast as characters from cities not their own. As a Cornerstone artist and perpetual guest in communities, I’m rarely cast to play a member of the community. In California: The Tempest, I am playing a spirit, not of any human California community, but of the very land and its elements. And as we each voice for our own or one another’s community—its pride, concerns, hopes, and dreams—we hear ourselves, we hear one another, we find shared experience and difference. Ultimately we come to a place of empathy, which is arguably what draws us to theater—our inherent need for empathy.
In a Cornerstone show I am engaged in mutual mentorship—something the company has been discussing a lot lately. As a theatre practitioner, I share my skills and experience. Actors from the community bring a layered depth of knowledge and experience of their community. And if everyone brings their curiosity and sense of play, the collaboration ignites. And here’s what is of immeasurable value in this work: co-creating and embodying someone’s story across from them both provides and demands the truth. Can you imagine always sharing the stage with your source material? As an actor, the truth of a character is what you are seeking, and in a Cornerstone play, the truth is always right across from you, informing your journey. As a theatremaker, the truth of the story is what you are responsible for. But in a Cornerstone play, that responsibility becomes personal. We’ve been welcomed into a community and entrusted with telling their stories alongside them.
Now, can you imagine, sitting in the audience amidst the source of the play—-friends, family, organizations of the community, witnessing their stories? The delight is audible, the recognition palpable, and the ownership powerful. Indeed, at each tour stop, the character who spoke for that community became central, their lines popping and landing like never before, shifting the rhythm of the play and causing all of us to rediscover it.
The Cornerstone gift is to be in a creative process that is immersed in the truth and humanity of your subject—from the gym or church sanctuary or grassy field you are rehearsing in, and the children to seniors with whom you share the stage, to the DNA in the set that community members helped to assemble, to the audience gathered at each stop. We are cross-pollinating, literally exchanging molecules in a process that at its best, translates to a cellular connection and understanding between individuals, between communities. This immersion makes Cornerstone a 4D theater experience, and participating in it deeply satisfying, illuminating, and celebratory. I guess that is why I’m still doing so after twenty-three years.
In the four decades I have been on stage, most of my many family members have never seen me perform. It was profound to have forty of them walk into the theatre and join our audience as part of the San Francisco community, and my personal community. Their presence bridged my roots in San Francisco with my life as an artist in Los Angeles. It is important for each of us to witness and be witnessed. It makes us more whole, connects us to one another physically, psychically, meaningfully, joyfully, divinely.
In playing Ariel, it was only too perfect to embody her point of view throughout this process: her witnessing, her curiosity and even empathy for humans and how they are connected. And it was only too perfect to have her point of view as we took flight over the length of our beautiful state, north to south, from San Francisco back to Los Angeles to close the tour.
And so our play is done, and you are free.
Those folks you’ll never see again, nor me.
We’re just for show and entertainment appeal
But you, you each and every, you are real.
And in your realness, there’s our opportunity.
You’re one of family, neighborhood, community,
But still beyond: you are city, county, state.
Relationships to own, to celebrate.
Then region, nation, planet, universe.
The power of those identities can reverse
The many forces keeping us apart.
We are each other. We’ve got work to start.
A million plans to make and things to do,
Cruel pains to fix, aspirations to see through.
Some folks will doubt. “It’s not possible!” they’ll warn ya.
But of course it is. Because this is California.