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Reclaiming Spaces: How 'Urban Rez' Created a Play Within a Cultural Fair

Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" set
 Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" performance
Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell.

In partnership with Cornerstone Theater Company​: Cornerstone Theater Company makes new plays with and about communities.​

This article is part of an exclusive series about Cornerstone Theater Company​’s Hunger Cycle play, "Urban Rez," a community­-engaged production created in collaboration with members of the Native American community in Los Angeles. "Urban Rez," written by Larissa FastHorse, an award­-winning playwright and choreographer from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, reflects a contemporary story of urban Indians in Los Angeles through performances that examine the hunger that persists when culture, language, land and identity are denied.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse has worked to develop "Urban Rez" in response to her community's specific challenges. Her desire is to provide an experience that blurs the lines between theater, culture, and education and to present the play at outdoor venues, connecting audiences with the lands of the Native people of the Los Angeles Basin. The artistic process began by interacting with indigenous peoples of Southern California and learning about their culture, issues, needs, and aspirations. The end result will be an immersive theater experience that unfolds as part of an interactive cultural fair, held outdoors this spring at the Los Angeles State Historic Park and Kuruvungna Springs.

This series explores the play’s development process from the perspective of community members and artists involved in the project. In this interview, scenic designer Shannon Scrofano details the process of building “Urban Rez.”​

Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" set
Photo: James Cheeks III.

In the Tongva/Gabrielino tongue, na means place. L.A. still retains select traces of this in some of our street and neighborhood names -- Cahueng(n)a, Topang(n)a, and in full ‘na form it survives at important native sites like Kuruvungna Springs and Hahamongna Park.

"Urban Rez," Larissa FastHorse’s new work in collaboration with Cornerstone Theater and artistic director Michael John Garcés, explores and explodes the concept of place for the thousands of people of Native descent in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. This includes individuals or families who may have come from other tribal lands across the current U.S. map, as well as people who have descended from tribes that have called this area home for centuries and more -- although they are unrecognized by the U.S. government for their long service to and knowledge of this land.

They keep this place, keep its histories, keep rich knowledge of its possibilities, and keep our attention on its critical, incalculable resources. People like Anna Lopez at Kuruvungna Springs, creating an ancestral garden of native species and Nicholas Hernandez, fighting to keep the Hahamongna Cooperative Nursery thriving in Pasadena. Place-keeping is a term I am thrilled to hear more and more often in dialogues about community capacity, cultural vitality and civic health and equity. It hinges on diverse and direct mutual investment of local stakeholders, shared governance, powers of observation and acknowledgment to bring the implicit assets -- including people -- to the forefront of the way we view places, and encourages nurturing, partnership, and a robust sense of sustenance and maintenance of the places we live, work, visit, preserve and restore.

 Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" set
Photo: James Cheeks III.

"Urban Rez" hatches directly from the urgency of this need to keep place, and to make its keepers visible in their very diverse narratives. In describing what it means to be part of a tribe, the character Walter explains, “It's more than the people. There is a place on this earth that has always been ours. Our DNA is connected to this piece of the planet. We could be anyone, but the land makes us who we are.”

This is nothing if not a very prime and prescient moment in political times to consider identity and how it relates to physical land, borders and occupation. Displacement is an overwhelming, immediate part of the contemporary situation. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics from mid-2015, “globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world's 24th biggest.” Physical land is still intimately tied to the ways many of us survive.

Pre-civilization, humans were entirely defined by place. What could the place grow for you to eat? What materials could be used to make tools? What does the place express in shapes and forms that might be translated to objects or symbols or artworks? That’s what there was -- place, as source of physical environs and climate, ecosystem, and terrain which delivered or obstructed the paths of other tribes for trade or disputes or alliances. Certainly the contemporary urban environment in particular has obliterated much of our connection to the land as a provider or source of meaning -- converting it, depleting it or subjugating it. Place is not foregrounded in contemporary life. We force that occupation further, bringing in products from far-flung areas of the globe, repeating “best practices” haphazardly across geography, copying, pasting and cloning our built environment needs onto the landscape, and cloning our material and food desires as well.

