The late great Lutheran pastor Will Barnett once gave a sermon in which he posited that Doubting Thomas was the truest apostle—that his demand to see and feel the Savior’s wounds expressed not skepticism but an abiding commitment to truth-seeking, and with it an implicit faith that the truth was indeed out there to be found. It was more important, in other words, that faith be tested than coddled. Questions point the faithful forward; complacent dogmas stultify.
This questioning ethic is crucial to artists as well as apostles, and Cornerstone Theater Company, the Los Angeles-based troupe that creates plays about and with communities, embodies the risks and rewards of this ethic in ways that don’t begin or end in the theatre. For one thing, Cornerstone doesn’t have a theatre building, just a warehouse office/rehearsal space in downtown L.A.’s artist loft district. (The company did host public performances of some Erik Elm plays in June, but this is not as yet a regular occurrence.) Cornerstone performances have typically not been held in theatres at all, since the troupe’s mission has been to make art in the margins, mostly off the radar of commercial or regional theatres. The margins may be geographical, as in the troupe’s initial five-year rural period, or ethnic and socioeconomic, as in its historic 16-month residency in Watts, in South Central Los Angeles. The work itself, taking a cue from thinkers like Anne Bogart and Peter Brook, asks the essential theatrical questions: What is theatre? Who is it for? Who should make it? What is the role of the audience? The company’s process puts community members alongside its professional artists in writing, staging and performing the work in venues such as school gyms, parish halls, libraries and converted warehouses.
Now in its 16th year, Cornerstone has spent the last 12 months or so in a state of managed upheaval and redefinition. Among its priorities: enlisting a roster of younger, more diverse ensemble artists; staging a holiday play, For Here or To Go?, at L.A.’s LORT mothership, the Mark Taper Forum; and launching what is arguably its most thematically ambitious project yet: a three-year cycle of collaborations with communities of faith, from mosques to parishes to less traditionally defined spiritual communities. The cycle kicks off this month with the Festival of Faith, 21 shows at 5 religious venues across Greater Los Angeles. Tellingly, this latest overhaul—in which the company’s future, budget, mission and personnel were open for long, soul-searching discussion—was not an aberration but a perennial rededication. That’s business as usual for this ever-questing company of artists.
“The relentless redefinition can be exhausting,” admits Peter Howard, a founding member who is writing Zones, the main show of this fall’s citywide Festival of Faith. “We have strong taste for reinventing the wheel, and it’s been that way from Day One.”
Founding artistic director Bill Rauch, who will direct Howard’s audience-participatory piece, traces the tendency back to the mid-’80s, when Cornerstone came together among a group of Harvard grads who’d taken plenty of theatre classes and staged plays on their own. “When we first started the company, some of us were thinking about going to grad school,” he says. “A professor told us, `You can get on this escalator that’s already moving,’ by which he meant graduate school, `or you can reinvent the wheel for yourself.’ We were all attracted to reinventing the wheel.”
It was on the road around the U.S., in a blue van, that company artists developed their signature M.O.: adapting classics, from Ibsen to Aeschylus, to accommodate the stories and concerns of small towns not served by the regional theatre system; involving townsfolk in all stages of the process, from story meetings to performance; and then, as a kind of inclusive capper, mounting a “bridge” show with members of all these far-flung communities. The rural period culminated with the national tour of a company-adapted Winter’s Tale to such off-the- map locales as Marmarth, N.D., Port Gibson, Miss., and Long Creek, Ore.
But the troupe didn’t lose its creative wanderlust when it came to L.A. Indeed, L.A. was chosen precisely for its mind-boggling cultural and geographical diversity-not, as some early supporters cynically assumed, to sell out to the coast’s dominant media industry. Admittedly, among the ongoing challenges of making theatre in the shadow of Hollywood is holding onto artists lured away by lucrative screen gigs. This gilt-edged sword touched close to home this year, with two ensemble artists, Christopher Liam Moore and Shishir Kurup, landing roles in Fox’s interactive “reality” show, Murder in Small Town X. The company has also manifestly benefited from industry largesse-founding member Amy Brenneman, no longer active as a Cornerstone artist now that she’s occupied with CBS’s series Judging Amy, has proved an excellent celebrity patron and fund-raiser, no strings attached.
But after nine years in L.A.—nine years of defining community variously by ethnicity, neighborhood, profession, even birth date, and earning the kind of national recognition for its methodology that keeps the company flush with grant money and out-of-town commissions—there was concern, says Howard, “about not repeating ourselves. We felt we could get into a rut if we didn’t expand the boundaries of how we define community.” What’s more, Rauch explains, many company members have matured, married, had kids-and, not coincidentally, seem newly eager to address an issue that’s come up repeatedly throughout Cornerstone’s life.
