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A Big Eyed Fish Post 2.6

Cornerstone Theater Company

This is a regular column exploring the junctions of ensemble theatre and audience, my two paths, or rather passions, in life. I’m journeying to the convergence points of multiple paths, many previously traversed, armed with this question: how can investigating the crossover between disparate spheres provide fresh perspectives, possibly new insights? See previous posts here.

Inspired somewhat by the wisely-naive and endlessly-curious character Dory from Finding Nemo, I created A Big Eyed Fish (ABEF) in order to investigate every nook and cranny of the bowl I swim in, as well as the oceans beyond, for new discoveries. The logical place to start was with definitions and assumptions about the art-artists-audience triangulation. My ABEF collaborator Melanie Harker and I shaped a series of questions on Ensemble Theaters & Audience Definitions meant to be a pulse-check or a survey of the landscape. Our goals were not to draw consensus, but to highlight the many similarities and many, many differences in this collection of aggregated people, practices, and perceptions. Melanie and I then worked with our third ABEF collaborator Kate Ahern Loveric to develop a series of infographics to capture and convey the collected data.

I didn’t often hear “it’s complicated” said authentically, with earnest and overwhelmed wonder, until recently. But when it comes to unpacking “ensemble,” “audience,” and “community,” those in the thick of it are among the first to admit the squishiness of these terms or the stickiness of their position as they explain how they work, with whom, and why. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy no matter what company I started with, but I soon learned that even the most specific, straightforward definitions could be, well, complicated at the same time.

A Specifically Defined “Ensemble”

I decided to launch my ensemble-theatre-and-audience investigation with one of the contemporary leaders in America’s ensemble theatre movement—Cornerstone Theater Company. Cornerstone was founded nearly twenty-seven years ago as a “traveling ensemble, which adapted classic works to tell the stories of both rural and urban communities.” At first, Cornerstone was “just a theatre company,” co-founder Alison Carey told me (she’s now the director of American Revolutions, the United States History Cycle at OSF). Meaning, they didn’t self-identify as an “ensemble.” “There were eleven of us. Bill [Rauch] was the artistic director and I was the managing director. Everybody wore lots of hats. We didn’t have a definition of the company other than if you were working with us, you were a member.”

Time passed. Different artists were brought in just for specific productions, some more often than others. The group engaged in increasingly more conversations about “the future” and were conflicted about who should be invited to those meetings. Questions of ownership and control continued to be raised because, Alison explained, “we, the company, acted as a group of people making decisions. But Bill and I, because of our titles and that we started the company, were natural ‘bosses.’ There was real confusion about people's place in hierarchy. If there was a hierarchy.” The uncertainty culminated in a famous meeting “in Mississippi, I think, in 1989,” recalls Alison, “the ‘who’s the boss’ meeting. That’s when we formalized the ensemble and began to use the word ‘ensemble.’”

Since that time through the present day, the “Cornerstone ensemble” remains the body of people charged with the artistic leadership of the company, making the “key artistic decisions: what communities we’re going to engage with, what guest artists we’re going to hire, what overarching cycles or themes we might be exploring over time, etc.,” outlines current artistic director Michael John Garces. The ensemble makes decisions by consensus. How decisions are made, in which areas, and when they can be kicked up to positions of leadership are all written out. The ensemble also determines its own membership. “The [ensemble] structure has evolved over time,” says Michael. “But it’s nothing so formal as bylaws. The basic notion of consensus, though, is pretty clear.”

This is what is specific for Cornerstone: working in community. It is “real conversation” that is essential to all authentic, meaningful work with community. “Actually engage with them,” Michael says emphatically, and don’t anticipate “where it’s gonna go and be ready for it to go somewhere you’re not prepared for it to go.” Cornerstone, at its best, does that.


Logo of Cornerstone Theater Company.
Logo for Cornerstone Theater Company. Photo by Cornerstone Theater Company.

Why consensus, which many view as the most difficult—possibly the most maddening—type of collaboration? “The idea behind consensus and ensemble: you should get to control your work life. No matter who you are,” notes Alison. It allows for “buy-in for all the big decisions we made” (which she identified as: personnel, programs, and policy). When Cornerstone settled in Los Angeles and added staff for the first time who were not part of the ensemble, “suddenly there was a whole other layer of bureaucracy” and all of these “different units—staff and ensemble, board, and the group of artists on each given show (there could be some in the ensemble and some not). The goal of everyone controlling their work life, it’s imperfect at best.” In a moment Alison emphasized, “and this is just decision-making. It doesn't have to do with art-making, except choosing the people.”

The Complication of an Ensemble Process

Given the ensemble’s grounding in consensus, what might be curious or completely understandable is that both Michael and Alison describe the production process at Cornerstone as “hierarchical” and similar to the mainstream regional theatre model. And both emphasize Cornerstone’s work is not “devised.”