In select corners of dialogue, place has re-emerged as a conversation, a re-recognition of how regionality and locational specificity can express itself through detailed attention to local resources, seasonality, and even in the work of builders/architects (who have been beating this drum for longer than most) who are listening and reflecting our built environments differently -- in shapes, materials, the nature of access, and ecological impact. It’s not yet the dominant approach by a long shot, but many artists, thinkers, and like-minded organizations are asking -- how can we approach cultural acknowledgement and supporting/growing economically healthy communities with an eye on place? What do we have to work with and what do we want to work on together?

Even as we occupy this land -- all of us -- where and what are the opportunities to know it better?

Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" set
Photo: James Cheeks III.

"Urban Rez" is a playwright’s text, a labor of love for an extraordinary company of performers, and a responsive experience gathering up the community in many forms around it. In my humble observations throughout this process -- place, land and relationship are the ground of cognition for native consciousness. The ground of perception, identity, and pursuit. The design elements we introduced to the work would need to find this core as well.

As a container, the design is based on the event as a cultural fair. Along with pow-wows and other ceremonial practices, these kinds of events serve a critical conjunctive function in Native American communities. As we began the design process of researching and understanding how these cultural events operate physically as spaces, we knew we needed to land the fair in two very different locations -- the viaduct, a parks-adopted concrete-sided triangle under the Broadway bridge on the north side of the Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown, tended to by the wonderful staff there; and Kuruvungna Springs, a sacred site surrounded by University High School near Santa Monica, and cared for by the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation, made up of a mighty group of dedicated individuals.

We gravitated towards circles, looking at circular spaces, simple or inverted, understanding how native performance works in circles and how housing and built structures worked in the Tongva/Gabrielino cultures in this area of Southern California. That included their beautiful dome-shaped homes, their shape a direct result of the materials they are constructed from. Tongva means “of the earth.” This research established a framework for the shape of the performance and audience spaces, but also opened up into the shapes of the fair booths -- how could they be a landscape in themselves, something more than a pop-up tent? In working out their forms -- a roof that slopes up, a wall that leans back, we found a shape that asked you to come forward. They would be porous -- to create the options of nesting them, clustering them or seeing through their structural supports to other things beyond. Spending time at Kuruvungna under the shade and might of their Ahuehuete tree, a tree that is sacred in the creation myth of the Zapotecs  -- “cloud people” -- and subsequently planted by the Spanish to mark water sources up and down California, I wanted to achieve a kind of irregular reach-up toward another kind of shape or presence, even while constructed out of mundane, humble, easy-access materials (on our present terms).

Whereas a square shape psychologically invites a kind of stillness, circles beg movement. I hope for people to encounter the booth structure as a line drawing; all the aircraft cable lines are drawn from basket patterns -- line drawings in the land, line drawings within the baskets. Openness is paramount; no walls, no borders, the inability to cross replaced by visual and physical porosity. You are not cut off from the space beyond.

Some booths are fictional and live in the world of the story, and some host active organizations or historical information. All are brought to life through the gutsy, complex web of staging and motion achieved by Garcés’ direction, through the performers’ infectious energy, and through FastHorse’s powerhouse of an imagination, exploring issues of white guilt, place and relocation, issues of identity and symbols, and the richness of the land itself, to make even the most preliminary of lists.

In conjunction with our market out front, audiences begin to have access to the astounding, exhilarating vibrancy of the native community -- so many individuals devoting their energy and talents and resourcefulness to multiple organizations, on a variety of issues.

Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" set
Photo: James Cheeks III.

Playwright Mac Wellman recently said, “More and more I think all theater is site-specific… When plays work, they work in the space.”

One thing we uncovered as Garcés and his team began working on the piece is the importance of an honest encounter with each space. Knowing that our first location would be the viaduct, we would need to negotiate the physical intimacy of that space (subtext: it’s not that big). The sound bounces off the concrete slab walls under the bridge, the haze of ambient downtown noise -- construction, helicopters, trucks in and out of the intermodal facility, the Metro Gold Line whizzing by atop the wall every few minutes -- it’s a constant din of atmosphere and motion. You feel the motion surround; you hear every activity. The space becomes a huddle.

