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Cornerstone Theater Company marks 25 years in LA with 'The Magic Fruit'

For the past six years, L.A.'s Cornerstone Theater Company has investigated what it means to be hungry — and we aren’t just talking about food here.

The group created eight new plays with eight local communities, each in search of satisfying some type of hunger: — former gang members hungry to start new lives; homeless people seeking shelter; school lunch ladies hungry to serve healthier food to students. Each story explores what it means to be malnourished in some way.  Now, Cornerstone is bridging all the plays and community groups together in one brand new show called “The Magic Fruit.”  

To mark the company’s 25 years in Los Angeles, Cornerstone Theater’s artistic director, Michael John Garces, has adapted Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and set it in a post-apocalyptic L.A. world.  

“It felt to me that something like 'Magic Flute' would be an inspiration to write a play that allowed for lyrical lightness, love and celebration," says Garces, "as well as some real darkness.”

The play is called “The Magic Fruit” because it explores the crossroads of growing food, protecting our planet and all types of hunger that has shown up in different ways in our town and world.

Stage manager Nikki Hyde loves it when new people join the cast of a Cornerstone show. This production is special because it’s what they call a "bridge show.”  That means eight different community groups in L.A. are coming together to form one large cast to tell a bigger story.

“Community members come in with this excitement, it’s like doing something for the first time,” Hyde says.  “And there’s certain people who are just like, ‘Oh yeah! I know what a cue light is!  (Laughs) Oh yeah!  I have all this make up I can use!’"

When you see a Cornerstone show, it's always a mix of actors telling the story.  Some are professionals, while others are folks who may have never stepped on a stage, but they belong to the group that the story is about.

In this case, “The Magic Fruit” is the capstone show that ends Cornerstone’s six years of exploring the topic of hunger.  It tells the story of Tami, an ex-gang member, who fights drought, addiction and poverty to save the world and get back to her family.  The Queen of the Rain makes trouble for her.  The Queen is played by veteran Cornerstone actress Page Leong.

Leong has had a quite a journey herself. After years of exploring the topic of hunger with all kinds of people. she made a personal discovery:  she can grow a garden!  In fact, her backyard is full of beautiful banana trees.

“I always thought [gardening] was something other people could achieve,” laughs Leong. “It’s grounded me so much.  It’s connected me to my land.”  

Creating connections is the real magic fruit for Cornerstone — connections between people, places and the problems we all have to solve together.  The company was formed in 1986 by a group of Harvard students who wanted to use theater as a tool for social change.  

The seed was planted when a young playwright named Alison Carey bumped into an emerging director named Bill Rauch at the Harvard Bookstore. Rauch was looking for the theatre textbook section. Carey showed him the way. Eventually, they knew they needed to work together.

“We’d heard a really damning statistic in college that only two percent of American people went to professional theater on anything approaching a regular basis,” Rauch recalls. “And we were really freaked out that — even if we were lucky enough to be successful in our careers — we would not be in touch with 98 percent of our fellow citizens.  And that was really disturbing.”

So, after their Harvard graduation, Rauch, Carey and company packed up a big blue van and hit the road, taking theater to the other 98% —  mostly in rural America.  They did adaptations of classic works by Shakespeare and Moliere. The shows were often well-received, but sometimes there was pushback, according to Rauch’s husband and original Cornerstone member, Christopher Liam Moore.

“One of the most profound lessons we learned in 1987,” Moore says. “We went to Norcatur, Kansas, which is a small farming town in the northwest corner of Kansas.  We were doing Moliere’s 'Tartuffe,' which is about religion.”

Long story short, the Kansans didn’t care about the play that Cornerstone wanted to create.  While the company members wanted to re-tell Moliere’s religious tale through the lens of controversial modern-day TV evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker, many of the family farms in Norcatur were facing foreclosure.

"It was a real splash of cold water to realize we came to this community with an idea of what we wanted to do and what we wanted to say artistically,” Moore recalls. “We listened to the community and the community told us, That’s not what we care about. The religious part of it became almost secondary. Because we were willing to say, Oh, right — maybe our idea is not the best one.  Maybe the community’s idea is a better one.  To say, Well, what is the story that needs to be told in your community right now?

For six years, the company listened while creating community-specific plays across rural America. Moore says it was magical, but the company members longed for a permanent place to call home.

