(This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)
“Michael! I have something to tell you!” Veronica, a participant in our Community Connector’s initiative, came towards me with a huge smile as she told me that she had made an appointment to speak with Father Greg, the leader of Homeboy Industries, an organization that partnered with us a few years ago in the creation of Café Vida, a play by Lisa Loomer. Most of our community actors for Café Vida had been participants of the Homeboy Industries job program, and were people who, mostly after spending time behind bars, were trying to rebuild their lives outside of gangs.
Veronica, who was part of that community and of the Café Vida cast, is the mother of three beautiful children who was struggling to create a stable home environment for her family and also to move away from the violence that had in many ways defined a large part of her life. Though at times her participation in the cast was a challenge for her and sometimes for those working with her, both because of the demands of the role she played, and also because of the demands of her life outside of the production, she made it through, and has auditioned for every single Cornerstone show we’ve done since Café Vida. Always with that smile.
That Veronica stuck through the challenging times and that she has continued to audition has meant a lot to me, and to those working her, and she often visits Cornerstone and feels like part of the family. But for all that, I don’t think she has come to see a single one of the shows. And this represents, for me, a singular and crucial gap, and, perhaps, failure, in our community engagement. For all that community members who participate in our processes when we are working in their context get out of the work, and for all that they stay connected with the company in meaningful ways, it is rare that we have significant crossover of audiences. So a big question for me is how to translate the value a participant derives from the play they are involved in to the value they would, I hope and believe, receive as audience members of plays about other communities?
Veronica goes on to tell me about her meeting with Father Greg, explaining to me with great pride how she made a formal presentation of the work she is doing with Cornerstone, and asking for his and Homeboy Industries’ support for the projects she and our other Community Connectors are doing to engage with their communities around the current show, Bliss Point by Shishir Kurup. Bliss Point, the fifth play in our Hunger Cycle, has come out of a long-term interaction with people who are recovering from various forms of addiction. Though Shishir did not specifically work with Homeboy Industries on it, there is a lot Bliss Point and Café Vida communities sharein their respective efforts toward recovery. Veronica laughs, saying “There were a lot of gabachos [white guys] there in suits to meet with Father Greg, but he saw me first and we spent a lot of time in his office talking about it. He asked me a lot of questions. I could tell he was really proud of the work I am doing, and he said he would be happy to support us. I was really nervous! But it went well!” It is important to note that, while he is an amazing and inspiring leader and change-maker, and deeply supportive of his constituents, Father Greg is no pushover. But she won him over. I am really proud that our program has enabled Veronica and other Connectors to take ownership of our work and their crucial part in making it happen, and also that it has provided an avenue for them to exert successful leadership in their communities. But, also really important for me as a theater-maker, will this translate into a belief in, and habit of, making theater part of their lives?
Veronica is excited, curious about, and invested in, Bliss Point. And she is committed to sharing that with other people in her own, and other communities. During this process she went to see an unrelated play I had worked on at the Los Angeles Theater Center, on her own initiative, and seemed surprised and moved at how much she had liked the experience, as well as delighted with how comfortable she felt in the environment of the theater. “I guess you guys are rubbing off on me, huh?” My fervent hope is that, through the Community Connectors program, the intrinsic value of active participation in all kinds of performance events, both within and outside of their communities, will become an enriching part of their lives, and, consequently, for those of us whose art only thrives when a beautiful diversity of people feel welcome to experience it fully. We’ll see how it goes in the long run, but it feels like a really good beginning.
Michael John Garcés is the Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company, where he recently directed Plumas Negras, by Juliette Carrillo. Other recent directing projects include Wrestling Jerusalem by Aaron Davidman (Intersection for the Arts), The Convert by Danai Gurira (Wilma Theatre), red, black and GREEN: a blues by Marc Bamuthi Joseph (BAM and Kennedy Center) and We Are Proud to Present… by Jackie Sibblies Drury at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where he is a company member. He will begin rehearsals at Cornerstone for California: The Tempest by Alison Carey in July.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.