STAGE : Welcome to L.A. : The Cornerstone company is greeted by riots and the challenge of working with an elderly, multicultural community

Michelle Quinn is a Times staff writer

Turning his back to the actors on stage, the director opens his mouth and mocks a silent scream.

It's been a grueling rehearsal and Bill Rauch has been nice all day. But with a little over two weeks to go before opening night, the play is hopelessly behind schedule, and Rauch is frustrated. More than a dozen actors out of a cast of 40 have dropped out in the past month, and today, an actress in a key role is reported to have suffered heart trouble over the weekend. Another sends a note saying she must quit, citing arthritis, a speech impediment and a failing memory.

But Rauch's worries don't end there. The 29-year-old director, wearing khaki shorts and a black Mickey Mouse T-shirt, is having trouble getting his cast to do what he wants. Sometimes, when he yells "Now, now, go!" nothing happens. All he gets is a blank look as if he were a touch mad.

Clearly not everyone's speaking the same language. The problem is they are speaking four.

Rauch and his theater company, Cornerstone, are trying to turn some elderly residents of L.A.'s multilingual Angelus Plaza into actors for "The Toy Truck," an adaptation of a 4th-Century Sanskrit epic called "The Clay Cart." Although the play is mostly in English, seniors who speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or Korean have key roles. Translators are sometimes available to Rauch and his company, but often they must struggle alone to communicate with non-English speakers. Everyone is operating a little in the dark, with a few cast members not knowing that the hero gets the girl in the end.

Add to this challenge the production's shrinking cast. For it seems every day, an elderly actor leaves the show, overcome by physical ailments, commitments or the fear of being unable to remember lines.

Some directors might throw up their hands and consider canceling, but not Rauch. Adversity is the grist for Cornerstone's art--an art, company members say, that is not about producing a perfect final product, but instead is about turning theater into a living process. In other words, they use real people.

"There's always something palpable to a Cornerstone performance," says Christopher Moore, a 28-year-old actor who's been with the company since it began in 1986. "It's not a slick, seamless thing. You can see how hard people are working and trying."

For Angelus Plaza residents, such as a 87-year-old man who emigrated from Syria in the 1920s, an 81-year-old woman jailed six years during China's Cultural Revolution and a 79-year-old Mexican former auto mechanic, "The Toy Truck" is their acting debut and a needed diversion. Says Nellie Thomas, an 84-year-old African-American and one-time schoolteacher from Louisiana, who has cancer: "It keeps you interested in life."

That's the kind of response a group of Harvard graduates were looking for when they started Cornerstone Theatre six years ago after becoming frustrated with college and professional theater. "We were discouraged about who theater audiences were," Rauch says, referring to their homogeneity.

With the mission of building an inclusive American theater, the company traveled to rural towns, where tumbleweeds blow and the only theater within miles is often in the high school. They found new audiences and latent actors, putting farmers, dock workers, loggers, mayors and judges on stage alongside Cornerstone members. From Maine to Oregon, they wooed, begged and cajoled locals to be in plays, sometimes offering to do farm chores or baby-sit or tend bar so that residents could make rehearsal.

Performing classics customized to 20th-Century rural life, Cornerstone's "Romeo and Juliet" became an interracial story in Mississippi, its renovated Chekhov became "Three Sisters From West Virginia," and Moliere's classic turned into "Tartoof" in Norcatur, Kan.

With each success, the company gained national attention. Its budget grew from $100,000 in 1986 to $500,000 this year, with a host of corporate, foundation and government sponsors. But in 1991, after five years of traveling and 13 productions across the country, Cornerstone members grew tired of being on the road. Several left the company. The rest wanted to settle in a culturally diverse city where barriers more foreboding than geography keep people isolated. Studying racial and economic information they got from Census figures, the group shopped for an American city they could call home.

They chose Los Angeles, settling here last January. They soon realized they weren't in Kansas anymore.

In April, they watched their adopted city burn on television as ethnic divisions and economic resentments took on a life of their own.

Cornerstone members had a special stake in the inner city. Four months earlier, Angelus Plaza, the country's largest public-subsidized housing for seniors, had agreed to be the group's first L.A. residency. So, when Rodney G. King asked the rioters "to stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids," it struck some company members that they were in the right place at the right time.

"I was horrified and deeply saddened," said Rauch about the riots. "But I was happy we were in this city and not another. After the riots, because of the riots, we would've had to move to L.A. anyway. It made us want to get to work."

