Courtesy of Cornerstone Theater Company.

Tonight at 8 p.m., the Cornerstone Theater Company opens its traveling production “California: The Tempest” at Z Space. Mission Local got a chance to interview the play’s director Michael John Garces and head of engagement Paula Donnelly on the premise of the play, the company’s focus on community-based theater, and the experience of opening in ten California towns and cities over the past year.

Cornerstone began an Institute Summer Residency program in 2004, spending a month every summer living and working in a different California community.  In each community, they  put on a play created from visits, interviews, and stories from that community. From Eureka to East Salinas, Holtville to Fowler, San Francisco to Los Angeles, Cornerstone visited locales all over the state

To celebrate a decade of the program, Cornerstone adapted “The Tempest” to California, returning to the ten communities where they started out. Cast members include both local residents and Cornerstone artists, many of whom have had ongoing relationships with one another because of the Institute Summer Residency program.

Director Michael John Garces and Director of Engagement Paula Donnelly filled in the details.

Michael John Garces and Paula Donnelly were on separate phone calls, but their answers have been combined. Other edits have been made for clarity.

Why does Cornerstone focus on community-based theater?

Paula Donnelly: I find it the most interesting and relevant theater. For me as a practitioner, someone who’s working to create theater, I’m really moved and inspired by the notion to invite people who don’t normally see themselves that way or don’t normally have the idea of what it means to have the opportunity to be on stage. I like talking about the idea of what it means to have art and initiating conversations with people who aren’t necessarily having these conversations.

Why “The Tempest”?

Michael John Garces: I think Alison [Carey, playwright] had an idea that she would adapt a play for this project. We had a lot of ideas about what the play could be going in, but what we try to do in general is go in with an open mind and hear what people have to say and use the stories we hear and things we see to guide our choices.

One of the things we were hearing a lot about was this notion of forgiveness, how at some point we have to figure out how to move beyond the problems we have. And in large measure this is a play about forgiveness and people talking about catastrophe, both natural and man-made. There are also big issues to confront [in the play], people talking about earthquakes, drought. It seemed like a natural choice in that sense as well.

How much do you focus on the problems facing these communities?

MJG: In the play people talk about a wide-range of things. It’s certainly about things they are celebrating, not just about the problems they are facing. So while the focus is on natural resources, economic inequity, immigration, and other issues they’re facing, it’s not exclusive.

PD: The issue-based approach is important to a lot of people in the company.We want to talk about things that aren’t already happening. Approaching an issue for the sake of it being a hot-topic or something that’s trending is less important than if we think that we can open up a new conversation and new perspective through that art-making experience.

How do you fit all ten of these communities in one play?

MJG: What Alison has done in trying to sort of address that particular challenge is that when she decided to adapt “The Tempest” she made the choice that the folks on the plane [a boat in the original] would each be from one of the ten communities. So there’s this group of Californians that crashes on Prospero’s in-this-case mountain, which has turned into an island because of flooding.

What has been your experience in these communities?

MJG: The play certainly feels different in every stop, which is one of the things that excites me about the project. It’s just so different to do it in a cafeteria in a town of 600 people or right here in the heart of the Mission; those are such different contexts. It’s different to have folks in Eureka and San Francisco play Central Valley characters rather than people in the Central Valley playing those characters.

There’s also a community scene that is really different from community to community. In Salinas there was a real sense of being part of the national Black Lives Matter moment and movement, and Brown Lives Matter, and the community is really on fire about that and has a really strong sense of activism.

Whereas in the Central Valley it was very youth-driven, more towards the celebratory aspect and less towards the critique of it — trying to preserve a way of life. Here in San Francisco, because of the focus on community, it changes it quite a bit. It’s more of a balance between the two, a balanced community moment.

But overall it’s also a sense of people coming together and talking and playing these thing — there’s a commonality about it.

PD: One thing that is definitely common is Zumba and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Those are the two things that come across a lot because of our constant exploration of food and hunger.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are just beloved and craved and it’s something that a lot of people love; it’s a staple for them and gives them a lot of joy. Zumba is fascinating for me because it crosses a lot of different boundaries. There’s the Latinas and Latinos and there’s the moms and the — it’s just a unifying experience that people get a lot of joy from.

“California: The Tempest” will be at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, from June 4-6, with two 8 p.m. shows Thursday and Friday and a Saturday matinee at 4 p.m. You can get tickets here. Anyone visiting Los Angeles in two weeks can also catch the play’s final stop from June 18-20.

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Joe was born in Sweden, where the Chilean half of his family received asylum after fleeing Pinochet, and spent his early childhood in Chile; he moved to Oakland when he was eight. He attended Stanford University for political science and worked at Mission Local as a reporter after graduating. He then spent time in advocacy as a partner for the strategic communications firm The Worker Agency. He rejoined Mission Local as an editor in 2023.

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