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The Garcés Ultimatum

Authenticity and connection were elusive goals for Michael John Garcés. Then he landed at the helm of Cornerstone.

By Steven Leigh Morris

Page Leong's attraction, directed by Garcés in 2008 for the fifth annual Cornerstone Institute Summer Residency; the play was staged outside the theatre's Traction Avenue venue. (Photo by Gary Leonard.)

While growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, young Michael John Garcés was cast as an apostle in a semi-professional production of Godspell.

Neither he nor his family had been born in Colombia. His Cuban father, Sergio, a now-retired accountant who until recently worked for Price Waterhouse, emigrated to the United States before the 1959 revolution—making him an "economic-opportunity immigrant," as Garcés puts it with a wry smile. Sergio met his Washington, D.C.-born bride, Lee, in Miami, where Michael was born. It was a job opportunity that soon took the family to Medellín, where Michael lived until he was 13, absorbing images from nature and from Colombian politics and culture.

"Medellín is surrounded by mountains," Garcés recalls, "very much like a cup. It's a beautiful city—it's spring all the time, there's always flowers and fruit, there's a rainy and a summer season. There was a lot going on politically then. We lived a couple of miles from one of [Colombian drug lord Pablo] Escobar's residences. I remember seeing the guns on the walls, but I was in my kid world. I couldn't help but be struck by the gap between the rich and the poor. My mother used to take me to see music events, like the philharmonic, and I started doing theatre in fifth and sixth grade. My parents were remarkably supportive of my fascination with the theatre—perhaps to my dad's later regret."

When Garcés was 13, the family, including his younger brother Chris, picked up once more and resettled in the capital city of Bogotá, where the fledgling actor landed his plum role in Godspell.

Telling the story, Garcés emphasizes two things: First, his family was not rabidly anti-Castro, like so many of the Cubans who arrived in Miami after the revolution. He describes his father's mother, Inez, who also emigrated to Florida, as a "leftist who grew up very poor, who worked rolling tobacco." She believed that the Cuban revolution led to any number of improvements in the lives of millions of Cubans. "My father is, in Miami terms, left-of-center," Garcés reasons. "In New York he'd be right-of-center. In Berkeley he'd be a reactionary."

Second, unlike the wave of Cuban immigrants who arrived in Miami later, Sergio Garcés wasn't particularly religious, and neither was his family.

And this is the backdrop for the moment that Michael John Garcés, as a teenager, adorned himself in the garb of one of Jesus' apostles and sang to packed, enthusiastic crowds "We Beseech Thee"—to hear about the coming of Christ.

It was a huge event. Although a few U.S. State Department-sponsored jazz bands had toured South America, very few musicals from the United States had ever made it to Colombia, and the 1970 pop-gospel hit Godspell had never been performed there by anyone. Garcés recalls articles in national magazines reporting on the production.

"You've got to understand, I was a kid from an agnostic family in a Catholic country doing a biblical musical written by a Jew about the coming of Christ. Two of the actors were Jewish. I don't think we ever talked about what this play was about. I have no idea about the convictions of the other actors. We were completely absorbed in putting on a show—a show that was untethered from any sense of purpose. And it made such a big splash!"

Twenty-four years later, Garcés is a much-in-demand director and a playwright, and in the national spotlight as artistic director of the 24-year-old Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company. This is an organization that won't put on a play until it has a lucid understanding of what and whom it's for, and just what its relationship is to the community where it's being performed. Among the originating and still-employed philosophies of the Cornerstone troupe, which was nomadic in its early years, is to incorporate community members into its shows, so they perform side by side with the professional company.

Before being hired by Cornerstone four years ago, Garcés was enjoying a whirlwind career, directing first in New York City and then in regional theatres across the U.S., from Kentucky's Actors Theatre of Louisville to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. En route, he picked up the coveted Princess Grace Statue Award for distinguished accomplishment in the theatre; the Alan Schneider Director Award, bestowed by Theatre Communications Group; and a career-building New Generations Grant, also from TCG. As much as he appreciated the accolades and the employment, he describes a kind of ache from the process of erecting stage productions in four weeks and then leaving after opening night to move on to the next project. Even after helming four productions in Louisville, he says, "I don't know much of anything about the people of Kentucky."

