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Cornerstone puts the immigration issue center stage

May 27, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

WHILE the president and Congress were struggling to reach a consensus on what to do about illegal immigration, the ensemble at Los Angeles' Cornerstone Theater had already agreed to address the issue with its next play, "Los Illegals," written by the theater's new artistic director, Michael John Garces .

Opening June 7 at the Armory Northwest in Pasadena, "Los Illegals" will be the first play in a new Cornerstone cycle organized around the theme of justice and "how laws shape and disrupt community," in the theater's description. Subsequent productions will cover reproductive rights, incarceration and the environment.

Like all Cornerstone works, "Los Illegals" is the result of a playwright and director researching a subject with people from the community under scrutiny, then casting some of those people in a production with professional actors. Such community-based drama has been the special province of Cornerstone, a national theater company based in Los Angeles since 1992.

The community in question in "Los Illegals" is the hordes of day laborers who congregate in parking lots at Home Depot stores and on street corners hoping to get temporary work, much of it in construction and landscaping. Most, but not all, of these workers are undocumented Latino immigrants, and their true stories have provided Garces with the inspiration for "Los Illegals." Under the direction of longtime company member Shishir Kurup, the play will be performed in an equal mixture of English and Spanish, reflecting the bilingual inmigrante subculture.

Cornerstone is familiar with the challenge of initiating ordinary people into the rigors of the stage, but "Los Illegals" brings another challenge: that of incorporating workers into the ensemble who might be facing legal jeopardy. While the show was being cast, fresh Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in San Diego were making news. "We thought about having people wear masks," says Kurup. "We didn't ask anybody about their status."

And although there is always the danger of attrition with amateurs who don't realize at first how hard theater can be, Kurup says, "people here have felt the great need to tell this story, and so they have come and been willing to work."

The bilingual approach

GARCeS, the son of a Cuban father and Minnesotan mother, grew up in Colombia and attended the University of Miami, but he says that calculating the blend of English and Spanish proved to be a new kind of math for him as a playwright, even while he saw it as a necessary strategy given the subject at hand.

"Most undocumented workers do not speak English," Garces says. There are some stretches of Spanish in the play where people who don't speak Spanish may be somewhat befuddled, "but I think that reflects a certain reality of Los Angeles. And then there are clearly stretches of English where the monolingual Spanish speakers will wonder what's going on and will have to glean it from the action."

Getting plot points across in both languages is essential, he says. "We're still struggling with it; that's what's exciting about this play."

Cornerstone has done its share of multilingual theater in the past, but "Los Illegals" will be its first thoroughly bilingual play.

"There's not a lot of truly bilingual theater going on," says Garces, who has directed plays in Spanish as well as English and been a director at INTAR, the long-running Latino theater in New York. "We'll learn about the viability of a truly bilingual experience."

Garces came to Cornerstone from New York last year after 15 years working as a freelance director at major American nonprofit theaters like the Hartford Stage Company, Yale Repertory and the Humana Festival but also after spending time with a consensus-based collective theater group in Chiapas, Mexico, staging similar community-based plays using farmers and other residents. Last year, he was initiated in the Cornerstone method by its founder, Bill Rauch, when Rauch invited him to co-direct a play about the history of a local neighborhood at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. (Rauch, who co-founded Cornerstone with Alison Carey in 1986, departed to run the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.)

Unlike the traditional hierarchy at not-for-profit theaters, where the artistic director chooses the plays, at Cornerstone the 15 permanent ensemble members discuss ideas and possibilities, achieving consensus before moving ahead with the next show.

In Garces' first discussions with the company, "a lot of things seemed to be on the table and in flux -- immigration, reproductive rights," he says. The meetings led to a slight change in approach. "For the first time we're looking at community through the prism of issues as opposed to looking at issues through the prism of community. It's a little different, deciding what we want to grapple with and then finding communities that are at the front lines of this issue."

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