Oral Histories

Interview of Shishir Kurup

Member of the Cornerstone Theater Company ensemble. Actor, director, and playwright.
Community-Engaged Theater in Los Angeles
Biographical Note:
Member of the Cornerstone Theater Company ensemble. Actor, director, and playwright.
Collings, Jane
Kurup, Shishir
Persons Present:
Kurup and Collings.
Place Conducted:
Kurup's home in Culver City, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Jane Collings, principal editor and interviewer, UCLA Center for Oral History Research; Ph.D., Critical Studies in Film and Television, UCLA.Collings prepared for the interviews by reviewing archival material on the history of the company located at the Cornerstone Theater Company office.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. The interviewee was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a few corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
6 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Community-Engaged Theater in Los Angeles series seeks to document the work of a grouping of theater companies in Los Angeles whose mission combines an artistic focus with explicit attention to social justice and community building. The companies included use a working method that seeks creative input from the communities in which they are staging work and make concerted efforts to solicit feedback from audiences regarding the political and social themes of the work once staged. As well, these companies have received acclaim and recongition from the theater world. Companies included in the series, once it is complete, will include Cornerstone Theater Company, Watts Village Theater Company, Los Angeles Poverty Department and East L.A. Rep.
Characteristics of the Indian state of Kerala—The matriarchal society in Kerala—Mother travels out of hometown to pursue nursing studies—Economic downturn's impact on Kurup's mother's business—Father's professional training—Parents' support of their family back home—The tragic death of a younger sibling—Kurup's emergency delivery—Mother's career as a midwife and as a psychiatric and surgical nurse—Childcare and eldercare in the traditional family structure in India—Family re-settles in Kenya—The harbor at Mombasa, Kenya—The history of Mombasa—Kurup's debt to the story-telling culture of India—Racial themes in Indian culture—Early roots of humanity in South India—Self-identifies as an Indo-African-American—Family arrives in the United States in the early seventies—Culture shock upon arrival in Louisville, Kentucky—Formative influences of an African cook in the Kurup home in Mombasa and a Gudrati woman—Characteristics of Mombasa—Attends an eclectic mix of film at the Regal Cinema in Mombasa—Writers that intrigued Kurup as a child—Pageantry of festivals, mosques, churches in Mombasa—More on culture shock upon arrival in Lexington, Kentucky—The intrepid Europeans that explored the African bush—More on culture shock upon arrival in Lexington, Kentucky—The British school system in Mombasa—Feels alienated both both white kids and African American kids in Kentucky—A family move to the Chicago area—The physical adventurism of Midwestern kids—Finds Midwestern kids tend toward being angry—Kurup finds social refuge in his sense of humor—Finds social acceptance somewhat alienating—A sense of frustration with the cultural myopia of Americans—A schism in contemporary America on the image of the future—The image of Americans held by those outside the country—Languages spoken in the Kurup household—The community life in Elgin, Illinois—The family practice of religion—Mother's love of reading—Difficulties that people have had with the name "Shishir"—The importance of not Anglicizing names—Family flees the bad weather in Elgin, Illinois—Parents' hope that Kurup would enter medical studies—Misses Kenya—Cultural transformation in America—The cultural and ethnic mix in Florida as compared to Kentucky and Illinois—Plays soccer at high school in Florida—Plays music in high school—"Bridge Shows" at Cornerstone—Kurup's comfort in a variety of cultural and ethnic groups—Meets a musical collaborator in high school—An eye-opening demonstration of racism—First encounters with theater people in high school—Overcomes stage fright while performing in a band for the entire high school.
Early career goals—Decides to pursue theater despite significant obstacles—The learning possibility at the University of Florida theater program—Performs in Rhymers of Eldridge, a play that has resonances of the Rudyard Kipling tale Rikki, Tikki, Tavi—The perceived provincialism of theater students—Jim Hooks—Kurup's band plays a semi-parodical country music routine—More on the learning possibilities at the University of Florida theater program—The differences between BA and BFA students—The commonality engendered by mass culture—An appreciation for Sam Shepherd's True West—A Cornerstone technique for revealing commonalities: cultural mapping—The MFA program at University of California, San Diego (UCSD)—Enjoys living around people of color in Florida and California—Kurup's widening political views—Kurup's appreciation of myth—The way Hindu mythology permeates the everyday lives of Hindu Indians—The importance of the mythic dimension in art for Kurup—The avant-garde theater at UCSD—The mainstream focus of the theater program—Tadashi Suzuki's work—Ann Bogart's theatrical technique—Kurup's appreciation of merging cultural styles—Works for Los Angeles Theater Center—Theater workshops focusing on the Latino, African-American, and Asian communities at L.A. Theater Center—Difficulties getting the Lab work on the main stages—Works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the audiovisual department—Working at LACMA is an incredible opportunity to learn art history and film history—A screening of Birth of a Nation at LACMA—The demise of LA Theater Center—Kurup and Page Leong launch Raven Group—Starts to bring live video into theater work—Reza Abdo—A surfeit of challenging colleagues to work with—Puts on a performance in the context of the Rodney King civil disturbance—Cornerstone people start to attend Kurup's work—Kurup sees Cornerstone's performance of Romeo and Juliet at Highways.
Kurup's earliest involvement with Cornerstone—Highways Performance Space—The Watts residency—Watts Village Theater Company—The formation of Kurup's identity as an "Angeleno" through his work with Cornerstone—Kurup's experience of the Cornerstone residency production in Pacoima—Rauch invites Kurup to direct a show in the geographical communities cycle—An invitation to Cornerstone to work with the Arena Stage—The Milwaukee Project of Milwaukee Rep—Early work on the Ghurba project—Themes in the Ghurba project—Ghurba project participants—More on themes in the Ghurba project—The Ghurba set—Staging on the Ghurba project—More on themes in the Ghurba project—The process of gleaning stories from community members—Stagecraft on the Ghurba production—Sold-out performances for Ghurba—Kurup's interest in working with the Arab-American community—Kurup's interest in seeing high-caliber work among actors of color—Ritual in Ghurba—The diversity of linguistic tropes among cultural groups—The importance of eliciting a good performance from community members—The efforts on the part of the Cornerstone ensemble to become more ethnically and culturally diverse—Patterns of imagination and exclusion—Employment contracts at Cornerstone—Page Leong and Kurup bring formal theater training to the Cornerstone ensemble—Inventive thinking among Cornerstone ensemble members—Cornerstone begins to win theater awards—A staging of Twelfth Night—Kurup's intense satisfaction in working with Cornerstone—Cornerstone invited to do a Watts residency that addresses racial tensions in the community—M. C. Earle—More on the Watts residency—Crime in Watts—Tremendous audience response to the Watts shows—The success that Cornerstone has had getting audiences out to a variety of venues and neighborhoods—Michael John Garces's style as artistic director—The Sid Arthur production—Connections with community members during the Watts residency—Ovation awards for Cornerstone—The Cornerstone aesthetic—The Every Man in the Mall production—A group of three mall-based, site-specific plays—Stage tech innovation.