By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Bellamy says this isn’t a tragedy so much as a tradeoff; theater education in the hood has always been part of its mandate. Still, it sounds like a downsizing for Towne Street, which has been prolific in the past, with critical plaudits for shows such as company member Harriet Dickey’s Joleta(Best Play winner in the 2001 NAACP Theater Awards). Towne Street had its own quarters downtown until escalating downtown rents drove it out. Towne’s membership pays dues, which go toward office and production overhead. “We don’t really enforce the dues with a stern hand,” admits Bellamy. “It’s really a way of increasing cohesion.” Far more worrisome is the suspension of California Arts Council money, as well as the still-murky future of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, on whose largess Towne Street has relied. “Our board is huddling now about what to do,” says Bellamy. Membership 40, by referral/audition. Dues $25 monthly.
Cornerstone Theater Company, 708 Traction Ave., downtown; (213) 613-1700; www.cornerstonetheater.org. Artistic director Bill Rauch. Cornerstone has evolved from a traveling troupe of Harvard University actors into a brand name of innovative multicultural, community-based theater; currently it is in the midst of its Faith-Based Theater Project, which has staged collaborative works — Order My Steps and Center of the Star, with the local black church and the Jewish community, respectively, among other populations. The company also has an extensive education department and is launching a theater training institute this summer in Lost Hills, located in California’s rural Central Valley. “Our growth has been incremental,” says Rauch. “That’s good for a mid-to-large theater like us. We’re a bit of an endangered species.”
Thanks to a roughly $1.3 million budget that includes an endowment secured five years ago, Cornerstone is able to partner with smaller L.A. companies such as East-West Players and the Watts Village Theater — which was inspired partly by Cornerstone’s own residency in Watts 10 years ago. “The challenge for us is staying connected to a place once the show’s over,” says managing director Shay Wafer. “We’re nomadic by intent. So we keep the connection going with reunion events, equipment loans to local theaters, co-productions.” Like other companies, Cornerstone has felt the financial pinch, but it still boasts cash reserves and is able to pay its members, as well as provide them with health insurance.
Its relative stability has allowed Cornerstone to focus on its core artistic mission of illuminating L.A.’s many communities and bringing them together without sacrificing their individuality. “I actually don’t believe in ‘multicultural theater’ in the sense that everybody should strive toward somehow being the same,” says Wafer. Rauch agrees. “There’s a real need for culturally specific theater,” he says. “I have a problem with white institutions claiming to represent ethnic communities. Cultural palaces should belong to the people, from Watts to Pacoima.” Core membership 15. New members by referral, participation and audition. No dues.
Watts Village Theater c/o Mafundi Institute (Robert Pitts Center), 1827 E. 103rd St., Watts; (323) 692-3537; www.lynnmanning.com. Artistic director Quentin Drew says that running a theater company in Watts has been as rewarding as it’s been isolating. “Being in Watts helps with the grants for sure — everybody knows what Watts is about, the Writers Workshop from the ’60s and the whole arts scene,” says Drew, a 40-year-old actor and Watts native. “On the other hand, casting directors won’t even come over here. Our patrons don’t trip like that, but the institutions do.”
Funny, in L.A. it tends to be the other way around. But Drew says that theaters north of the 105 freeway have been more than supportive, especially Cornerstone; when WVT recently got its biggest grant ever of $100,000, Cornerstone acted as fiscal receiver.
Drew co-founded the theater in ’96 with actor/playwright Lynn Manning, a performance artist and writer who is also blind. “We were inspired by Cornerstone to keep a theatrical presence here in Watts,” says Manning. “Our vision was to be less a community theater and more of a professional theater in the community.”
WVT’s base of operations is the Mafundi Institute, a Watts cultural landmark, community center and sometime theater. WVT also runs Yo Watts!, a theater and production workshop for local high school students that Manning and Drew consider their biggest achievement. After years of wearing many hats as director and administrator, Drew is returning to the stage to play the protagonist in O, Manning’s modern take on Othello, which explores black/Latino racial and romantic tensions. Despite the difficulties of running a small theater in L.A., to say nothing of in the hood, Drew is confident of success. “If you work hard, you can make a life — this is my full-time job,” says Drew. “We’re in our eighth year, but we’re already planning for our 10th. If you do good work, they will find you.” Membership 15. New members by referral/audition. No dues.