“We commission a playwright to write a play,” Michael outlines, “a playwright writes it, the director directs it, there are actors, we do readings.” Here’s the thing, though: particularly when Michael talks about the group of artists working on a production, a couple of times he refers to it as an ensemble. I pressed him slightly about this—would he call Cornerstone’s play-development and production processes “ensemble processes”? “Insofar as this ensemble of people that has evolved over time has created a process that they’re invested in, as life-practice artists…It is not a devised, group-created piece. It is a play written by a playwright. I don’t direct plays at Cornerstone all that different than I direct plays at [other theatres]. Not consciously. [Cornerstone] actors have more agency than is typical in a process. At the end of the day, it’s still a director-actor relationship. There’s still that hierarchy in place. So yes, and no. It’s complicated.”

What’s complicated, in this instance, is the underlying assumption about the role of theatre in society—that theatre is an art form that can affect people’s lives. Michael says he considers Cornerstone to be “experimental theatre,” which is not about “a certain form” (“black turtlenecks and miming”) but follows the traditional definition of “having a hypothesis and testing it.” Alison and Bill created Cornerstone as an experiment to test the hypothesis that theatre was an art form with high impact potential. Cornerstone tests this hypothesis “by going out to a community and doing a show and seeing if it reverberates in people’s lives, in that particular community, at that particular time. And [Cornerstone] tests the hypothesis every time. It’s an experiment, every time we do a show.”

While Cornerstone ensemble’s artistic process follows a recognizable overall approach to new play development, drilling down reveals what’s specific to Cornerstone—“not unique, just specific,” Michael clarifies. The “first four-to-six months...is going through a story circle process with the community. [W]e might attend events—protests, city council meetings. Then the playwright will write a play out of that experience. That play will typically be fiction. And then once the play is written we’ll do a reading at Cornerstone, but more importantly we do readings in the community. And so people will show up, we’ll hand scripts around, and we assign parts to everyone who’s willing, and we read it together. And then we talk about it after. People talk about a lot of things, but mostly: is it authentic? What offends them? What makes them proud and excited? What’s missing? Then the playwright will continue to work on the play and we’ll start auditioning people in the community. We hold auditions and then usually go through a six-to-seven week [rehearsal] process, with people creating the piece together. Typically we’ll have between two to five professional actors in the play and the rest are nonprofessionals in roles large and small.” The play continually evolves until opening. In auditions “you write three roles for three sixty-year-old men, but then all you get are kids. And then you can make an aesthetic decision—cast kids as men—or do you change who those people are? Or, can you go out and talk to older men in the community and get someone to come in?”

This is what is specific for Cornerstone: working in community. It is “real conversation” that is essential to all authentic, meaningful work with community. “Actually engage with them,” Michael says emphatically, and don’t anticipate “where it’s gonna go and be ready for it to go somewhere you’re not prepared for it to go.” Cornerstone, at its best, does that.

And the Audience Fits in Where?

The conversation about Cornerstone’s community-integrated play development process ends up begging the questions: Who is the show performed for? Who is “the audience,” and how do they differ from the people Cornerstone is creating with?

“The community” is defined geographically (residents of the four neighborhoods with “B” and “H” in their initials) or by shared interests (people in different areas of California working in areas of “hunger, justice, and food equity”). “The audience”? That’s the problematic term for Michael. “‘Audience’ is the people who are receiving the play,” he begins. “In general [a show’s] core audience is made of people from the community we’re working with. We try to get crossover, introduce people to one another; bridge communities.”

There are people (an “audience”) who are interested in Cornerstone’s work, but it’s a sizable understatement to call maintaining that following a “challenge.” The situation is a near one-eighty from mainstream regional theatres. Cornerstone is still a “traveling” theatre company. It does not have a regular season schedule and performance venues change for every show. Performance venues are often locations Cornerstone, with their collaborating community, seeks to activate in tandem with activating people and their stories. Then there’s the question of whether performance locations are “local” to Cornerstone’s Los Angeles home base, and not, say, elsewhere in the state or country. “There is definitely an attempt to get theatregoers to see our shows. [But] it’s not, to me, the most important thing,“ reports Michael.

Cornerstone’s “community” (the community they are working with) is also their audience by design, Alison says. When the company was founded it was to combat the growing chasm between artists and audience. “We’re going to take the audience and put them on stage [so that] the relationship is as intimate as it can be.” This means the audience, for the most part, is rotating or evolving, show-to-show and cycle-to-cycle. “Just because our core audiences are those communities and not, ‘Joe’ who lives in Westwood or Upper East Side, doesn’t make it less,” Michael flatly states. When “we do a show out in the rural, Central Valley—three or four hours from LA—our audiences are not coming in from Bel Air.”

Alison circles back to the power of Cornerstone’s play-cycle approach—organizing plays around themes and connecting communities. Community members’ investment in Cornerstone can run high and deep, enough to motivate people to travel far and wide (geographically or socioeconomically) to see other shows in the cycle. Then each play-cycle culminates in a “bridge show,” a final work designed to link the previous shows and collaborating communities. “We did one bridge show—the BH bridge—three communities in which ‘B’ and ‘H’ were in the name. It was a cross-section of communities, both economically, and ethnically. For various grants we had to track demographics. The most remarkable thing about that bridge show event was that, for that show, audiences exactly matched the demographic breakdown of LA.”

