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Seeking heart in the country

With four weeks and a cast recruited from a hardscrabble town's housing projects, a theater company builds a play.

August 01, 2004|Bill Rauch | Special to The Times

It's Sunday. As I drive north on Interstate 5, I can't stop thinking about where I'm headed.

I co-founded Cornerstone Theater Company with Alison Carey in 1986. For the last 18 years, we've collaborated with communities all over the country to make theater that involves dozens of local people, usually first-time artists, in plays that examine and celebrate the local community.

Our earliest projects were epic interactions between classic texts and small towns: a Wild West "Hamlet" with ranchers in North Dakota, the ancient rituals of the "Oresteia" adapted to a Nevada Native American reservation, and a biracial "Romeo and Juliet" in the segregated streets of Mississippi. We began urban work in Los Angeles on the Monday after the civil unrest in 1992, and have been working in Southern California ever since.

But right now I'm driving north toward Cornerstone's first collaboration with a rural community in more than 14 years.

Lost Hills is best known to travelers for its truck stop at I-5 and California 46, the road that connects the Central Valley to the Central Coast, the road where James Dean made his last drive. But two miles west of fast-food restaurants and gas stations, there's a town of over 1,900 residents: mostly Latino families whose primary source of income is the local almond harvesting and packaging industry. I drive past a baseball field that's filled with men playing soccer and drinking beer, surrounded by playing families.

This is one of the richest pieces of land in the world, worked by some of our country's poorest residents. There are no streetlights or stoplights in Lost Hills. Most streets are unpaved, creating problematic dust in the summer and more problematic mud in the winter. The town has the lowest ratio of high school graduates in California, and the highest average number of people living in each home, roughly half of which are trailers.

Over the last eight months, playwright Jose Cruz Gonzalez has written "Waking Up in Lost Hills," a loose adaptation of "Rip Van Winkle." The play has grown directly out of our process of interviews and story circles with members of the Lost Hills community. We'll be living, rehearsing and performing on the campus of the local elementary and middle school. Air-conditioned and modern, the school is the town's oasis.

In four weeks, by working 14 hours a day on average, Cornerstone will mount a full production of an original, bilingual musical play with town residents onstage and backstage and with the highest possible professional artistic standards. I'm the director.


Cornerstone's multiethnic staff Is not the only group of visitors in Lost Hills. This project is the first incarnation of the Cornerstone Institute. Eighteen students, ages 21 to 59, have flown in from all over the country to study the company's methodology and to experience it by participating in the production. These students are the present and future leaders of community-based theater in the U.S.

As I listen to each one share his or her experience and passion, I'm struck by the fact that when Cornerstone began operations almost two decades ago, the term "community-based" was not on our field's radar screen. Today, Cornerstone is part of a vibrant national movement of making art that is participatory, art that is life-changing for everyone involved.

After a three-hour orientation, we head into town, split into small teams. I'm with three students, and we're knocking on random doors in a subsidized housing project, trying to drum up folks for tonight's auditions. Usually women and small children answer, and we observe a consistent dance: When they see our non-Latino faces, they begin to move back and shut the door. As I speak my inadequate Spanish, they smile and come forward. We leave them with bilingual audition fliers, and they leave us with hearts full of gratitude for their willingness to listen and at least pretend they might show up.

Thirty-one community members show up -- mostly kids but also a handful of adults. Some read aloud from a newspaper (English or Spanish), others perform lively improvisations, while many tackle scenes from our play. After several passes with suggested adjustments from the directorial team, one teenager says with surprise, "Oh, you want me to act it?" The professional team and students talk over the auditioning pool well into the night.


"What a great first week we had yesterday," jokes one participant.

But we're just getting started. After the students view a four-hour slide show history of Cornerstone, we do a round of auditions that yield 19 hopefuls. In the evening, we have callbacks. In a Cornerstone community collaboration, everyone is asked to return for a second audition partly to affirm their efforts and partly to see whose lives allow them to actually show up a second time. In Lost Hills, most people do.

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