“We would say, Wouldn’t it just be a lot easier to pick a place to live? But no, we had to move,” laughs Moore. “We always used to joke in the early years of Cornerstone that Bill Rauch created a theatre company that was his childhood, which was adapting plays or writing your plays, and then making everybody move.”

Eventually, the company considered picking Washington D.C. or Los Angeles as a base.  But they needed something to tip the scale. 

 Enter Peter Sagal.  The NPR guy? you ask.  Yes, that Peter Sagal.

It turns out that our favorite news quiz host from the popular ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me’ show attended Harvard with the original Cornerstoners back in the early '80s.  But more to the point, he’s also a working playwright. (In fact, if you are a theater nerd and you happen to be in Chicago or Boca Raton this month, you can catch his latest work.) After getting his degree at Harvard, Sagal moved to L.A. to live the artist’s life.  

His itinerant Harvard buddies, Rauch and Moore, would occasionally stay at Sagal’s Silver Lake pad .

“I remember Bill saying to me, My mail is still going to my parents house. I have to move somewhere!” chuckles Sagal.

Sagal says he replied: “Well, you’ve been going around the country trying to find these tiny little underserved communities and doing theatre with those communities and finding out what they have to say and adapting works for them.  If you come to L.A., my friends, you will find a thousand of those communities — all reachable by freeway.”

That’s one piece of advice that helped Cornerstone eventually decide to stop roaming around and settle down here in Los Angeles.  The year was 1992 — and the city was about to burn.

Rauch believes the racial strife revealed by the L.A. riots validated the young theater company’s hunch that they had a purpose here.  They called on Sagal to help create Cornerstone’s first Los Angeles production: an adaption of a 1,600-year-old Sanskrit play called "The Clay Cart."

“At the end of the piece, all of the actors sort of intoned a prayer for the future of Los Angeles,” Sagal recalls. “That there would be peace. homes for the homeless. kindness for the cruel. I can remember being very moved by that.”

Twenty-five years later, the company comes full circle with “The Magic Fruit.” The show offers a similar message of hope, health and humanity, just as Cornerstone’s shows have done since the beginning.  It’s a spirit of generosity and inclusion that tracks back to seventh grade for company co-founder Rauch, who is now artistic director of the acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 

“As a young gay kid, I felt safety and hope and potential for community in theater in a way that I didn’t feel in any other form of expression,” Rauch says.

Once upon a time when he still in junior high, Rauch went on a field trip to catch a staging of Alvin Epstein’s Shakespearean classic, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I saw it and then I did my own adaptation in contemporary English because I wanted my classmates to understand it better,” laughs Rauch. “I just put it in my own language. I would give anything to be able to find that version. I always hope it will show up in a box somewhere."

Finding the theater at a very young age also happened for Shishir Kurup. He's the director of “The Magic Fruit” and a longtime Cornerstone member. Like Rauch, Kurup’s desire to create meaningful, but accessible, art with diverse communities tracks back to his childhood as well. He grew up in Mombassa, Kenya in a part of town peppered by radically different neighborhoods — some fancy, some scary. But he visited all of them without fear or hesitation because all were highly theatrical.

“It was all really romantic for a kid," Kurup says. "Joining and working with Cornerstone was like me re-engineering all the communities I went into as a kid.”

Kurup's childhood skill for walking into any kind of neighborhood and making himself at home has come in handy during his time with Cornerstone. He remembers working in Watts when the local police took him by surprise and warned the company members to be very careful.

“They sat [us] down and said, Listen, if you come up to a stop sign and somebody starts walking to your car, just drive away from there! And we [thought], Why are you trying to scare us?"

Kurup says their attitude was: "We don’t know where we are going to go or what we are going to do, but we are going to do this. And we are going to meet the people, because when we meet the people on the ground, they are just like us and we are just like them.”

Kurup lives on the westside of L.A. these days. He says anytime he has to make the traffic-jammed commute to Cornerstone’s downtown space, he remembers exactly why his journey to direct “The Magic Fruit” has been 25 years in the making.

“When I do drive, I [think], Oh, we did that play over there. Or, We did this thing over there. And, oh, do you know who lives there? And, oh I wonder if they are still there anymore?  It’s made the city my city — like my home.”

"The Magic Fruit" runs through Dec. 10 at the Shakespeare Center of L.A.  In classic Cornerstone tradition, all performances are pay what you can.