This ache for a purpose beyond "putting on a show"—this hunger for a connection to the place, the people, and the accrued energy of the life and history of a particular setting—is what makes Garcés a good fit for Cornerstone, he will tell you himself. His goals may still be somewhat elusive, but he's come a long way from Bogotá, Colombia, and from the free-floating apostle he played there in Godspell.

Among Garcés's first projects for Cornerstone was Los Illegals, a play he wrote about the plight of illegal immigrants from Central and South America crossing the U.S.-Mexican border and seeking work in the United States. Directed by Shishir Kurup, it was the first installment of the company's "Justice Cycle," a series of six plays examining the principles and contradictions of how justice gets meted out—not only by the government but by the larger forces of a shadow economy and by destiny itself.

One sentimental sequence in Los Illegals involved immigrants perishing from thirst in the Mojave Desert while trying to reach relatives to the north. Other scenes showed day laborers struggling to collect their pay. There were depictions of picket lines that would have made Clifford Odets proud. The production was set outdoors at the Pasadena Armory, rimmed by fences. The audience sat on picnic benches within the concrete yard. The set was anchored by a trailer—the kind of unit used for temporary offices and classrooms—that represented the bosses' headquarters.

Alongside the play's intelligence, its spot-on depictions of the lunatic politics that lead to human misery, and its clarion call for awareness and political action, Los Illegals conveyed a partisan sympathy for the subjects of its title—a sympathy so palpable that it cast doubts on the author's objectivity. Could it be that Garcés had a heart so compassionate for the victims of the social plight he was describing that his story's darker cross-currents—themes such as those found in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which savages the impoverished as well as those in power—were beyond his sensibilities and sensitivities? It was as though in his inaugural effort for Cornerstone, Garcés had opted to bring a child's-eye view from Medellín to a stage in Pasadena, carving the play's surreal swirl of the rich and the poor into a latter-day Medieval morality play, with its implicit appeal: Just be kind, and everything will be better. And there is some truth to that.

Jump forward four years, to early September 2010. With a thick shock of black hair and stubbled beard, attired in a safari-style shirt and shorts, the youthful-appearing 43-year-old Garcés (now a father of two: a grown daughter, Christina, and an infant son, Louis) sits at a long table in the rehearsal hall of Cornerstone's headquarters, a former warehouse situated in the industrial/arts district slightly east of downtown Los Angeles. It's not Cornerstone, however, that's rehearsing Garcés's new play, The Web, but a younger L.A.-based troupe named needtheater. Garcés is joined at the table by Alyson Roux, a graduate student from the University of Washington who has come down from Seattle to direct this production. The actors are just off-book and the staging is largely set. This is the first time Garcés has seen the piece on its feet.

The play, written before Los Illegals, couldn't be more different from that work. Loosely adapted from Dostoyevsky's story "The Double," it concerns a protagonist whose identity appears to have been stolen though online hacking, and who is chased, imprisoned and tortured in South America after being implicated in drug trafficking. Is the flummoxed protagonist in the midst of a Kafkaesque nightmare? Or is he merely pretending to be incredulous? Do his torturers really know who he is? Or is the protagonist not actually the protagonist at all, but a double who has dropped in from some parallel universe to take over his life? These questions, addressed in lean, sleek dialogue, are underscored by casting the same actor as the protagonist and his double. Imagine a blend of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and an episode of "The X-Files."

If Los Illegals reveals Garcés the moralist, The Web gives us Garcés the metaphysician. And the metaphysical view is dire. Some of his most avid supporters (including artistic directors he's worked with repeatedly, like Howard Shalwitz of Woolly Mammoth and Marc Masterson of ATL) are struck by Garcés's attraction to bleak themes and situations. It's as though Garcés the moralist and Garcés the metaphysician have clashing worldviews: One believes (to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.) in a moral arc slowly bending toward justice, while the other believes in the unattainability of justice. This contradiction may well be a consequence of the contrasts in Garcés's youth—his Cuban heritage and his upbringing in Colombia. "Conversation in Colombia was very nuanced," Garcés explains. "There were really no 'good guys.' Guerillas on the left and the right were all doing terrible things. Trying to eke out a sense of decency and a political solid ground on which to have passionate opinions was a real task."