Definition of Success

The question of success measurements and the “impact” of the work are the final complicated waters we wade into: given the high integration of community into the play development and production processes, and Cornerstone’s passion for activating people through their work, what are the desired ends? Once more, Michael cuts to the chase: “Our concern is making a really good play.” Aesthetic results are the leading focus because, as a society, we need opportunities for “aesthetic awakening.” People see an excellent show and it causes them immediately to think differently about the world; art can change lives. “I think art is social justice. Period. End of story. It is a fundamental human right...healthy communities have healthy artistic practices, and unhealthy ones don’t. We see that over and over again.”

Michael pinpoints a tension around measuring “excellence” in relation to “aesthetics.” Currently, and most commonly in this country, we measure excellence in terms of craft. This cannot be the only measurement for aesthetic excellence, Michael argues—“I reject it.” Cornerstone shows involve “nonlife-practice artists who don’t possess a lot of craft, often who are having their first live theatrical experience.” Therefore you cannot use the same yardstick; or if you do, you’re likely not to care for Cornerstone’s work overall. “Cornerstone bats about as well as any decent theatre company in this country. Which means it’s not a thousand. When a Cornerstone show is bad, it’s really bad, because if the alchemy of professionals and nonprofessionals together doesn’t work, [exhale].” The image of what success looks like comes into slightly better focus when we move away from the performance as the sole measurement and examine the intrinsic value of the community-integrated creation and production processes. “[T]he show of mine that I directed that was least successful aesthetically...some of the impact we had on people was amazing, and some of the impact we had on the neighborhood we were working with was amazing.”

Art-Artist-Audience Triangle

How to unpack or describe Cornerstone’s Art-Artist-Audience triangulation? [exhales] Seems to me that Cornerstone’s strict definition of “ensemble” is an enabling constraint allowing the company to capitalize on many voices uniting as one. This challenges and elevates the company’s artistic practice (and rigor) thereby maximizing the impact of the art. The commitment to consensus grows from and results in valuing others’ contribution(s) as much as your own; everyone’s story is worth knowing and telling. Cornerstone then brings “traditional” new play development practices into various communities in order to make art incorporating and reflective of its many voices. Artists are the investigators and interpreters, empowering people through the live activation of their stories in their spaces for them, “insiders,” and us “outsiders.” Just maybe this brings all of us to a greater understanding of the world, one piece of it at a time, and inciting us to make it better. For ourselves; for each other. Because, in the end, we deserve it. We owe it to each other.

Click on the graphic to enlarge.


Ball of yarn with loose threads labeled Community, Activation, Ensemble, Audience, Social Justice, Appropriation, Staff, Life-Practice Artists, and Art.

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Thoughts from the curator

Column exploring the junction of ensemble theatre and audience.

A Big Eyed Fish 


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What a great article. From my experience, with this work- be it participatory, community-based, theatre for social justice- whatever you may call it, half the battle is the act of articulation and definition itself. This article speaks to the ability for the form to live both clearly in the realm of theatre and also pulled by strings of conflict within the field. I am attending the Cornerstone Residency this summer, and it's been hard to explain to family members and colleagues what that means, exactly- how refreshing it is to see that Garces himself recognizes the inherent contradictions in this work. Or rather, approaches it with the attitude: just because the work cannot be clearly defined does not make it any less necessary. I love the visual guide at the end, I think often when I try to explain what I want to do with theatre, I feel like I have a set of words: "community, justice, re-think, revolution" but it's hard to figure out where these words are rooted- what do they mean, together? How do they translate into the actual work I hope to do? How refreshing it is to see that even professionals understand that it's more complicated than that- doesn't scare me away one bit.

Love the sound of this ensemble company! In the 1980's I worked with a community ensemble in Washington, D.C. called Everyday Theater (the company name and inspiration was taken from a Brecht poem). We created work and used a similar development process to Cornerstone. All our company members were trained as oral historians. A series of our plays were about housing displacement because that's what was happening (and is still happening) in DC. Then we moved on to the theme of violent crime. I remember once bringing a work-in-progress back to the prison where we had conducted a workshop and gathered stories to get their feedback. One of the inmates picked out a small detail of the actor's action during a robbery scene: "Man, never put down your gun!" Another time, we were creating a play with youth at a detention center. We had to postpone the public performance because the actor playing the main character got released early and we had no understudy! Such were the challenges and joys of doing community-based theater. It doesn't substitute for my solo playwriting practice but it complements it beautifully. I loved it and am looking for a new opportunity to do some again in the DC area. Thanks for this article.

I have been a part of the Cornerstone family for 25 years. This is the clearest and most comprehensive yet succinct articulation of what the company does, and how it relates to the larger theatre field, that I've ever read. Thanks for this, Rachel. I'm happy to be able to share it.