By DOMINIQUE FONG
Special to the Rafu
When the fi nal curtain falls over the last show of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble on Dec. 20, feelings will be bitter and sweet – but mostly sweet.
“The interesting thing is, I don’t feel sad,” said Jeff Liu, director. “This is like a celebration, that we lasted this long, that we stayed friends, and most importantly, got to practice this craft together.”
After 10 successful years of developing and performing alternative, edgy plays, Phillip Chung, co-artistic director and one of the four founders of Lodestone, said the theater company is not closing because of financial troubles or artistic disagreements. It’s just time to move on.
“We felt like we’ve done everything artistically we wanted to do,” Chung said. “If we kept going, we’d be repeating the same thing, and I don’t think that was really satisfying to any of us, the founders.”
The company began in 1999 and will end after the final performance of “Grace Kim & the Spiders From Mars,” opening Nov. 14, which Chung wrote in the witty, fast-talking style of old screwball comedies. The play is about Grace, a young Korean American woman who, while coping with her mother’s death, falls in love with her sister’s fiancé.
Chung had the idea for the play ever since he was a kid. Once he knew that he would be writing Lodestone’s finale, his vision easily spilled out into a first draft.
“I’ve been with these characters for so long, I kind of realized that a lot of it subconsciously, a lot of it just came out,” Chung said.
Lodestone owes part of its achievement to East West Players, one of the first Asian American theater companies in Los Angeles, and the Society of Heritage Performers, which became a haven for Korean Americans to express their voice after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
The two companies were entry points for burgeoning Asian American actors, but Chung, along with Alexandra Chun, Chil Kong and Tim Lounibos, saw an opportunity for an edgier company to experiment with new themes.
Since the founders first met in 1999, a core of actors, writers and directors has remained committed to Lodestone, building an intimate, close knit community. To prepare for “Grace Kim,” about 12 people practiced rehearsals in Liu’s garage before moving onto the stage.
“This is really like building a work family over the years,” Liu said. “It’s like going to war together except no one has to die… which is really good. This is really a celebration of, ‘Wow, we actually did this. We started out leaping in and probably made mistakes and got better and better and better at it.”
Rachel Morihiro, who plays Sonia, a pregnant woman, ironically has never been pregnant. But acting in Lodestone for nine years has allowed her to hone her acting skills.
“It’s definitely been a lot of growth, just as a human being, in a sense. As an actor, creatively, I’m stretched. Who I am, the professional I’d like to be, there’s been a lot of shaping,” Morihiro said.
Over the years, Lodestone’s signature trademarks became daring, risktaking productions. After Sept. 11, Lodestone’s leaders debated whether to perform the violent and controversial play “Terminus Americana” during such a sensitive time.
“We sat down, we voted, we talked, aired things out, we decided to go ahead,” Liu said. “We can’t just sit around and watch the TV and cry and watch the news… Let’s tell a story! Let’s put it out there and see what people think.”
To Liu’s surprise, the play went on to be nominated for an Ovation Award for Best World Premier. It’s this kind of enterprising attitude in “Terminus Americana” that earned Lodestone’s visionaries more respect in the entertainment industry. “We can’t wait for Hollywood to cast us,” Liu noted.
As Lodestone closes, its legacy for Asian Americans hoping to pursue theater is a beacon for the next generation.
“What we built here, it’s not going to end and go away,” Chung said. “I feel like it’s ending, but it’s not really ending. Every ending is really a beginning.”