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THEATER : Fantasy at the Fringe : Cornerstone Theatre chose to present its futuristic 'Rushing Waters' in Pacoima because, they say, the margins of L.A. are the city in microcosm.

February 05, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Valley Life.

In 1986, when Cornerstone Theatre Company began its vagabonding adventure from small town to small town across the country, no one associated with the group ever imagined that it would end up in Pacoima, staging a futurist musical fantasy set on the one remaining plot of land after the Big One has hit Los Angeles.

Then again, the whole nature of Cornerstone is that it is never absolutely certain where it is going next. Only that it is going on.

But with its new show, Migdalia Cruz's "Rushing Waters," opening Thursday at the Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley, Cornerstone is also going out on a limb as it never has.

It has never produced a show from the ground up in a large, multiracial urban neighborhood like Pacoima. ("The Toy Truck," the company's first of several planned productions during its extensive L.A. residency, was done at Angelus Plaza, a compact downtown retirement community).

It has never produced a completely original play with a playwright outside the company. It has never produced with a cast and crew in which new visiting artists outnumber longtime resident artists. It has never produced a musical with a new score (by Danny Vicente, Darren Brady and LaRue Marshall) supported by a live band (Vicente and Brady).

And as for the futurist musical fantasy business? Well, Cornerstone has never done that before, either.

Bill Rauch, Cornerstone's co-artistic director and the play's director, is asked if people were a bit fearful about the project.

"Not fearful, really," he says, "but curious about how things would turn out."

This isn't smooth talk to cover sheer terror. It's a kind of guiding principle behind the company, which has consistently defied expectations by adapting the classics to be set in the community Cornerstone visits.

In the mid-'80s, young artists like Rauch and Cornerstone co-founder Alison Carey were supposed to go from well-endowed college careers at Harvard into the big, established theaters--not hit the road, settle down in a strange town and persuade locals to join them and put on a show.

But the road called.

"We knew early on that if we had success, it wasn't necessarily what we wanted to have," says Rauch, 30. "And it wasn't a case of reacting against a certain kind of production form, but the general theater audience, which is so narrow and not reflective of the larger community. We knew that we couldn't grow as artists playing to that same audience all the time and that whole communities were being left out."

"To my mind, Cornerstone is on the forefront of cultural democracy," says director and Los Angeles Festival head Peter Sellars. "We always hear from artists telling us what America is about, but we've seldom seen artists such as these who go out and meet America. They have none of the change-the-world arrogance. They're not good at promoting themselves. They just go out and do it."

The continuing challenge, those close to Cornerstone say, is dealing with the very different Americas within the nation. Pacoima, Rauch acknowledges, may be very different from Norcatur, Kan. (where Cornerstone staged its 1988 Moliere adaptation, "Tartoof" and where its rural headquarters remains), but both towns share a reality that attracts the ensemble group like a magnet: marginality.

Pacoima, struggling with many of the same tensions that plague South-Central--gangs, drugs, poverty and crime--is miles and miles from the inner city, but the company views it as Los Angeles in microcosm.

"While we're in L.A.," Rauch says, "we're going to the fringes, the forgotten places of the city, and Pacoima exemplifies that."

One would expect, then, that the author of "Rushing Waters" would be a Pacoima native. Instead, Cruz--whom everyone at rehearsals at the Boys & Girls Club calls "Micki"--has risen from the tough streets of the South Bronx to prominence among experimental Latina playwrights. Rauch and she first worked together on "Occasional Grace," a collaborative work by New York's En Garde Arts company in 1991, and since then have wanted to join forces again.

Because of Cruz's Puerto Rican background, Rauch says, "we knew a few eyebrows might be raised since she isn't, say, Mexican-American, but Micki's commitment to community is very akin to ours, and she also had experience with musicals," such as her epic work with Hilary Blecher, "Frida."

During her first visit to Pacoima in August and September, Cruz soaked up the lore and the people, from coffee shops to the library, where she learned about the local 1938 flood that killed several Japanese-American families.

Here was a trigger for her story, set in both a post-earthquake Hansen Dam refuge for abused children and a waiting room for the spirits of famous adults with some historical connection to Pacoima (from the first black postmaster, Nancy Avery, to singer Ritchie Valens). Into their midst arrive a feuding mother, father and daughter (played by Maggie Palomo, Benajah Cobb and Trinidad Barajas).

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