P. Carl recently talked with Michael Garcés, artistic director of Cornerstone Theater, about their touring production California: The Tempest, which revisits ten California communities that were part of ten year’s of Institute Summer Residencies.

P. Carl: Could you give us some background on Cornerstone and the way you typically approach making a play with a local community so we can get a sense of the California bridge tour in relationship to how you normally work?

Michael: Cornerstone has a core ensemble of artists who make key decisions for the company, including what communities we’re going to approach about collaborations. Once we approach a given community, we’ll start doing research and talking to people through contacts we’ve made, cold calls, internet research. These might be communities defined by geography, or it might also be communities defined in other ways—by religion, by issue, et cetera. Once we find people who have a mutual shared interest in collaborating on a project about community issues happening in the present, we form semi-formal partnerships in which they commit to helping us gain access, to becoming ambassadors for the show, sometimes providing space—it’s certainly not a financial relationship. Then we’ll do a series of group conversations that we call Story Circles over several months. Story Circles aren’t original to Cornerstone, but a lead practitioner comes to the circle with questions to elicit story, conversation, controversy—to gather material for the playwright.

We’re generally a playwright-driven process. Where it’s not so conventional is the meeting of that specific, unique sensibility of the writer (and subsequently the director and the other artists), with the multiplicity of voices in the community. The playwright and often the director will go through a series of encounters with the community—one-on-one interviews, city or town council meetings, local celebrations, unionizing meetings, attending protests, or just hanging out at the local bar. From that gathering of material, the playwright starts writing the play. The play does not purport to be the play of the community—it’s really about that artist’s idiosyncratic voice and what that encounter elicits in them. Generally, we do adaptations of classics or new plays, generally fictions, and people’s voices create synthesis. Once we have a draft, or are close to a draft, or maybe just parts of the play, we’ll go back into the community and do readings of the play where we sit in a circle and then talk about it. Then the director and our community engagement folks will start stalking people and begging them to audition, and really try to see how we can create a comfortable environment in which people who would not ordinarily think of performing would feel comfortable auditioning. We also bring in professional actors. Something that’s central in our aesthetic is the combination of professional actors, often ensemble actors, on stage with community members and seeing how that alchemy can create exciting performances.

We generally look for venues that make sense and enhance the access and comfort of the community. Sometimes it’s site-specific—very particularly the play has been written for the particular site. We do the play in the community, making efforts to bring in people from other communities so there’s a sense of bridging, so that a lot of people are experiencing our story. That’s the essence of our process.

Artistic Director Michael John Garcés with members of Cornerstone Theater Company.
Photo taken by Ed Fuentes.

Carl: You are planning a ten-city California tour with playwright Alison Carey’s California: The Tempest. Will you talk about what gives the state of California a unique connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest? How did you pick the play for this large tour?

Michael: I think a lot of it centered in this notion of people being at the mercy of larger natural elements that were both manipulated by man—in the sense that Prospero creates that storm—but also not being able to control it. Historically people in California have faced this all the time, in terms of wildfires set by men and becoming out of control, as well as non-man-influenced phenomenon, such as earthquakes and mudslides. So there was something about that, and then also the specific challenges we’re facing in a time of climate change and a time of water scarcity—in a time when people feel that catastrophe is imminent somehow, whether that's in two years or twenty years from now. I’m not saying that’s unique to California, but certainly in California, it’s felt very strongly.

The characters in The Tempest are going through this experience of thinking their lives are going to be lost, and being cast adrift and forced to deal with each other in this controlled environment, they start to think about “who do we want to be as human beings?” and “what kind of society, what kind of place do we want to live in?” Prospero himself, or in our case, herself, also has to deal with what she has done, and start to think about what her relationship is to Ariel and Caliban and what it means to “free” them. Caliban’s a very rich character and figures in our exploration in terms of who in California is enslaved, essentially. The California prison system is by some statistical measures bigger than the Soviet gulag was at its height. It’s really present. After Reagan dismantled the mental health facilities, Los Angeles Central Jail is the biggest mental health institution in the state. When you think about who is being kept off the streets and who most of the people in prison are—nonviolent criminals who are mostly three-strikers or drug users—filling those prisons and providing a lot of essentially free labor, and people making money off that; it’s very interesting to think about in relationship to Prospero and Caliban.

Carl: Did Alison work in a specific community to make the play?

Michael: One of the things that we do often is work in cycles. We’ll explore a given theme or a given area over the course of multiple plays working with very different communities. We’re currently in the middle of a cycle of plays investigating issues of hunger with communities across Southern California. We did a project recently in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles. At the culmination of a cycle, we’ll do a final play that bridges the communities. And over the past eleven years now, we’ve done shows every summer in different geographical communities in California. During those residencies, we also produce the Institute where between fifteen and twenty students come and take classes in the morning on our methodology and work with us on making the play in that given place. For this tour, the ten communities we’re working in and with are those ten places from the last ten years.

