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L.A. without the NEA: Cornerstone brings theater to the theater-less

L.A. without the NEA: Cornerstone brings theater to the theater-less
Cambodian community member Yonn Doung rehearses for Cornerstone Theatre's "Crossings, Journeys of Catholic Immigrants" at St. Vibiana's Cathedral in L.A. in 2002. (Los Angeles Times)

Theater is more than entertainment. It's a way to bring people from wildly different walks of life together for a common purpose. This is the binding philosophy of Cornerstone Theater Company in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles.

The second installment of our series "L.A. Without the NEA" looks at an organization that has carved a niche through its multiyear "play cycles" examining timely themes. The Watts Cycle sought to sow the seeds of camaraderie between African American and Latino residents of a South L.A. neighborhood. The Justice Cycle explored the impact of law enforcement on various communities, and the Faith-Based Cycle examined the role of religion in modern life, including LGBT and Catholic communities.

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Hearing people ... talking about how the arts are unnecessary is really heartbreaking to those of us who have dedicated our lives to creating art.


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Each of these cycles has received grants of $30,000 to $60,000 in years past from the National Endowment for the Arts. The current Hunger Cycle received $30,000 for "Magic Fruit (The Hunger Bridge Show)" by company artistic director Michael John Garcés.

Cornerstone said $15,000 of the NEA grant will cover artist salaries, and the remaining $15,000 with go toward venue- and production-related expenses.

The projected total budget for "Magic Fruit" is $345,697. Staging a single Cornerstone production from inception to curtain takes 18 months to three years depending on the level of community engagement. Cornerstone's full-time staff of nine aims for total immersion in a particular community, the company said, through visits to churches, town halls and other outreach. The NEA funding is "a drop in the bucket" when it comes to total budget, Cornerstone managing director Megan Wanlass said, but its importance as seed money cannot be underestimated.

"It's reliable and repeatable," Wanlass said. "It helps you write for another project. We know the majority of the time we will receive this money."

Cornerstone has been awarded 28 grants from the NEA since 1998, totaling more than $1.1 million. The largest grant of $75,000 came in 2011 for a four-week summer internship program in Fowler, Calif., where students partnered with local residents to create and perform "A Man Comes to Fowler," a new play about the history and character of the community, performed in a public park.

Such projects have garnered accolades, including a 2016 Times review praising "Urban Rez," an exploration of Native American identity.

"This topical new play continues Cornerstone's mission to develop original works in partnership with communities underserved by the performing arts. For 'Urban Rez,' company members join with nonprofessional actors representing 15 tribal nations to explore and humanize the cross-cultural challenges that go with being a truly native Southern Californian," Philip Brandes wrote in The Times. "It's not difficult to spot the professionally trained performers among the cast, but it's also beside the point: A signature of Cornerstone productions is the affecting honesty and inclusiveness that transcends the artifice of stagecraft, and this one is no exception."

That inclusiveness extends to the box office. Cornerstone uses a pay-what-you-can formula for tickets. The theater tries to eliminate all barriers to community participation with theater, including helping with transportation and child care so community members can attend a performance. When Cornerstone worked with residents of L.A.'s skid row, the company provided a nightly dinner before rehearsal. To stage the resulting production across town at the Odyssey Theatre, Cornerstone used its company van to transport skid row residents.

The elimination of the NEA, proposed in the 2018 budget blueprint from President Trump this month, could greatly affect future projects, Wanlass said. The company's yearly budget is usually between $1.6 million and $1.8 million, of which nearly $100,000 comes in the form of grants from the NEA, the California Arts Council and L.A. County and the city.

"The NEA gives to state arts councils, so it's a multiplying effect," she said. In 2016 the NEA awarded more than $1.1 million to the California Arts Council as part of the $9.7 million given to 353 organizations and individuals in the state.

"We just applied for another grant that would be the next project, so the proposed cut is devastating," Wanlass said. "My Facebook page is completely on fire with people who are really upset about this possibility."

Wanlass said she and others at Cornerstone are planning a protest strategy that includes a letter-writing campaign to representatives in Congress.

"We have to make a stand," she said. "Hearing people creating this budget talking about how the arts are unnecessary is really heartbreaking to those of us who have dedicated our lives to creating art."

"L.A. Without the NEA" is a daily series looking at a different community group, how its NEA funds were spent, what artistic or public good did or didn't result and what the cultural landscape would look like if that program were to disappear. Look for more installments to come at latimes.com/LAwithouttheNEA.

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