A homeless man who once recycled boxes from the street becomes a furniture builder. An immigrant mother who is unable to pay medical bills loses her child to illness. These are the stories of the residents of the University Park Campus community that have been woven together to create the 24th Street Theatre’s Ladybird, a play which casts members of the community, with four performances from Dec. 7 through Dec. 15.
For resident Ivonne Rodriguez, her story as a first-generation immigrant is one that is shared by many members of the cast. With both parents having emmigrated from Mexico and enduring a difficult trip to the United States, Rodriguez grew up in a low-income household and did not graduate from high school until recently earning her GED certificate.
“A lot of us are parents and almost all of us are children of immigrants, or some of us still have our parents in Mexico,” Rodriguez said. “So there’s that recognition that it was a tough upbringing for a lot of us.”
Rodriguez first entertained the idea of community theater after her oldest son became involved with the theater’s “After Cool” program, which offers education and enrichment in the arts to students. After the theater received a two-year grant from the James Irvine Foundation Exploring Engagement Fund, Rodriguez’s suggestion of including adults in the productions became a reality.
“I was always fascinated by what the kids were able to come up with and create,” Rodriguez said. “Fast forward to years later, and they had the opportunity this year. For me, it felt like a no-brainer. I’ve been asking for it, I’ve been wanting this — why not throw myself into this type of project?”
Before writing the script, the first few months of production were composed of story circles, where cast members would sit in a circle and tell stories of their lives, of hardship, of migration and of family.
Director Laurie Woolery said that while she and co-writer Victor Vazquez did have a text to build off of, the parallels between peoples’ stories were drawn organically.
“Initially, we were inspired by the story of Gift of the Magi, just because we knew we were dealing with parents, and we knew, to a certain degree, details about that community — a lot of them are immigrants,” Woolery said. “What the community gives you expands and contracts [the story]. It’s not at all the Gift of the Magi, but it still has that essence of sacrifice, of the things that we carry, the things that we pass on and what we need to let go of.”
Executive Director of 24th Street Theatre Jay McAdams said that the expansion into community-based theater — Ladybird being the theater’s first major production to do so — comes as a result of the shift in modern theater.
“There’s this growing discussion in the non-profit sector, which is about how things are changing in the arts,” McAdams said. “Now that we all have iPhones in our pockets, we make our own playlist, we are watching videos on demand … Why shouldn’t we create art that way too? Rather than just come to a theater to sit down and watch a play, why shouldn’t they be able to get up on stage and be in the play?”
The other reason behind this new form of entertainment is that it falls in line with the theater’s history of outreach in the community.
“We do a lot of work with the community, everything from helping people get to their parole hearings, to helping families that are having domestic issues, to getting free books for kids for Christmas,” McAdams said. “Most theaters doing a play with the community — it would be kind of an odd thing. For us, it’s sort of hand and glove with our mission, which is serving the community and using art to make a difference.”
And according to Woolery, the community gives back in their own way, too. Working with amateur actors has allowed her to recognize that every person is an artist with a story to tell, and each member’s willingness to tell that story inspires her and shapes the work that she wants to do in the future.
“Giving speeches is listed up there as one of the top five terrifying things people do,” she said. “To witness everyday people, who don’t necessarily see themselves doing this, and walking through their fear, working with each other and really putting themselves out there — not just physically but emotionally — is incredibly inspiring. It’s not some big, self-sacrificing thing that I’m doing — it’s the ultimate artistic collaboration as far as I’m concerned.”
Rodriguez said that many of the cast members were parents of children in the same program as her son, whom she had met “after performances or in line together getting a tamale,” but never really gotten to know.
“You get to know their name and where they’re from, but this project was something deeper than that,” she said. “Now you get to understand people’s stories, and you start to see the similarities in everyone’s struggle. As people are speaking in this group, this energy that is collected is so enriching. It’s empowering. You walk out of that room and you just figure, ‘Wow. These people that you think you know are these heroes to their children, to themselves and to their families.’”
For the rest of the cast, it came down to having enough time to make the commitment to coming to rehearsals and learning their lines.
“A lot of us are parents, almost all of us work and some of us have two jobs,” Rodriguez said. “Whenever someone didn’t make it, it was interesting how they would come to the next meeting and they would say, ‘I just had to come because I needed it.’ It sort of became therapeutic in a sense for a lot of us.”
Despite the obstacles, everyone was able to come together in a way that Woolery hopes will inspire the audience to reach out to one another and hear each other’s stories.
“The struggle that people endure, and yet still remain moving forward trying to live a good life and trying to be good people, I find incredibly inspiring,” Woolery said. “Just a simple act of sharing can be incredibly healing.”
It is this energy to which Rodriguez attributes her motivation to pursue her education at a four-year university. After three semesters at a community college, Rodriguez plans to apply to USC next semester.
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