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fellowship: a play for superheroes

Author’s photo from preview performance at West Side Food Bank

Cornerstone recently produced the 8th play in our Hunger Cycle: fellowship, written by Julie Marie Myatt and directed by Peter Howard. The play was created in collaboration with organizations that provide food to people in need and the people who volunteer at those organizations.

Each performance of fellowship included the audience in preparing perishable bag lunches to be distributed to hungry people in Los Angeles. The cast and audience then, by design, left them behind for others to make sure the food got to the people in need. Two of the four performance venues were food banks that distributed the lunches from those shows. The other two venues were not directly affiliated with existing food distribution programs and getting the prepared food to hungry people was one of the responsibilities of the project’s Volunteer Activity Coordinator, Michael Garcia.

I’ve been telling friends that this show has changed my life – I know it’s early, but it certainly feels that way. There were two moments that happened throughout this process that are tattooed on my soul: one was continuously variable – it happened every night in performance – the other was a single encounter, one of those that are entirely unexpected and vital.

If I wrote this play—and I’m really no playwright, Julie Marie Myatt is a much better one than I—I would have made this a superhero story. Every individual I met on this journey of fellowship that was engaged in the food scarcity/abundance community (think: food reclamation and distribution, food banks, homeless services) gives an inordinate amount of their self on a daily basis. I always got this sense that it was never enough; not in a discouraging way… it could be seen as motivation. These superhero-characters have a collective super-objective: to defeat hunger.

Take for instance, Sherry Bonnano, and the people at Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition. They feed a hundred-plus hungry people every night of the week with hot food, fruits, beverages, snacks, desserts. Hot food: every single night. When I was introduced to them they were working out of a pantry and serving on the corner of Romaine and Sycamore in Hollywood; now they are based at The Way In center on the Salvation Army Campus. They are the organization that accepted the meal sacks after our Thursday night performances at Pico Union Project. It was here during the drop-off after our first preview, that I was first tattooed.

The food distribution plans were in flux all the way up until performances and for those times that we did not have a partner agency accepting the sacks for distribution, I just went to Skid Row and handed them out from my trunk. The first time, going after our first “food rehearsal” became a personal experience that I was too ashamed of telling anyone about: I was scared. Afraid to give food to hungry people? What is so intimidating about that? I still don’t know the answer, but I think it’s a symptom of the fallout from stigmas associated with homelessness. These social misconstructions can be bettered, and in my case, they were. Hungry people were afforded a brief respite, I was one hundred percent fine, and it really was that easy. In ensuing trips the fear dispelled, but the shame would rear again when there was no food left to fill outstretched hands.

I was pleased though, to be making trips to drop-off all 120 sacks in a single location, especially since Skid Row at nighttime was not an option. Even having handed out a few hundred sacks before the first preview, I hadn’t actually seen anyone eating the food. My first delivery of the sack lunches to GWHFC coincided with the first tempest that began to relieve Los Angeles from the drought. There was a young homeless man, probably my age or younger, waiting out the deluge underneath the overhang that led into the kitchen where the sacks were going to be refrigerated overnight. While schlepping the sacks from my car to the kitchen, I handed him a couple. After the rest of the meals were swiftly (but carefully) puzzled into any and all refrigerated crevices, on my way out, I saw that the young homeless kid – now more clearly younger than me – was eating a sandwich that was made less than two hours before by some unknown participant of fellowship.

During the rehearsal process we had a discussion focused around the question: “What does hunger look like to you?” I didn’t know what to draw upon at the time. I can’t recall this youth’s face, but I also can’t ever forget his silhouette hunched on the cement – don’t want to forget it. In that moment some opaque casing inside of me shattered. On the way to my home, in the rain in my car, with a working heater, I cried. The audacity.

We made more than 2,100 meal sacks throughout the full rehearsal, performance, and post-production process. Each sack had a sandwich (turkey, cheese, and lettuce), condiment packages, an orange, a Lenny & Larry’s birthday cake cookie, a 16.9 oz. water bottle, and a napkin. I was, am, unofficially proud that the food supplies for all of these went through my hands. The sacks bulged and were sometimes, often, uncooperative in stacking and handling. They were good sacks. Bruce, the Executive Director of the Westside Food Bank, where the Friday night performances were held, said that they were the best sandwich sacks that had come through the food bank in his time there. And I was, am, incredibly lucky that all the parts eventually fell into place – which I came to understand was entirely dependent on the superheroes already doing this work.

Corporations with corporate responsibility programs? Nah. It was these organizations that were already engaged in feeding the hungry that provided most of the food supplies for the run. The turkey was real, roasted turkey breast, sliced and portioned out by the students in the culinary training program at L.A. Kitchen. MEND Poverty, the site of our Saturday performances, provided the cookies. Meet Each Need with Dignity (MEND) is unquestionably an incredible entity – the largest poverty organization in the San Fernando Valley – and we were blessed to have a friend, Luke Ippoliti, with the organization (he was also in our Pacoima community chorus during our 2015 statewide tour of California: The Tempest). When I think of what is subjectively “cool,” I think of Luke now; not a social media celebrity… Luke: Food Justice and Sustainability Director.

