LA Stage

Jan./Feb. 2004

 

 

CORNERSTONE'S JEWISH PROJECT

Yehuda Hyman & Tracy Young Join Forces

 

by Rob Kendt

 

Artistic collaboration has no hard-and-fast rules, although the professional theatre, like the professional film set, has developed its own hierarchies and job descriptions: director, playwright, actor, designer, audience.

 

Cornerstone Theater Company has spent the last 17 years playing musical chairs with the division of labor most theatre pros take for granted. Founded by Harvard students with theatre training but no degrees (Harvard doesn't offer one) and based in L.A. since 1992, Cornerstone has made it its mission to involve non-professionals from diverse and variously defined communities at every step of its process, from writing to performing to crewing their shows.

 

The leap of faith Cornerstone has made is that this give-and-take between community members and sympathetic, imaginative artists will make better, more challenging, more relevant art--and not, as some might imagine, compromised, liberal-minded edu-tainment that offends no one.

 

Recently they’ve been making an even more daring leap of faith, literally, with a series of plays about, and developed with, religious communities, from Catholic immigrants (Crossings) to gay/lesbian/transgender believers (Body of Faith) to Muslims (the recent contemporary remix of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You).

 

Cornerstone’s Jewish project, The Center of the Star (opening Jan. 29), is being co-produced by Greenway Arts Alliance. It is helmed by two non-member guest artists, playwright Yehuda Hyman and director Tracy Young, both of whom face an inevitable learning curve in working the Cornerstone way. In recent interviews, both sounded flexible enough to bend with that curve.

 

Hyman had attended several Cornerstone shows and knew he wanted in. “I particularly wanted to do this kind of work,” says Hyman, who wrote Center after meeting with representatives of diverse Jewish communities from around L.A. “I knew going in that it’s a collaboration--I don’t get to do whatever I want. Including the community is the whole ball of wax.”

 

Hyman didn’t arrive with a pre-existing story outline, or, as is often Cornerstone’s practice, with a classic to adapt. That made Hyman’s work especially arduous: He went to 17 “story circles”--informal gatherings of community members and artists where thoughts, concerns, and, yes, even stories are shared--and conducted 48 private interviews to shape his play. He was interested in including as much ethnic, geographic, and observational diversity as possible, from Persian to Russian, secular to Orthodox Jews.

 

“It’s been a real courtship, a dance,” he says. “With the different levels of observance, it gets really tricky. We decided we wouldn't have shows on Friday night, and some of the people who turned up for the auditions said it was the first play they could audition for--they were Orthodox people who’ve want to perform and never could.”

 

The central inspiration for Hyman’s story, about a Jewish family riven by tragedy, came from a visit to Beit T’Shuvah, a recovery/rehab facility in West L.A. that incorporates Jewish spirituality into traditional 12-step and other therapeutic regimens. “I went to a Friday service at T’Shuvah and was totally blown away by the experience in that room,” he recalls. “It was families from every class, ethnicity, and level of observance--every spectrum of the Jewish rainbow.”

 

This sense of common Jewishness, shared across many divides, informed his vision of the play’s diverse 31-member cast. And the facility’s name, “T’Shuvah,” which means “to return,” gave him his central theme.

 

For the non-Jewish Tracy Young--a writer/director who previously worked with Cornerstone on a co-production with the Actors’ Gang of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, and who wrote its workplace-community piece Candude--the learning curve is less about conforming to Cornerstone’s process than about approaching this community as an outsider.

 

Spiritual and religious themes have definitely come up in my work,” says Young, whose Dreamplay touched on both Jung and Mormonism, and whose recent direction of Shishir Kurup’s Shakespeare update The Merchant on Venice explored the Hindu/Muslim divide among L.A.’s South Asian community. “It’s like I’m making a tour of world religions in my work, which is really exciting to me.”

 

And intimidating: “It’s a good thing, and a difficult thing, that everyone has passionate feelings about their faith and about the representation of Jews in a public, artistic form. Not being Jewish myself, I think I have a useful perspective--I have a theatrical language to communicate. But I do feel sometimes, Wow, how are we all going to negotiate this?”

 

Indeed, Cornerstone’s current cycle of plays defining community in terms of faith traditions has been especially fraught with negotiation and challenge. Previous collaborations defined community by neighborhoods (Beverly Hills, Pacoima, South Central), ethnicity (Arab-Americans) or workplaces (postal workers, cops, bus drivers), and as such followed relatively a clear arc from ignorance to understanding. The troupe’s L.A. work to date culminated in 2000 with a "bridge" show, For Here or To Go?, at the Mark Taper Forum, which brought members of all these communities together.

 

But getting people to talk about their faith is a challenge of a different order than getting them to open up about class, politics, even race. Religious beliefs are so personal and foundational that discourse among disparate groups, even with the guidance of artists and experienced facilitators, can be more minefield than cakewalk--especially when the ultimate goal of the dialogue is to make a great piece of theatrical art together.

 

“This has been a tough cycle,” admits Mark Valdez, Cornerstone’s acting artistic director. “The questions that are coming up over and over in this collaboration are so emotional and personal. It definitely ups the stakes.”

 

The Cornerstone play-development process involves sharing the writer’s first draft with members of the community, and this can either be a productive exchange, as Hyman said it has been with Center of the Star, or a deal-breaker. The first play commissioned for the recent Muslim project, for instance, was rejected out of hand by community partners, so the Kaufman/Hart adaptation was chosen instead.

 

Even if, like Hyman, outside artists come in with a willingness to compromise, an attitude adjustment is often required.

 

“We try to brief artists about what they're getting into,” says Valdez. “But then they get into rehearsals and somebody's father whose child is in the show has a lot of comments about the play. In Cornerstone, we will actually take these kind of notes. There have been some cases where this has been a big problem for the artists. So we do a lot mediating.”

 

It’s not all endless struggle, though; there are breakthroughs. During a recent collaboration with African-American churches around the issue of AIDS, some community partners had concerns that homosexuality was too prevalent a theme in Tracy Scott Wilson’s play, Order My Steps.

 

“We engaged in many long conversations,” Valdez says. “We tried to convince them, 'This is why we're working on this,' and we listened to why that could be a problem for the community. Things were often uncomfortable, but people heard us, and we got to hear them. Some of these were conversations that they, and we, had never had before.

 

“And there are clear examples of change. One reverend who had refused to talk about AIDS came to see Order My Steps with his congregants. Two weeks later he talked about it from his pulpit, and preached compassion. That’s a big deal.”

 

Faith can move mountains, as the old song goes. It helps to have people, like the artists and associates of Cornerstone, willing to rise to the challenge of climbing them.