Garcés compares that to the righteous indignation spurred by Cuban issues. "It's amazing how the mention of Cuba will ignite a fiercely rabid conversation in my family at the drop of a hat, almost like nothing else." He still recalls the arguments surrounding Elián González, the Cuban child whose mother drowned while trying to bring him from Cuba to the U.S.—and the appeals by the child's father, left behind in Cuba, to have him returned, rather than living in Miami with relatives.

"I remember my father and I agreeing that Elián should go back to Cuba—but we were shouting about who 'agreed' more. My mother banned the conversation from the house. Discussing Colombia is less inflammatory, because it feels more hopelessly complex, where there is no right or wrong."

These and other debates have their roots in Garcés's early life: After his family returned to Miami from Bogotá, Garcés found himself in a simmering conflict with his father over the direction his future should take. A company career had been the crux of his father's sense of identity and security (which contributed to Garcés's younger brother Chris eventually landing a job with a marketing firm in Seattle). But after an epiphany he had, around the age of 19, that he could not, would not, work at a company job, Garcés enrolled at the University of Miami. Young Garcés found himself gravitating, despite serious reservations, toward the theatre department.

"Essentially, they wanted you to be in the profession as a musical-theatre actor—in the chorus, wherever. 'Our graduates work' was the department's motto, I think." There might have been truth to that motto—shortly before he left Florida for good, Garcés landed the role of the Puerto Rican delivery boy in Coconut Grove Playhouse's production of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady.

Immediately after, in 1989, he fled to New York City and "fell into" an internship as a production assistant at INTAR, the bustling Hispanic American Arts Center. Watching a workshop of Eduardo Machado's Cabaret Bambu, starring Priscilla Lopez, Garcés laughed out loud at a joke in Spanish, alerting INTAR artistic director Max Ferra that his new intern was fluent in Spanish—which led to an audition. Thus began a long relationship and an intricate network of connections that led to Garcés acting in, writing and directing plays in a swath of New York theatres. His 16 years in New York, Garcés says, amounted to a journey of discovery "focusing on my desire to learn about why one does this form, rather than why one does one's show."

A second epiphany came in 1999, when he was asked to direct a play in Chiapas, Mexico, as part of an eight-week residency in a Mayan writers' collective. "I bought a plane ticket and flew to Mexico, having had very little conversation with the people I'd be working with. I showed up at Chiapas, and learned that the project, based on Mayan creation myths, had been commissioned by a U.S. festival, so it would have an extended life.

"There were three women in the company, and five or six men, who usually had larger roles in the myths. We cast the three women in crucial roles. In the middle of the play, one woman gave birth to jaguar twins, and at the end of the play, another woman did this culminating monologue. The impact, the quality of the aesthetic experience people were having watching the play, was so profound, so electric—women in this community had never seen women perform on stage, speaking in voices like that; plus the representation of giving birth, women actors looking an audience in the eye—all this made a huge impact I hadn't anticipated. This was something I started looking for in my other work. I think that's why I eventually came to Cornerstone."

Cornerstone's founding artistic director Bill Rauch, who currently heads the flagship Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, likes and supports the man who replaced him, even as he acknowledges certain differences in their working philosophies. "My sense is that at this stage in Cornerstone's life, and Michael's life, the company is working on issues—let's look at criminal justice, say—rather than going to a neighborhood and figuring out what to do from there," Rauch allows. "It's a different angle to achieve the same mission." Garcés concurs, to a point: Cornerstone is a consensus-driven company, and that principle tries Garcés's patience.

Anyone ever associated with the company knows "about Bill being pleasant and amiable," Garcés acknowledges. "I've learned a lot of patience since being at Cornerstone, but I'm not the most patient person in the world. I tend not to manage people as well as Bill does—I think he took more care of the ensemble. Some people find that liberating. Some find that hard. Outwardly and emotionally, I think I'm more edgy. And Bill and I are pretty different as directors."