“Divisions of faith have come up again and again and again in our work, between believers and non-believers, and between people who believe different things,” Rauch notes. “Even on projects we would assume have nothing to do with people’s religious beliefs, it’s come up with surprising frequency. Speaking generally, Cornerstone artists are a group of people with rich, deeply spiritual lives but without strong attachments to a religious tradition—while the majority of the people we collaborate with in communities are attached to organized religions. I guess when we were younger, we felt we didn’t have to really look at that. Now that we’re maturing, we have a real hunger to explore that gap.”
Howard, in fact, found that that gap wasn’t as wide as he’d thought-and in the process of talking to fellow theatre artists for his Zones project, has had some preconceptions shattered.
“My stereotype of artists, I guess because of their independent spirits, is that they tend to be less frequently attached to specific doctrines or religious traditions,” says Howard. “But the more I find myself talking to theatre artists who are Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, and have a strong connection to those traditions, the more I find my stereotypes being bashed.
“Part of it’s just getting over the fear of asking. You’re not always sure how eager people are to share their spiritual life. But I’ve found if you open the door, even just a crack, this flood of experiences and realities come pouring in about religious life. It’s something I hadn’t thought about much here in L.A., and it suddenly seems like the most important thing in the world.”
Of course, if people aren’t eager to share their religious beliefs, it may be because that’s how tolerance works in many circles of public life: Don’t ask, don’t tell. We can all just get along if we stick to sports and the weather-or, in the theatre, to the script and the lighting plot. But Cornerstone’s experience with a longtime stage manager some years ago opened some fresh wounds-and led to a kind of healing, or at least to a form of managed care.
“We found out in the course of talking with [this stage manager] that while she said she loved Chris and me,” Rauch recalls, referring to his life partner, Christopher Liam Moore, “she believed that we were going to hell.” The stage manager, a born-again Christian, had worked closely with the company for two years. “It forced us to reexamine what we meant by tolerance and inclusion. Was there room in our definition of inclusion to include someone whose beliefs were that gays and lesbians would go to hell?” A facilitator was brought in from the National Conference for Community and Justice, a human relations organization that has parlayed its history of interfaith dialogue (its original name was the National Conference of Christians and Jews) into an expertise at dialogue on divisive issues. A three- hour discussion ensued in which a “lot of emotion was aired,” and Rauch and the stage manager essentially agreed to disagree. She continued to work with the company for another year before moving on.
Peter Howard works at the NCCJ when he’s not working on a Cornerstone show. He’s been a critical figure in incorporating the conference’s dialogue process into the faith-based cycle, and even into the heart of his Zones play, in which he plans to incorporate a robust brand of story-motivated audience participation, nothing like the hoary models of the post-show talkback session or the murder- mystery cheering section. NCCJ program director Lucky Altman, who has a background in facilitating dialogues between adherents of eight major world religions, says that the dialogue process is about finding out “how far can we go before we part ways. We don’t dismiss each other-we disagree. And the division doesn’t have to keep us from working together. It doesn’t have to keep us on separate planets.”
Attendees of this fall’s Festival of Faith may be forgiven for feeling that they are visiting an unexplored solar system, with 21 shows in five venues: Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights; the Faith United Methodist Church in Watts; New Horizons School, an Islamic private school in Pasadena; the Baha’i Center in Baldwin Hills; and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. The subject matter ranges from inter- and intra-faith conflicts to the role of women in traditional religions, from the nature of ritual to the often comical family dynamics of churchgoing.
While the faith theme is in some ways a departure, this festival’s eclectic freeway sprawl is consistent with Cornerstone’s best work in Los Angeles, which has helped reveal an impossibly diverse and persistently self-segregated city to itself, and has led theatregoers to places they may never have had reason to visit at all, let alone to visit for the sake of seeing plays. The faith-based cycle, which will continue through 2004, engages a city with 600 distinct spiritual expressions, according to a recent study by the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC.
Cornerstone closed another big gap with last year’s holiday show, For Here or To Go?, a kind of “super-bridge” show, which assembled folks from all of the company’s L.A. community collaborations up to then, and did so on L.A.’s main mainstage, the Taper. The show’s raucous audience interaction, though scripted, was both a dramatization of the company’s preoccupations with representation and inclusion and a precursor, it now seems, to the full-contact unscripted interaction of Zones. And, with its tale of colliding observations of Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and Hanukkah, it pointed the way to the troupe’s new faith-based focus.
There was another community member engaged with For Here or To Go? about whom, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am duty-bound to report: Among the show’s endless audience disruptions was the 11th- hour announcement by a local newspaper critic that he was there to review the show—which prompted the onstage band to exit in disgust, and the show’s de facto lead, a hamburger-flipper-turned-quixotic- warrior, to invite the critic onstage to supply the missing accompaniment.
In one of the more surreally satisfying moments in recent L.A. theatre history, this critic stood center stage on a platform at the Taper, sang a bemused mini-review and led the cast in a cheery closing number.
A critic offering holiday wishes? I’d say it was a subversive joke, except that it would have been at my expense, since I was that critic. Doubting Thomas as an apostle, indeed.
Rob Kendt is the editor of Back Stage West in Los Angeles.
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