Los Angeles

Love on San Pedro: Skid Row Theater and the 'Invisible' Los Angeles

Love on San Pedro

Cornerstone Theater Company's "Love On San Pedro" is a collaboration with the community of Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles. Inspired by the stories of hundreds of Skid Row residents, playwright James McManus' new work sheds light on a neighborhood where homelessness and poverty are the norm, but a spirit of creativity, activism and determination thrives. Starring both professional actors and over 20 community members, the play is being presented November 7-24 at Los Angeles Mission, in the heart of Skid Row .

"Love on San Pedro" is a play that was created out of many hours of interviews and conversations with people who live and work in downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row. It is in rehearsals now, and over 20 community actors, some of whom have never before been on stage, are playing roles alongside longtime Cornerstone ensemble members. Rehearsals have been passionate affairs; our experience of this community is that people are very politically active -- no one is short of opinions! There are people of faith, and others who are fiercely secular; there are many different ideas about what Skid Row is, and what it should be in the future. Many of the hot button topics of the day are a matter of immediate concern in this neighborhood: gentrification, immigration, poverty, health care, addiction, veteran issues. It makes for a complex and even volatile creative process. At the same time, the cast is fiercely committed the play and to the words of our playwright James McManus. They are proud to participate, and have risen to the occasion beautifully, in spite of the fact that in many if not most cases, they have to overcome difficult obstacles to participate every day.

Cornerstone spent over a year developing the play through personal interviews and story circles facilitated through partnerships with Skid Row-based leaders and organizations. "Love on San Pedro" sheds light on a neighborhood that lies in stark contrast to the city's glitzy image. It's the "invisible" Los Angeles where homelessness is the norm and hunger, poverty, substance abuse and mental illness exist in startling numbers. Of the 26 actors in Love on San Pedro, four are professional actors and 22 are community members. Over the next few weeks, you'll dive into Cornerstone's process of creating a large-scale play in Skid Row. You'll meet the community members who contributed their stories to the play and are experiencing being on stage for the first time. You'll encounter the challenges and surprises of creating art in a community setting, from the playwright's process to the scenic artist's approach to site-specific design. You'll follow the day-in-the-life of a community actor living and working in Skid Row, from morning to an evening spent on the stage at Los Angeles Mission. You'll learn about those at the frontlines of Skid Row, working in housing, health and the arts with seemingly unending spirit. You'll get a taste of some of the art being created in the community, and perhaps reevaluate the relevancy and impact of Skid Row in Los Angeles' cultural and social landscape.

Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

As Cornerstone Theater's Artistic Director, I often get asked the question: why do you make plays with communities? What do you hope to achieve? I get asked that by people from many backgrounds, but perhaps most often by people in the theater business. I'm also asked, perhaps even more often, what impact we hope to have -- on the people we are collaborating with, on the communities at large, on the field of theater making, on society. My response, unequivocally, to the first question is: I do it because I believe it affords me the best opportunity to make exciting, even great, plays and productions that I have been able to find. I do it because it satisfies the artist in me. I do it because, when our work is at its best (and I feel like we have a pretty good batting average) the aesthetic experience of participating in whatever capacity, of making a show with Cornerstone, and the experience of being in the audience, is truly exciting, pleasurable, and sparks critical thinking and engagement with the world that is the hallmark of the best art. My belief is that most of my colleagues at Cornerstone Theater essentially do it for the same reasons.

Which brings me to the second question. Because I also believe that what interests people about our company, especially those who have heard of but not seen the work, is the notion of impact. How can theater change the world? How can art have a positive affect on people? In particular, it seems that, though as a society a fairly large percentage of us think that Art with a capital "a" is in essence a positive thing, we have trouble assigning value to it as an experience. We are good at commodifying it, and valuing those works of creativity that are saleable, such as a painting that is auctioned at Sotheby's, a top-ten selling single or a musical that is a Broadway hit. But we start to get worried about what is often termed its intrinsic value. Is that real? Should it be supported - by the government, by foundations, by individuals? Even if we feel that it is worthwhile -- and my guess is if you are reading these words, you feel that, strongly perhaps -- how do we know this is so? It is in wrestling with this question that Cornerstone's work seems to be one possible concretized example of the value of art. Plays that are good for you.

Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

I believe that our work does have tremendous impact, and it has the most impact when the aesthetic experience of audience and artist is of a high quality. It is undeniable that our lives are impoverished if we lack the access to participating (by making, by viewing, by interacting with) in rigorous artistic processes. The emotional, empathetic health of individuals in a given community is better when art is a vital presence in people's lives. I believe that this is increased when the art is based on and reflective of the voices, stories and aesthetic of the local. In that context, of course, it should also take us to different places and give us new experiences. So I deeply believe that Cornerstone's work, in practice and by example, has a huge impact on the people who experience it. Beyond that, I can anecdotally point to many, many examples of how my life and the lives of other participants have been made better by participating in the work: how it has led to a heightened sense of what possibilities exist within a given community; how it has created the potential for an enhanced, engaged civic or aesthetic practice; how it has activated people's sense of vitality of place and locale; how it has brought people together. Artistic practice as social justice.

Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

I also believe it is radical democracy in practice. Truly leveling the playing field. Insisting that all stories should be on stage, that every community has narratives that equal what is on our nation's "finest" stages, that every individual has the potential to bring something to the making of a new play. That this play can be of interest not solely to the individuals in the community, but also to the greater community at large. Being on stage, enacting a story that embodies voices of the community to which you most deeply identify is a powerful ritual. It is why we respond particularly strongly to certain plays and movies. But it often seems like those are made by people who have special access to resources, and who are, by the very nature of their creativity and the privilege, separate from their audiences. To shift that relationship is a fundamentally radical act. I have found myself profoundly affected by it, and because of it I have been made a better, more responsive artist, citizen and person. Those I have worked with - professional, life-practice artists and non-professional community members - have had this experience as well.

Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

One experience I can point to is the opportunity to collaborate with Sherri Nelson, a resident of Los Angeles' Skid Row neighborhood. We worked on atTraction, a play by Cornerstone ensemble member Page Leong that was commissioned and produced in the summer of 2008. It was created in collaboration with members of the Downtown Arts District community, and staged in the street outside of Cornerstone, using the building fronts of our block as the backdrop. Sherri, who was known to many of us who worked there, auditioned for the piece. She was amazing, performing a poem that she titled "The Ball of the Freaks" from memory. It was profane, funny and disturbing, and riveting. She was a core member of the cast, and her performance was a huge part of what made that show special. I will never forget her walking down Traction Avenue, away from the audience, her beautiful rendition of "The Dark End of the Street" fading slowly as she moved father and farther away from us and then finally disappeared. It was chilling and quite moving. Sherri was definitely struggling when we met her, grappling with addiction and life on the streets was taking a toll on her. There were rehearsals missed and days when she was really down. But her commitment to the project and her radiant joy on stage and off made a huge impression on those of us who were privileged to work with her.

Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

In no small measure because of our relationship, I got to know Skid Row a bit more deeply than I had before. Only a few blocks away from Cornerstone's offices, it sometimes seems a different world and can be somewhat forbidding, as new places often are. But, like anywhere, once you get past the self-perceived barriers, I have found this neighborhood to be remarkably vital, full of hope and humor, and many individuals and organizations doing dynamic work infused with creativity. It is home to an internationally recognized theater company, The Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), which is creating some of the most inspiring and inspired, community-engaged work that I have had the pleasure to experience as well as many secular and religious-based organizations such as our community partners the Downtown Women's Center, Lamp Community, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Los Angeles Mission and the Skid Row Housing Trust, who are, among many others, doing tireless work to change the world and better the lives of the people they serve. It is a really exciting place to be working, and it is humbling to hear the stories of the community and to collaborate with the talented and passionate people who have participated in this process with us.

Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell

It will be exciting for audiences to see "Love on San Pedro" and performers making work in the context of their community, and to visit our host, Los Angeles Mission. There is an energy and vivid sense of street life that is unique, in my experience, to LA. I think it will be a wonderful context in which to experience James McManus' play, which is being directed by Cornerstone ensemble member Shishir Kurup. The play features the talents of several ensemble actors, over 20 community actors from Skid Row, as well as many community contributors offstage. This play, and this production, are the real answer to any questions I hear or have about why we do the work that we do.

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Top Image: Photo by Kevin Michael Campbell.

About the Author

Michael has been at Cornerstone since 2006.
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