"It's been imposed upon us that we better get along," says 27-year-old Salvador Velazquez, an L.A. native and the company's new stage manager. "Cornerstone might be a force in the change, a tiny bit, as much as art can achieve anything."

Between Hill and Olive streets on Bunker Hill, Angelus Plaza straddles the 3rd Street tunnel, taking up two entire blocks of downtown. The racially mixed high rise is home for 1,300 seniors and serves several thousand more downtown elderly residents who come to the plaza for meals and activities.

A city within a city, the plaza is an L.A. microcosm where Bible classes are held in Mandarin Chinese down the hall from the office for a group of gay and lesbian residents. Language differences divide residents, most knowing little about their neighbors. "My neighbors are the people I will live with until the day I die," says a Korean woman, Pok Non Chon, 74, through a translator. "It's sad that I can't speak to them."

For this elderly community, where administrators estimate that about 40% of the residents were born outside the United States, Rauch wanted a non-Western classic. He found the Sanskrit play about a courtesan who rebuffs a king's nephew for a penniless man. The nephew takes revenge on his rival and on a man who an oracle pronounces will be the next king. In a pivotal act of generosity, the courtesan gives up her jewels so that a child can have a gold cart instead of a clay one.

Customized to post-riot Los Angeles, the courtesan became a young call girl from Bel-Air, played by Cornerstone company member Ashby Semple. The man she loves is an elderly African-American, played by professional actor Obaka Adedunyo. The nephew, played by Moore, is now related to an L.A. County supervisor, whose position is threatened by the political rise of a Korean grocer, played by Angelus Plaza resident Chon. The clay-cart story is recalled when the prostitute puts her jewelry inside a cardboard toy truck belonging to a boy who wants a Tonka truck advertised on TV.

Today, after hours of bridging the language gap with his gesticulations, Rauch is exhausted. He asks his permanent company--four longtime Cornerstone members, two new ones, a professional actor and two interns--to form a circle of chairs for a meeting. It's rush hour and Los Angeles erupts into honking horns, whirling traffic helicopters, trucks backing up and the white noise of traffic on the adjacent Harbor Freeway. To be heard over this din, the cast--which will perform outdoors in the promenade that connects Angelus Plaza's five buildings--will use microphones.

Rauch speaks, hesitates, then starts again, as if he's forgotten even English. "I'm overwhelmed," he says. "No, I don't want to say that because it sounds negative. I feel challenged." He starts with the good news.

"I feel close to having a complete cast again," he says looking each person steadily in the eyes. "The gardener, Vic, says he'll be the prison guard, security guard, bodyguard and bailiff."

You get the feeling that anyone who walks by in the next two weeks could be cast into a role, given a handsaw to build a set or asked to donate bedsheets for banners. But making use of everyone and everything in sight is a Cornerstone trait. "We create theater out of nothing," says 28-year-old company managing director Stephen Gutwillig. "It's more important to involve people than take their money in proceeds."

But for the company that likes to think it can take any play and adapt it to any community, something seems harder this time around, Cornerstone members say. The company's first L.A. production was supposed to be a simple up-and-down show.

What happened? Company members, used to living with each other in small towns, are now in apartments in Santa Monica, Pasadena and Norwalk. Rehearsals, which began the Monday after the riots, started slow because some residents were afraid to leave their apartments, according to Rauch. There were delays in choosing the play and more delays in adapting, as some company members argued over how the script would refer to the riots and issues that concern Angelus Plaza residents, such as aging and isolation.

During auditions, the company began to realize it had another problem: The play would have to be multilingual to reflect Angelus Plaza's ethnic makeup. More than half of the residents speak a language other than English, according to plaza administrator Dolores Barnes.

"It didn't seem like we had an option," says company member Semple about the decision to use four languages. "Cornerstone is all about reaching new audiences, and responding to audiences. It would have been denying our audience if it weren't multilingual."

Rauch speaks English and some Spanish he picked up on a trip to Spain when he was 12. Out of a cast of 30, five speak Spanish, three Korean and three Mandarin Chinese. Five translators have volunteered to help the company in the final weeks of rehearsals. But with cues often in an unfamiliar language, no one quite knows when to act or when to be quiet, when to move or when to end the scene. For the audience, banners in different languages and a dancing chorus will provide plot summaries.