Alison went to each community multiple times and rekindled relationships and created new relationships. It was out of those conversations and experiences that she wrote The Tempest that we will be touring. We’re bridging all ten communities.

Carl: Have you done a tour like this before?

Michael: We kind of have and we haven’t. My predecessor, Bill Rauch—the founder, a well-known artist and the artistic director of Oregon Shakes—was here for twenty years. When he and Alison Carey founded the company and had their initial ensemble, they were doing work across the United States in rural communities and they did a piece, A Winter’s Tale, that Alison wrote—a tour that bridged communities. When I first got here there were jokes over the years about, oh yeah, we should do a bridge tour for this, and how crazy would that be. At the time Cornerstone originally did the tour, while it was huge and really hard, they were small enough to do it, right? It was hugely ambitious, hugely difficult, but in a way they were small enough to do it. We’re too big to do that kind of thing now. But it did occur to me that if it was all we were doing for a year, it might be manageable. I think the word “manageable” is a word that a lot of people would argue with, even myself, but at the time that seemed right. But other than that no, we’ve never done anything like this, and this tour is much bigger in the sense of how many people are going to be on the road.

We have a core cast of thirteen actors, four who are ensemble members and nine who are community actors. We also have our production staff and community engagement folks who are on the tour, and that includes people from communities who didn’t want to be on the stage, but were interested in participating. We have an advance team that goes a week ahead to do the casting of four speaking roles and six core roles that have lines. So approximately twenty people get cast, and the rest of us get there two weeks before the show goes up. We integrate those people in the show, load in, tech, and put it up—then we move on to the next community. It is certainly a much more comprehensive stay in each community than we’ve ever done before. It’s a big project for us, and it’s going to be a learning experience.

Carl: So you started in 2004 with these communities—a lot has happened not only in California, but in the world in ten years. I don’t know if you can remark on this, but how have the communities evolved? Or, what is it to try to go back after in some cases ten years?

Michael: It’s been quite remarkable. The first two communities were both Central Cali communities, and in both cases I had visited the towns a little bit over the years, mostly when traveling in the Central Valley, but we had no idea how we would be received, or whether people would remember us, or what that experience would be. It was quite remarkable—both people’s excitement about the potential of another project, and also talking to people about how their towns had changed and how their lives were different now. Certainly how people think about and talk about the future has shifted with, again, the imminence of long-term water issues and drought—it really affects these communities drastically Those have all been really rich conversations with a lot of optimism about these things as well; it’s not all gloom and doom.

Carl: I think as practitioners all of us think about why we do this work, and we hope that our impact will be more than the temporal moment of the production. Do you have a sense of the impact of Cornerstone in those communities?

Michael: It feels amazing. You talk to people and you hear stories and they tell you about how they feel impacted by the play, and it’s remarkable. The sense of excitement of people who have seen or experienced the shows, and the eagerness to participate again, speaks to that. I know the people in Lost Hills [a Central Valley community] will talk about how doing that Cornerstone show was a really galvanizing moment towards change in their town, and I can speak to several instances where people will talk about that kind of thing. And I believe it’s true. I also fundamentally believe that participating in a rigorous critical artistic process is intrinsically of deep value, and that process contributes to healthy civic bodies. I believe that in my soul. I look back and I have to believe that Shakespeare had more impact on Western civilization than Queen Elizabeth. I think that’s true. So do I think having those projects in those towns or in those communities has had a deep impact? I do. Can I responsibly point to this part exists because Cornerstone was here? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s an A-to-B relationship, but I think lives are changed, I think people are empowered, I think space is now used in different ways in those communities than it was before, and the potential for space to be used for critical public dialogue and critical art making is real.

Carl: Can you talk a little about the Institute Summer Residency? I’ve known a lot of artists who have gone through that over the years and it has such an amazing impact on the ecosystem, particularly in the American theatre.

Michael: The Institute is one of my favorite things that Cornerstone does. I’m a strong believer in apprenticeship and learning theatre by doing. I recognize that different people learn things differently, but I love the Institute. As a company, we grow so much from it every year and learn so much about ourselves as practitioners and about our process. We’ve had amazing people from all walks of life participating in the institute as students—I think the age range has been from nineteen-year-olds to people in their sixties. We’ve had a lot of theatre practitioners, but also a lot of teachers, Jesuit priests, social workers, a retired accountant—a wide range of folks. The Institute is not about learning artistic practice in that sense of you’re going to think about a style of performance or a way of entering a performance—it’s really about here are some tools for community, in which to engage community and avenues how to integrate that into an aesthetic process, into a theatre-making process, or a performance-making process.  It’s really gratifying to see people in the field making work that is either inspired by or in the vein of Cornerstone’s work, and it’s also gratifying to see people pushing back against it, being like, “I’m doing something totally different and I’m doing that because I don't agree with how you do it,” and making different kind of community engaged work. I think that speaks to impact. A lot of our staff members  now and over the years have been Institute students. So there’s also been the impact of bringing fresh perspectives into the company that has really enriched our work and our ecology.