By that, he means that Rauch is, by temperament, an interpreter of material (he started out staging Shakespeare); under Garcés, Cornerstone has transformed from a director's company to a playwright's company. Garcés can recall only two works he's directed that were not new plays, one by Richard Foreman and the other by Lorca. As for the oft-repeated observation that Cornerstone's shows have gotten darker, more severe, since he took over, "That's just a perception," Garcés responds.

In fact, his director-playwright-actor blend contributes to an understanding of process that's as comprehensive as it is fastidious. Playwright Carlos Murillo recalls Garcés directing his dark play or stories for boys at the 2007 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville: "Michael is a force of nature in rehearsal. He feels each moment of the play in his body. The stakes of each scene pulse through his circulatory system, and at the same time he maintains a cool consciousness of the overall machinery of the play and is able to communicate it with deep clarity to his collaborators." ATL's Masterson concurs: "He seems to be able to talk to anyone and bring them on board to share his excitement for the production."

Woolly Mammoth's Shalwitz was introduced to Garcés's directorial work in a 2002 Louisville staging of Adam Rapp's Finer Noble Gases and has since scooped him up to direct several productions in D.C., including Luis Alfaro's adaptation of Oedipus El Rey, slated to open Feb. 7. Many of Shalwitz's impressions stem from a production Garcés directed at Woolly Mammoth of Craig Wright's Grace: "It went through several workshops, and there wasn't even a script that held water until about a week before that play opened. It was playing with time in very different ways. Michael has this internal compass about connecting the dots of the past to the future—you see this in his own writing. There's this painstaking way in which the conversation lurches forward, and it's really quite stunning, this search for the authentic."

Looking forward to Alfaro's upcoming play, set in an East L.A. barrio, Shalwitz continues: "What Michael's looking for is a theatrical representation, an atmosphere in the theatre, that's so honest, so textured, that the reality of what's in the play is more true than 'Let's paint a picture of the L.A. barrio.' He carries a sense of conviction, and as a result he asks questions of audiences, mostly political ones. If you look at his résumé, it's more political, more multicultural, than almost any other director in America."

For his part, Garcés is not optimistic about the future of America's institutional theatres, if they don't change their ways, and quickly—because, he says, they're obsessing on final results at the cost of investigation. "Any theatre that has a result in mind is not having a conversation. The future of the form in these changing times is really about plunging into the unknown and new contexts. We're at a point where those risks are going to have to be taken. The future doesn't lie in the status quo."

Garcés is currently in rehearsals, co-directing (with Mark Valdez) Cornerstone's latest community-based project, Making Paradise, a musical homage to the city of West Hollywood (partly sponsored by the city), with book by Tom Jacobson, music by Deborah Wicks La Puma and lyrics by Shishir Kurup. On one Saturday afternoon devoted to choreographing the opening number, in the Fiesta Hall auditorium of West Hollywood's Plummer Park, La Puma's music blares over a boom box as some two dozen people cavort and sashay to Sheetal Gandhi's sassy, flashy choreography. Professional actors and dancers work alongside amateurs, some slender youths barely into adulthood, others stocky men in sweat pants that tug against bulging stomachs, and one woman who looks like she might be somebody's grandmother. Garcés watches intently, taking mental notes while letting the choreographer do her work.

The result may or may not turn out to be on par with a long-ago production of Godspell, in Bogotá, Colombia—but whether or not it punches all the right critical buttons is entirely beside the point. Garcés's 25-year journey has brought him to a place where he's supervising a freshly crafted musical about gays and Russian immigrants and parking tickets—and every line uttered, every song sung, every choreographed step is inexorably connected to a place and its people and their history. The purpose of doing this musical is clearly understood. It's right there in the slightly muggy air of the auditorium.

"Let's take it again from the top," Gandhi shouts to her ensemble of about two dozen, as they mop their faces and heave for breath. Garcés continues to watch with unwavering focus.

Some people equate theatre with a church. For Garcés, theatre would seem to be less about worship and more about the relentless search for authenticity, relevance, purpose.

Los Angeles-based critic and playwright Steven Leigh Morris is the main theatre writer for the L.A. Weekly. He has also contributed to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and serves on the faculty of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater.

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