The language barriers may have been manageable if cast members hadn't dropped out at such an alarming rate. The show has gone through two leading actors, the first an Angelus Plaza resident who got a part with a local theater, the second a non-resident, professional actor who left for a movie role. The show's lead, Adedunyo, is a professional actor who has worked in television, film and stage. (After the original lead, a plaza resident, left the production, Rauch said the company opted for stability in the pivotal role.)

Some residents, unaware of the time commitment, had summer vacations and plans with grandchildren. But for many of the residents who dropped out, their physical problems and a fear of being unable to memorize caused them to give up the play. One 80-year-old woman, whose mother forbade her from acting when she was a girl, wrote in a note to the company that a different barrier would make it impossible for her to act: "I am not a well woman, but I sure hate to admit it. I can't memorize anymore and I have quite a speech to do."

"It was really painful," Rauch says about the departures. "Especially when you get excited about someone playing a role, translate that role into their language and then they drop out."

Those who have remained with the cast complain of aches and memory problems, but have persevered. Some like Chien Chou, an 84-year-old Taiwanese woman, seem to have found their youth in working with Cornerstone. "I'm like a child," she says through a translator. "I want to play everything. I don't know how to dance but I'm learning."

Ed Yen is one of those who wanted to leave the cast, worried about his schedule and the time it takes to care for his sick wife. Rauch reassured the 77-year-old Taiwanese man that the company would work around his commitments.

Now at rehearsal, Yen's acting is the highlight of a difficult day. Having memorized his lines, Yen says he must now "look into the person (I'm) trying to be." As a hapless thief, he plays his role passionately in Mandarin Chinese. But suddenly, he becomes confused when the script calls for him to run out a door. He looks around; the set has yet to be built.

"Where's the door, where's the door?" he yells, breaking into English. His character is supposed to be fleeing the scene of a crime.

"It's right here," says Rauch, drawing an imaginary door in the air, which Yen darts through.

With substantial parts in the play, some Angelus Plaza residents such as 72-year-old Colombian Luis Zapata, who plays the lead's best friend, and Chon, who plays the Korean grocer, have raised some issues, from the plausibility of the plot to cultural objections over what their characters are scripted to say.

"An elegant woman loves an old, poor man who lives in Angelus Plaza? Do you believe this?" asks Zapata, who speaks Spanish in the play. "I asked Bill (Rauch) and he said, 'It's a miracle.' "

Another question raised by Zapata and others has been whether Semple's character should be referred to as a prostitute. For Zapata, the words in the Spanish translation have been too strong. The Mandarin Chinese speaker who played Semple's servant asked that the word prostitute not be put next to her employer's name on the banners so that "Mandarin speakers wouldn't think she is a bad person," Velazquez says.

And Chon questions whether it's productive for her character to be a Korean grocer.

"She and I are still discussing this," Rauch says. "People think Koreans and grocers are synonymous." Although she's worried about the stereotype of the Korean grocer, Chon says she is pleased her character ascends to political power.

"I believe someone like her should exist," Chon says through a translator. "Korean people should rise and face their problems."

After "The Toy Truck," the company will work in November with Pacoima's Latino community on a script they have commissioned from playwright Migdalia Cruz. They may then do a residency with Arab-Americans. In the fall of 1993, the company will bring participants from its three Los Angeles residencies to work on one piece. Called "A Bridge Show," the company hopes, "to bring Angelenos together by building creative bridges between us," according to Rauch.

One may ask, what do a group of mostly white kids mostly from Harvard know about L.A.'s problems? And could they just be on a do-gooders' ego trip? Rauch says he occasionally asks himself these questions.

"You have to be asking yourself these questions all the time. If not, you've got something you're hiding," Rauch says. "Every time I ask these questions, I come up with some reason to keep doing it. There are organizations coming from communities that are started from people from those communities. We could never pretend to compete with that. All we can say is, 'We're here to do theater and work with people.' "

In fact, Los Angeles may be where Cornerstone really finds itself, says Semple, who thinks she would be a teacher if she weren't in community theater.

"I've never felt the worth of Cornerstone in a specific way," she says. "But in L.A. it's very apparent what the worth is. Here, so much entertainment is . . . focused on the product, obviously because it's sold."

Whatever the company's worth, Cornerstone shows have a "suspense (that) is always terrific. You never know what will happen in the process," says L.A. Festival director Peter Sellars, who has been a consultant to the company.

"The quality of their production is so humane, is never militaristic . . . human emotions are being transformed. That's what theater is about."

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