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Cornerstone Gets Ready to Party

June 23, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

If your birthday happens to fall on next Sunday, Cornerstone Theater Company has a very unusual present in mind for you.

June 30 is the hook on which is hung the 20th century history of Los Angeles in Cornerstone's latest production, "Birthday of the Century," playing Wednesday through next Sunday at the outdoor Watercourt Stage in downtown Los Angeles.

You don't have to be a June 30 baby to attend or participate in this free show. But the play begins on June 30, 1902, with the first birthday of a character who dies in the last scene, set on June 30, 1996.

Also, 20 of the 29 actors and many of the behind-the-scenes participants in the production were born on, yes, June 30.

Cornerstone specializes in doing theater within specific communities, which usually are defined by geography, culture or (coming soon) occupation, said "Birthday" writer Shishir Kurup. Some of the company's projects have focused on Pacoima, L.A.'s Arab Americans and Watts, among others.

Yet this can be "confining," he said. When the group did its recent projects in Watts, "there was an assumption that there is a monolithic Watts experience--and there isn't." The group learned that there are many boundaries within Watts--at one location, the company was told not to wear purple because it was a local gang's color.

For its next project, Cornerstone "wanted to find a way to make 'community' random, so it would cut across these lines," Kurup said. So the group cooked up "the little wacky idea" of defining a community around a birthday.

No, astrology wasn't a factor, though Kurup noted the "serendipitous accident" that a show focusing on people born under Cancer, a water sign, will take place at Watercourt.

June 30 was selected because Cornerstone wanted to celebrate its own 10th birthday--it began operations on June 30, 1986. The company began looking for individuals who were born on June 30. Lured by ads, flyers, newspaper notices and signs on cars, more than 200 people contacted Cornerstone. At least 50 auditioned for roles. About 30 will participate onstage or off, and others are expected to attend.

Kurup's script for the big event is loosely based on Thornton Wilder's celebrated one-act "The Long Christmas Dinner," in which several generations of one family are born, live and die in a time-compressed script that parallels nine decades of American history. Tappan Wilder, Wilder's nephew and estate guardian, gave the group permission to be "inspired by" his uncle's original play (for free) as long as it didn't "adapt" it, avoided Wilder's actual words, and limited its use to this one time. Kurup said that his script uses Wilder's concepts, as well as characters based on the originals (plus a few additions), but none of the dialogue.

In demographic terms, Kurup's text wanders far afield from Wilder's originals. The characters here change ethnicities, languages and genders in order to reflect the history of multicultural L.A. For example, the family becomes Japanese American just in time to be interned during World War II. Although English is the most widely heard language, fragments of the text are in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Russian.

"We've worked out the clarity issues," Kurup said, "but the audience will have to go on the ride and figure it out as we go."

Watercourt Stage, which accommodates at least 300 spectators, is the largest L.A. venue Cornerstone has used. The production includes digitally designed murals from Venice-based SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) and a band perched on a platform in the adjacent pool.

The cast includes three Actors' Equity members from Cornerstone's resident company, plus a couple of professional actors, previously unknown to the company, who responded to the call for June 30 babies. The bulk of the cast, however, is non-pro. The players range in age from 15 months to 86, with the latter age represented by Juanita Smith, a June 29 baby who in 1992 was a participant in Cornerstone's first L.A. project at Angelus Plaza senior center, next door to the Watercourt.

And did this motley assembly form a community? Do they share something besides a birthday? Replied Cornerstone artistic director and "Birthday" director Bill Rauch: "They all care about this story and about this city."

Rauch knows the feeling. When Cornerstone arrived in Los Angeles four years ago after a mostly itinerant existence in scattered rural outposts, "we thought of it as a residency for a couple of years," he said.

After that first project at Angelus Plaza, however, "we realized we could spend the rest of our lives working within communities in Los Angeles. The number of communities here is limitless."

So Cornerstone is here to stay, Rauch said: "This is our home."


"Birthday of the Century," California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave. Wednesday to next Sunday, 8:30 p.m. Information: (310) 449-1700, (888) 900-CAKE. Free admission; call to reserve a piece of birthday cake. On Saturday, a post-show "Dancedown 'til Midnight" costs $35 or pay-what-you-can.

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