Engaging Too Much

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

What if the reason for doing the play were more important than the play itself? What if the process was more significant than the result?

Those are questions you have tackle any time you see a Cornerstone Theater Production. And they're particularly resonant in their latest conceptual juggernaut, California: The Tempest.

If you don't know the LA-based company's work or history, the idea behind this show will give you a primer on their raison d'etre.

Cornerstone is one part professional ensemble company, one part community activist, and a ton of community theater. Their basic M.O. is they pick a big idea: in this case the diversity and challenges of California communities. Once they've settled on the concept, they choose communities to partner with: for the California Tempest there are ten spanning our state from Eureka in the North all the way to Holtville down south. With an idea and locations, they find a partner (often a non-profit service organization) and begin a local engagement process that can last months and sometimes years. Through an intensive series of story circles and dialogue and theater they get to know the community, hear their concerns and challenges, and find a group of people willing to tell their stories. The final productions are made up of Cornerstone members sharing the stage with community members, many of whom have never been on stage in their lives,.

As if that weren't challenging enough, they conclude each cycle of plays with a "bridge play" that brings together members from each community they partnered with during that "cycle" to tie the whole thing together.

California Tempest is the mother of all bridge plays spanning 10 years of the companies work, 10 communities and resulting in a 10 month touring production that will perform in all 10 cities with a resident from each as part of the cast. Conceptually it's both staggeringly complicated and . . . brilliant. When you understand the engagement and the process, you realize that what you're seeing onstage is only the tip of the iceberg.

In many ways California Tempest is Cornerstone at their best and most ambitious. In other ways, it's the company biting off more than they can chew.

The play itself is a mashup of Shakespeare's The Tempest with stories of California. What disappoints is not the community members: when a Latino boy barely old enough for grade school, stands on stage in front of an audience of strangers and courageously says that what he and his mother really want is to live in their own house, your heart melts.

The challenge is with the company members. They haven't really figured out what story their trying to tell. They're trying to give voice to so much and earnestly tackle so many issues that by the end of two and a half hours it all feels like a dense California fog.

But their shows are always worth seeing to remind us that theater is capable of so much more and the voices around us all have rich stories to tell.

California: The Tempest tours five more communities before concluding its run in LA's Grand Park in June.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 10 minute intermission.

California: The Tempest will perform on the following dates:

February 19 – 21: East Salinas, aka Alisal (Monterey County) indoors at the Los Padres Elementary School.
March 5 – 7: Fowler (Fresno County), outside at Panzak Park.
May 7 – 9: Holtville (Imperial County), outdoors at Finley Elementary School.
May 21 – 23: Eureka (Humboldt County), outdoors at the Blue Ox Millworks.
June 4 – 6: San Francisco, indoors at Z Space Theatre.
June 18 – 20: Downtown Los Angeles, outdoors at Grand Park.

Pay-What-You-Can Tickets (suggested donation of $10.00). To make a reservation for a tour performance, please call 1-800-578-1335. For group sales, please e-mail .

Photo: The cast of California: The Tempest performs. (Megan Wanlass)