First a team of workers rolled up to the Skirball Cultural Center and dumped 220 bags of rice. Then the provocative British theater troupe turned up, scoops in hand, sums in mind.
Now the Skirball's galleries are crowded with golden rice piles on crisp squares of white paper -- 5.5 tons of unrealized risotto, or potential paella, if you prefer.
But this display is strictly food for thought, a bid to give shape and weight to the abstractions that dominate every day's newspaper and every night's newscast. At 60 grains per gram, these mounds pencil out to 300 million grains of rice -- one for every American. For six hours a day over the next five days, five performers from the troupe Stan's Cafe will be measuring and re-measuring that rice into scores of subsets to illustrate the state of this city, this country and the planet.
"This is foreign-born residents of the USA," said Craig Stephens, the troupe's associate director, gently raining golden grains down upon a square of paper during preparations Sunday. "Thirty-four million."
The pile for Americans without health insurance was even larger -- 46 million -- as was the one for a day's worth of McDonald's customers worldwide: 47 million. Later, the performers would get to the smaller piles, like the one for humans who have walked on the moon: 12.
The show, which opens to the public today, is titled "Of All the People in All the World." As they go about their chores in brown coats that look like lab jackets, the performers will invite feedback from visitors.
"It's so filled with the mystery of life," said Jordan Peimer, director of programs for the Skirball, as he watched piles grow.
When Peimer first heard about the work at last year's Fringe Festival at Edinburgh, Scotland, he confessed, he expected a "one-note" show and allowed himself 20 minutes to check it out. Instead, taken with the "poetry" of the presentation, he stayed nearly two hours and started working to bring it to California.
The performers aim for a mix of local, national and global figures, the dispiriting and the inspiring alike, so that the number of people carrying the HIV virus in sub-Saharan African (25 million) might turn up alongside the world's longest human chain (2 million people, achieved 17 years ago in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania when those nations were struggling to break free from Soviet domination).
The Skirball presentation will also feature dozens of numbers drawn from both Jewish history and Los Angeles demography.
Performers will put out 10 million grains to represent deaths in the Holocaust. They may also put an additional 5.2 million (for Jews in the U.S. today) or 570,000 (which is one estimate of the Jewish population in greater Los Angeles). Or maybe some casualty figures from last month's fighting in Israel and Lebanon.
In the three years that the show's been touring, Stephens has faced plenty of energetic questioning on his sources, but nobody yet has asked him to withdraw a pile. In any event, he said, "I'm more interested in telling little stories than I am in making political points."
One short story he likes begins with a pile of 9 million grains, which stands for the number of people incarcerated worldwide. Next to that, the troupe will pour a pile of 8 million: the number of Americans who live in gated communities.
That, said Stephens, is usually good for "a wry smile."
Their rice of choice is the American long-grained variety, which, in addition to looking golden on white paper, has vaguely human dimensions, each grain with the approximate proportions of a tiny reclined person.
"There are 1,380,000 people in a bag," said Stephens, nodding toward one of the 50-pound sacks scattered around the Skirball's 5,600-square-foot show area. Thus, to show the audience for the last "Cheers" episode in 1993 takes more than 65 bags. (Though extrapolations from Nielsen ratings vary, the troupe uses 90 million.)
Maybe this seems a long way from "Hamlet" or "Death of a Salesman" or even "Waiting for Godot." But since its founding 15 years ago by director James Yarker, Birmingham, England-based Stan's Cafe has made its reputation on works unlikely to float in the mainstream.
One of its most popular pieces is "It's Your Film," which includes a cast of two, lasts four minutes and can only be staged for a single viewer in a booth, looking through a rectangular hole in the wall. Then there's the more recent "Home of the Wriggler," in which the stage is lighted by car headlights powered by performers, ferociously pedaling. The story, provoked by the decline of the auto industry in Birmingham, is set in a future when power is scarce and cars are relics from lost era.