What might that mean to the construct of a cultural fair? Were we to have landed first in a big wide open space, with much more real estate, we would have approached things differently. We were faced with two major directions: one, to have the fair exist like a real fair -- functional, hosted by community members and folks who worked directly with organizations, a fully occupied place that you could wander around. In this version, we’d embed stories that could be chased, followed or overheard into the more dominant texture of a fully operational fair. Circumstantially, we’d need an automatic audience -- voluntary or otherwise motivated to be there, and we’d be making a decision about a baseline of absorption or reception -- what is the minimum information you need to have, as an audience member, in order to understand the gesture of the piece?

This would be a valid way to approach a work like this, but what we found working in the viaduct, in making it “work in the space” was the notion of the huddle, and a lot of competing attention pieces pointed the team in a second direction, which engaged with more purposeful choreography of rhythms and attentions. This would allow us to make the performance work in a space with very strong edges. If something happens at the viaduct, it feels purposeful. Experience comes in waves of simultaneous sound, singular voices, and these volleys of dialogue back and forth across the space, opposing views, joining forces, interrogating status quo.

Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" performance
Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell.

Visually, the experience is similar. Sometimes your environment is fully activated in the spirit of a radiating, concentric surround, and sometimes it’s quite focused, and you have one clear voice or point of attention. Dramaturgically, this really makes sense to me. It resonates with the nature of the stories FastHorse is telling. The writing is loaded with the playwright’s meticulous attention, deep curiosity, and lived sensitivity to the nuances in every single character and their circumstance, to what each person in the play is faced with in terms of decision-making amid the gridlock of history, law and legacy. Each story is rigorously individualized and yet community-resonant, a spectrum of experiences navigating the circumstances of being of Native descent -- culturally, politically, in terms of identity, gender, place and choice. Each character is finding solidarity, negotiation, conflict, and affinity within a larger group of folks who share components of the struggle. That’s how the event occupies the space. We go in and out of simultaneity and particular focus, stories live both in sequenced attention and in adjacent narrative textures. As an audience, we really can track how that breathes, no matter which details we end up in closest contact with over the course of the piece. It works spatially in terms of how things are laid out -- at the top of the event, we start as a viewer facing a stage, facing a story that may or may not be directly related to our own, in a clump of people watching a bit from afar, trying to get a glimpse of what someone else’s version of life in Los Angeles might be like. And we end in a circle, in motion, in rejection, or transcendence, of government-issued definitions of what constitutes Native identity.

I’m writing this during technical rehearsals, and one of my favorite spots to be in is actually in the parking lot of the state park offices about 75 yards away from our performance space. I can see the skyline of L.A. to the south, and the silhouette of the construction equipment working on the state park. To the north, the glow of "Urban Rez" emanating from under the Broadway bridge, created by lighting designer Geoff Korf, and I can be seen. I can hear the cacophony of the cast’s voices and the music from John Nobori’s sound design, I can imagine the cast running around in in Meghan Healey’s evocative costumes, and there is such an acute vibrancy. I enjoy viewing things from unusual angles. One of my favorite parts of my job as a designer is to see how far I can zoom out, and how far I can zoom in. To get to the cellular level of decision making, of observing what is already there and already present that can be explored, enhanced, manipulated differently through the circumstance of narrative or performance acts, and to be able to zoom out to the larger picture of the work in context, in its ‘na, in its place. 

Cornerstone Theater, "Urban Rez" performance
Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell.

Thanks to the team: Production management: Cameron Squire; Scenic design: Shannon Scrofano; Technical direction: Michelangelo DeSerio; Lighting design: Geoff Korf; Costume design: Meghan Healey; Sound design: John Nobori; Stage management team: Ash Nichols, Amanda Novoa and Bianca Armenta; Assistant scenic design and props: Alexandra Friedman and Narges Noroozi; Additional custom artwork and booth solidarity: Nadia Reed and Lynn Jeffries; Mural: Cesar Tepeku.

"Urban Rez," Cornerstone Theater Company’s collaboration with the Native American community in Los Angeles, will perform April 7 - May 1.

Top image by James Cheeks III.

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