True Community Theater?

Given the reputation as one who is possibly more tenacious than The Prof about the necessity to make artists part of a community, I could not pass up reflecting on Tom Loughlin’s post about the 2008 NEA survey. Loughlin’s reflection/passion reminds me of a need for what Cornerstone Theater Company did between 1986-1991. According to their website, they created twelve musical productions in ten states. These shows were epic interactions between classic plays and specific American communities: Moliere’s disintegrating and combative families in the Kansas farmland, Shakespeare’s civil strife in the streets of Mississippi, and Aeschylus’ ancient rituals on a modern Native American reservation.

“With each of the 13 communities that Cornerstone visited, one of their goals was to leave behind a group of local people, experienced in how to do theater and infused with the love and understanding of “community theater”. The community residents involved with Peer Gynt formed Stage East upon Cornerstone’s departure. Beginning with their first performance of Play Boy of the Western World in the fall of 1990, Stage East has provided a wide range of theater, three and four productions every year, involving audiences and young people and adults both on and back stage, in the creativity and excitement of the theater experience.” (Stage East Bio, Picture from production of Peer Gynt)

During graduate school, my Applied Theater class watched a documentary on Cornerstone’s work during that time and it has stuck with me. Due in part to the cast being a mix of professional actors from Cornerstone and the community members, it was even more of an incentive to attend the production as the audience wanted to see their fellow community members, but also the productions were speaking to the issues within the specific community. The power of communal storytelling created a “reality that people who don’t go to the theatre really, truly don’t want [wanted] to go to the theatre”. I have been wondering if what Cornerstone did could be replicated over twenty years later. Is there enough artists out there who would be willing? What would such a project look like now? Does it have to be a traveling company? Can the same work be done within the community in which the theater practitioners live or are the theater artists minds focused on the gigs that will get them to NY/LA/Chicago? I am concerned that if the mindset/work of theater practitioners continue to focus on those reflected in the NEA study, true community theater will be lost.

Below is a paragraph from Loughlin’s post. There is no summary I can give that would give this post justice. All I can do is to implore you to read it.

Hopefully by pointing all this out I have given the theatre world a holiday gift it can truly appreciate – the assuaging of their guilt. Once you fully understand the reality that people who don’t go to the theatre really, truly don’t want to go to the theatre, you can then stop feeling guilty about declining attendance, lack of diversity, class inequities and the like. After all, don’t you really want to produce theatre for those who want to be there, and can afford to be there? Isn’t that what counts? Isn’t that where the road to your professional success truly lies? You don’t really want the American public in your theatres, do you? Why, that might mean getting theatre out into America, and having more artists live out in America, and meet everyday Americans of all sorts of backgrounds and income levels and ethnic backgrounds and political persuasions – and what an inconvenience that would be! I mean, you just can’t get a good bagel and a smear out there!What’s all the fuss about? (Or why the NEA study shows how successful we are!)

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    2 thoughts on “True Community Theater?

    1. Scott Walters

      Cornerstone is great, and was at the Arena gathering. Nicely done. I will respond to Tom as well. I didn’t know there was a competition for most tenacious! Happy Holidays!

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