An indefatigable force on the side of fellowship was one of our cast members, Luis Yepiz, who aside from being a talented opera singer also works for Food Forward, a food reclamation organization that is the life blood of food justice in Los Angeles: they distribute 300,000 pounds of recovered produce to 300 agencies a week. So when I was sweating finding 2,000 oranges for the show, Luis, like a godfather granting wishes at his daughter’s wedding, assured me it was but a trifle. He also connected us with the World Harvest Food Bank, which provided about half of the bread for the show’s run.

2,100 sack lunches, in the end, is a drop in the ocean of hunger that floods Los Angeles. There are 44,000 homeless individuals in the county, and three-quarters of them live outside. These numbers don’t include all food-scarce individuals.

What does this all have to do with theater? There was after all, a performance while the audience was guided through the sack-making process. Each individual show lived and died on its unique audience. I loved that. Audiences constituted of people open to new experience, who bore no theater biases, who came with personal stakes in the issues discussed at hand, these shows were alive and pulsating. The audience consecrated the action, which in this play they were advancing enthusiastically (and sometimes noisily) elbow-by-elbow. Shows populated with reluctant theatregoers, who probably held several season subscriptions, were lifeless. This was fine – for me in my capacity at least – it almost came to the point that I did not care about the artistic product, because no matter: the food was being made and it was feeding people. Interestingly, the performances closest to the affluent areas of the county tended to be the latter type of show. The experience of fellowship was entirely predicated on the audience’s propensity to work together, with strangers, to feed some other strangers.

My second tattoo in this journey happened over multiple sessions, though it was a particular moment in the play when the now-decorated paper bags are being filled with the waters, cookies and sandwiches: a song ends, the cast swivels, places the sandwich trays on their tables, and without a word of instruction the audience stands up and gets to work. Arms and hands work over, under, and in unison with each other to ensure that a sandwich makes it into every bag. It’s a simple act that becomes extraordinary when seen across theatrical distance. When the audiences were fully enthralled, I swear, they stood as one.

This script was the result of a lifetime theater artist still grappling with the impact of theater – what do we really accomplish with a show? What are the quantitative results that are so crucial to our development departments, beyond the “amount of unduplicated individuals served”? I think it’s a question that a true artist needs to struggle with. Every time in every fellowship performance that the audience stood together, all at once, my faith in this very-human-of-institutions – theater – was reinforced brick-by-brick.

It also created more complications, too. Because this moment of solidarity happens pretty much at any volunteer event there is: people are gently, sternly, or frantically guided into working together for the betterment of the less fortunate. Some volunteer events can provide hundreds and hundreds of meals (or care packages, or grocery bags, etc.) in a few short hours. Working with a traditional script constrains the kind of work that can happen, and all the resources and labor that go into presets, load-ins and strikes, could be invested for a greater output. I learned from superheroes that you can’t pick-and-choose what you get donated; you accept what you get. Having to work within the framework of a script and performance, I had to pick-and-choose. This show was very lucky that the parts fell into place, or maybe it was theatrical providence.

These are not denigrations of fellowship, but lessons learned. I am galvanized at the depth of potential that this show disinterred. What other service activities can you engage an active audience in? What other needs might be met? How can these shows be created and framed; might it serve better to improvise or devise this kind of endeavor? How much can you really ask of an audience? We asked them to wash hands, wear gloves and aprons, and sometimes that seemed like too much no matter how transparent our marketing was. What if we left the option open for them to take their lunch sacks and distribute them on their own time? There was an exchange in the play:

ROY: You meet the people you’re making all this food for?

ROSCOE: Yes. All the time.

This seemed like a crucial element that was missing from the fellowship experience, even for those of us working on it.

If you lose sight of the fact that stages – permanent or temporary – are privileged positions, that you are on it, or you shape it, only in service of the audience, the work is academic at best and deadly at worst. What audiences do you want to serve? Are we serving them with palatial continental seating?

Maybe this play actually was about superheroes, though, in effacing attire. We can imagine that it takes preternatural strength to overcome meth, as was the story with the character of Rita. We can imagine it takes boundless compassion to care for a deteriorating mother, as it was with Rachel. We can imagine it takes unworldly tenacity, to show up every week, for a decade-plus, to feed people you don’t know. The play did not a set a hard definition for hunger or assign it a value. Hunger is a manifold concept that was depicted from many angles and everyone seemed to identify with at least one. Bodily-hunger was just the point of entry. It can be a good thing. There’s a great hunger out there to see the end of hunger.

It’s only been a few short weeks but I accept that same sense of “not enough” that I see these superheroes shoulder, and to be certain I do a lot less. I keep food in my car to hand out. After last call I’ll buy an extra burrito to give away. I now, consistently do, the absolute, least possible. This show made me realize that I was never able to actually ignore hunger. I was able to deceive myself that I could. No more, and for the better.

Michael Garcia is a Los Angeles theater worker that has worked with Cornerstone in various capacities over the past few years. He is passionate about using theater to connect communities.


2 Responses

  1. Kerry says:

    Michael, Beautifully written. Thank you for this and reminding us of the power and responsability we as Theater makers have to fight injustice and share our talents for the benefit of everyone.

  2. Ivon Gregory says:

    I enjoyed your wonderful blog.

    Thank you for the very hard work done.

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