A Community Carol

o are the people of Cornerstone Theater Company and what do they do? Among other things, they are artists who never stop asking those questions, even after 15 years of making theatre all across the United States, nine of them spent putting down institutional roots in Los Angeles. Amid the hard realities of making not-for-profit art and building an organization that can develop and sustain its artists, a questioning, questing spirit remains the engine of this extraordinary company--it is what drove 11 Harvard grads to pile into a van in 1986 to make theatre in rural communities for six years; it's what drove them to choose the multicultural matrix of L.A. as their home base in 1991, and it's what drives them forward to ever greater challenges both onstage and off.But while the questions they and their work raise are crucial and urgent, it is the answers Cornerstone has delivered onstage that make it one of American theatre's most original and inspiring creative forces. From its famous Romeo and Juliet in Port Gibson, Miss., in which company member Amy Brenneman starred opposite the town's black football star, Edret Brinston, to the national tour of The Winter's Tale, which put the best performers from Cornerstone's rural residencies on a bus that made its final stop on the Mall in Washington, D.C.; from The Central Avenue Chalk Circle, the brilliant Brecht adaptation that culminated the troupe's historic 15-month residency in Watts and won the 1996 Ovation award for best production, to Broken Hearts, last year's "bridge" show, which brought together performers and stories from Boyle Heights to Beverly and Baldwin Hills--Cornerstone has made entertaining, often epic, theatre out of contemporary American life in a way that deeply redefines expectations of what theatre can be, who it's for, and, perhaps most radically, who is allowed to make it.That's why the company's newest leap of faith--onto L.A.'s main mainstage, the Mark Taper Forum, for the holiday show For Here or To Go? (Dec. 15-24)--offers yet another chance for redefinition, soul-searching, and the uniquely seamless blend of civic and aesthetic impact that is Cornerstone's stock in trade. The young rebels who set out on the road 15 years ago, fleeing the entrenched regional theatre establishment with its fixed, habitual audience and limited aesthetic horizons, to test the relevance of their work among the real people of the heartland and the inner city have now been invited in the front door of one of the America's preeminent regional theatres. It's enough to make you wonder: Who are they now, and what are they doing?"This is a community collaboration, in a way," said Leslie Tamaribuchi, the company's managing director, "with the Taper staff and its culture, the Taper subscribers."And it's not the first time the Taper has presented Cornerstone: The company's award-winning, gender-bent update of Twelfth Night was a Taper, Too production in 1994, and a number of Taper resident artists--Luis Alfaro, Diane Rodriguez, Chay Yew--worked as writers and directors in a recent series of Cornerstone community collaborations. Nor is it the first time Cornerstone has worked with a major LORT theatre: There was the Dickens adaptation A Community Carol at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 1993, and since then high-profile collaborations with the Public Theater in New York and Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn.But after working in such nontheatrical L.A. venues as schools, malls, community centers, museums, multipurpose rooms, church parish halls, even L.A.'s Central Library, there's no mistaking the significance for Cornerstone of a Taper mainstage show--or the significance of the Taper presenting a play in which professional artists mingle with nonprofessional folks from many of the 14 communities with which Cornerstone has worked around L.A."If you look at the long history of the Taper, there's always been an interest in engagement with community, both onstage and as respondents," said Corey Madden, associate artistic director at the Taper, who has been a fan since Cornerstone settled in L.A. in 1992 and who was instrumental in making the production happen at the Taper. "We've had multiple collaborative relationships with community organizations, working in nontraditional spaces. And the Taper mandate is similar to Cornerstone's: We both have a high commitment to excellence and diversity, and a high interest in relating to the communities of L.A."Indeed, perhaps it's fairest to say that Cornerstone has sufficiently raised the bar for community-engaged theatre collaborations that when the company links up with likeminded organizations--whether they be city departments, community activists, or other theatre companies--those organizations are in Cornerstone's orbit as much as Cornerstone is in theirs. And, wherever it's staged, few theatre productions engender so much reflection as a Cornerstone project--both in the sense of provoking thoughtful self-examination among artists and audiences and offering a mirror-like representation of the issues, stories, and voices of our modern, multicultural lives.Extracurricular EnergyThe seeds of Cornerstone were sowed in the early 1980s at Harvard, which offers no theatre degree program and hence boasts no theatre majors."Harvard had a lofty attitude toward the theatre major--it was perceived as being preprofessional," recalled Peter Howard, a founding Cornerstone member who joined the company some years after its move to L.A. "But there were lots of theatre courses for credit. Acting teacher Joanne Green was very influential, and Peter Sellars' presence was felt; he was a few years ahead of our group, and he was already sort of a mythic figure." But it was precisely the absence of a theatre program and theatre majors, Howard said, that helped give Cornerstone its impetus: "The energy and commitment it took to do this on an extracurricular basis gave it that much more urgency."Agreed Alison Carey, a co-founder and the company's chief writer, "Because there were theatre teachers but no theatre department, there was no unified philosophy or curriculum. There was no party line that we were given as young, easily molded idealists. It was up to us to make up our own minds--not just about how to do things but also about what we believed."Cornerstone artistic director Bill Rauch put it succinctly: "We practiced being our own bosses. I look at schools where I've taught theatre since, and theatre majors never do plays, because it's so rigid and there's such a finite number of shows. I directed 26 shows as an undergraduate. That was an important training ground for me for Cornerstone, that I did a lot on my own."Another key is that from the beginning, the group of artists who would later form Cornerstone "wasn't all people focused on the theatre," said Howard. "It was a coming together of all these varying points of view."Agreed Carey, "The breadth of things we all learned in college helped us a lot. We focused on stuff outside theatre. Cornerstone focuses on stuff outside theatre, as much as a theatre can."That's in part why Cornerstone began with a plan to do theatre on a truck in out-of-the-way rural communities not served by the regional theatre network--its young founders wanted to reach audiences not served by such formidable organizations as the Boston-based American Repertory Theatre. ART's artistic director, Robert Brustein, in fact taught a theatre class in which he challenged his young charges to dispute the notion that theatre was "a dead art form," said Carey. "That sort of gave us a kick in the pants."Founding member Amy Brenneman put it more bluntly: "I just knew I wanted to hang out will Bill Rauch, because it was the most interesting stuff around." The work she was seeing at regional theatres felt to her "just dead, dead, dead, and I didn't want to be one of those guys. I didn't get it, I didn't like the audience. You know, I was very stubborn and rebellious and snotty, and not always respectful, but I was just never interested in the stuff that I was seeing in regional theatre."On the road, though, Cornerstone's seeking out of an untapped or underserved audience quickly evolved into something more radical--and the company found a mission and an MO that remains its predominant working method to this day."We were going to create these plays in the communities and have people come to readings as a part of the creation process," recalled Carey of the company's rural residencies. "Then we thought we could put them on advisory boards. Then we realized, 'Oh, my God, we have to do it with them!' We ended up embracing that. It's not that that's what we started out thinking we were going to do."This is an excerpt. For the full story, look in the Member's Area or in the Dec. 7--13 issue of Back Stage Wes