Playwright Sigrid Gilmer has been quite busy since receiving her MA from CalArts in 2005, working with such LA-based stage companies as Katselas Theatre Company, Watts Village Theater, Company of Angels and Clubbed Thumb Theatre Company.
She’s now near the end of a two-year project for Cornerstone Theater Company, writing the second play of its Hunger Cycle.Â Seed: A Weird Act of Faith, Gilmer’s surrealistic, multimedia-infused focus on the food crisis in South Los Angeles, directed by Cornerstone member Shishir Kurup, premieres Saturday at Chuco’s Justice Center in Inglewood.
Cornerstone’s six-year Hunger Cycle has involved the commissioning of “about ten plays that will look at different kinds of hunger,” explains Kurup, who was born in India, received his degree from San Diego State and is currently on the faculty at USC. “For example, I am going to be writing a play within the next year or so that will be produced in 2014 that is about the hunger of addiction.”
Meanwhile,Â Gilmer’s currentÂ Seed “happens to be about urban farms,” continues Kurup, “not community gardens, but urban farms created in food deserts, parts of town where people don’t have access to fresh produce unless they drive at least 20 minutes or so, away from their neighborhoods.”
Founded in 1986 as a touring company that adapted classic works to tell local stories about rural and urban communities, Cornerstone has evolved to commissioning more than 50 playwrights and premiering more than 80 works. According to Cornerstone’s promotional material, the impetus for Seed “was the reality of hunger in Los Angeles, which affects one in six of the county’s 10 million residents, including more than 600,000 children.”
The first play in the Hunger Cycle was Lisa Loomer’s Café Vida, which was directed by Cornerstone artistic director Michael John Garces last springÂ at LATC. It dealt with Homeboy Industries’ efforts to provide provides sustenance andÂ support for people in East LA.
Gilmer’s project was more far-flung in its scope, she says. “There was a lot of research involved, just finding the people and events that were part of this play. Raquel Gutierrez, who is Cornerstone’s manager of community partners, would find stuff that might be of interest and I’d follow through with it. The first event we went to was a conference on genetically modified food in San Francisco.Â We also met up with some of the folks who were involved with the South Central Farm that used to be at 41st and Alameda, that got destroyed. We did a story circle with them, that I recorded.Â That led to meetings with other people and visits to other urban farm projects that are ongoing in Los Angeles.Â One meeting led to another, just sort of branching out to a wide variety of personalities and situations. I conducted a great many story circles which were all recorded.”
The play’s 18-member cast — small by Cornerstone standards — includes farmers, advocates and young people from the community as well as Cornerstone professionals. One of the community actors is Neelam Sharma, executive director of Community Services Unlimited, which operates an urban farm at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Menlo Avenue, across from USC’s Olympic pool.Â Sharma is straightforward in her hope that Seed will help get the word out. “There is most definitely in neighborhoods like South LA, a lack of affordable high-quality produce and food, generally.
“What we have been doing for a number of years is building urban farms in our neighborhood, growing food in these spaces, partly to engage people once again with what the process of real food looks like.Â Seed itself is a very creative thing. You put seed in the ground and it swells and it bursts forth with life and creates these wonderful things to feed us. I think, in so many ways, it is not just the name, Seed, that the play is taking on. The play is going to stick with people and germinate long after people have seen it.”
“I actually modeled the farm in the play after Neelam’s farm, but I had so much to draw from,” says Gilmer. “For this play, the material, the underlying themes and some of the stories and characters exist in reality.Â So the approach I took was to transcribe all the conversations and interviews that came out of the various story circles.Â I then went through all the material I had and wrote down lines and images that struck me.Â From there I started to piece together the characters and took note of certain themes I saw developing. I was also trying to figure what genre of story I wanted to tell, based on all this material I had. I went back and forth, but horror and romance were the two big ones that I kept coming back to.”
“There is a lot of magicality and surrealism in the staging,” says Kurup. “Sigrid has written a play that has a lot of puppetry in it, also a mix of media, including video and audio. We source our material from the community that Sigrid met and interviewed, but the plotting comes out of Sigrid’s talent and imagination.”
“Which includes the gods of agriculture descending to earth and communicating with smart phones,” Gilmer chuckles.Â “In general, my style is a little off-kilter, but I think the piece just sort of naturally went that way. One of the overarching themes I came up with was to make the play look and feel like a bio-diverse organic farm. If you see pictures of one, it is haphazard. You see basil and broccoli and other vegetables planted without much delineation.Â There are not these harsh rows you see in a modern cultured field where there are all potatoes or all corn.Â In an urban farm, you have little smatterings of carrots, next to brussels sprouts, next to peas.Â They appear to be moving in and out of each other.Â All that imagery contributed to the surrealness, the kind of controlled messiness and the wildness of the play.”
Kurup adds, “I am the director of this piece, but the approach to staging this work had to be unconventional.Â Most of Cornerstone’s work is highly non-traditional in our approach. And I find I must do different things that range out of the sphere of pure directing, because we are always doing many things at the same time. Within the scope of Cornerstone I am an actor, a writer and a director and also a composer. For Seed, I’ve also written one of the songs for the show. Sigrid wrote the lyrics and I wrote the melody.Â Actually it is a puppet song. And during previews, we were still adding material and still shooting video.”
Aiding and abetting the efforts of Gilmer and Kurup is a design staff that includes Frederica Nascimento (scenic), Raquel M. Barreto (costumes), Colbert Davis (sound), Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz (lighting), Lynn Jeffries (puppets), Tom Ontiveros (video), and Sean T. Cawelti (props).
“I am looking forward to opening the show,” says Gilmer. “During previews, I’ve been doing some tweaking of the end a little bit. I have doing a little re-writing to just make the end a little more satisfying. What works on paper doesn’t always work in front of an audience.Â So, I have been shaping it to say what I want, without tying it into a neat little package. We’re ready to open.”
Seed: A Weird Act of Faith, Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 E. Redondo Blvd, Inglewood, CA 90302. Opens Saturday.Â Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through Nov 18. Â Local produce will be on sale before the Saturday and Sunday performances. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. www.CornerstoneTheater.org/seed. 213-613-1700.
***All Seed: A Weird Act of Faith production photos by Kevin Michael Campbell