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Theatre History Studies, currently edited by Rhona Justice-Malloy, is a peer-reviewed journal of theatre history and scholarship published annually since 1981 by the Mid-American Theatre Conference (MATC), a regional body devoted to theatre scholarship and practice. The conference encompasses the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The purpose of the conference is to unite persons and organizations within the region ...
Theatre History Studies, currently edited by Rhona Justice-Malloy, is a peer-reviewed journal of theatre history and scholarship published annually since 1981 by the Mid-American Theatre Conference (MATC), a regional body devoted to theatre scholarship and practice. The conference encompasses the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. The purpose of the conference is to unite persons and organizations within the region with an interest in theatre and to promote the growth and development of all forms of theatre.
Penny Farfan / Victor Holtcamp / Lisa Jackson-Schebetta / Richard
L. Poole / Bill Rauch / Thomas Robson / Marlis Schweitzer / Virginia
Scott / Christine Woodworth
Keynote Speech from the Thirty-second Mid-America Theatre Conference
I'm a company man.
I grew up in a very hospitable family. When I was a child, a lovely and quite crazy woman who went to our church came to stay for a few days and ended up living with our family for a good six months. That was more typical than unusual. My family moved a lot when I was growing up, on average once every two years. My father was a company man in a solid corporate mold, his career confirming the truth in the joke that IBM actually stands for "I've Been Moved." Wherever his work took us, though, my parents opened their home to new acquaintances that quickly became friends.
In my early twenties, when my peers and I started our own theatre, we would gather at my parents' house. Everyone would fly into the local airport, and as many as fifteen of us would crash in sleeping bags in the basement. The next morning, we'd take turns showering and making breakfast before piling into our big blue van and hitting the road for our next residency in some far-flung corner of the United States.
I now live with my husband and our two sons in southern Oregon, and the example that my parents set is alive and well in my life. This is our first home with a spare bedroom. Because Ashland is a great place to visit, our guest room is filled nonstop from late May through early October every year. Sometimes we have so many guests at once that they spread out onto the couch or the floors of other rooms as well. I especially love flipping pancakes in the morning or grilling burgers on a summer night to feed a house full of people I love.
What can I say? I'm a company man.
In the summer before my senior year of college, I had my first experience as an audience member at a Wooster Group show. My heart started to pound much faster than it ever had before in a theatre. My artistic life was forever changed. My encounter with one of our nation's leading experimental troupes did not make me rededicate myself to pursuing radical aesthetic forms. The lesson that I took away from my Wooster Group encounter was that exceptional work of any kind comes out of company. In response, I devoted the last semester of my senior year of college to launching the Kronauer Group, a twenty-person ensemble that would work together on multiple projects. No one auditioned; I just invited fellow student actors who I respected to come play. We performed in the basement of my dorm, as well as multiple corners of our campus, and did dozens of projects, some for a day and others for several weeks at a time.
Most of the founding members of Cornerstone Theater Company were part of that senior-year experiment in company. After graduation, I had worked as a word processor at a tombstone company (that's the subject of another talk) and then at the Kennedy Center as an assistant director to the stage and opera director Peter Sellars. When I told my father about my desire to cofound a community-based theatre company, he was concerned, if not outraged, that I'd leave a good job at a major cultural palace, the Kennedy Center, to "run around the country with my friends from school."
How could he not understand? I'm a company man.
Twenty years later, I finally reached a period in my career when I was a fulltime freelance artist. I was excited to spread my wings, to focus exclusively on working as a director without the burden of institutional responsibility. From my last day as Cornerstone's artistic director until the day I was appointed artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), there were a total of four months. Four months is the sum total of my life as an exclusively independent artist.
I should have known better. I'm a company man.
I promise to move on from this endless refrain with its unfortunate emphasis on my gender, but I do really want to hammer home the point that my life has been devoted to company, which has made the thought of addressing you on this topic a fairly daunting proposition. Before I go any further, I want to thank you for the honor of inviting me and for listening to whatever I might share. My colleague John Fletcher tells me that the Mid-America Theatre Conference is for "artists who think and scholars who make art." As a big believer in border crossing and boundary erasing, this description made me very excited to be in a room with all of you.
I want to share some stories today from the two companies that have shaped my life so far: Cornerstone Theater Company, where even as a founding artistic director I was one member of a small consensus-run ensemble; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I am, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me to say it, the head of a 550-person company.
Given my upbringing and my college experiments, it's not a huge surprise that at the age of twenty-three, I, along with my colleague Alison Carey, co-founded a theatre company.
Cornerstone started in 1986, but its genesis was a few years earlier when some of my friends and I heard a dreadful statistic—that 98 percent of Americans didn't go to professional theatre on anything approaching a regular basis. In the process, a professor of ours told us that theatre was a dead art form. Of course we loved the theatre and we hoped to prove the learned professor wrong. The easiest way, it seemed, to find out why people didn't feel that theatre was an important part of their lives was to get to know them. And hey, what better way to get to know someone than to do a show with them?
So the eleven of us who were founding ensemble members of Cornerstone bought a big blue van and hit the road, moving into tiny rural towns—usually with populations between two hundred and two thousand—that had no active tradition of live theatre. We spent five years living for two to four months at a time in communities across the United States—from Virginia to North Dakota to Maine to Florida to Texas, and plenty of places in between—mounting plays with first-time actors of all ages for an audience of their families and neighbors. We turned a welding shop, a city hall basement, an abandoned high school gymnasium, and a cattle-auction barn into theatres where we would perform. We also lived in unusual places, because we raised the cash costs of our projects ourselves, only asking the community to provide performance space and housing in what we called "otherwise unoccupied facilities." In practice that meant everything from some smelly trailers in the leaf of a highway clover to an abandoned fast-food restaurant to that vacant high school where we would cook in the home ec room, shower in the locker rooms, and roller-skate through the hallways in the wee hours of the morning. Great stuff for exorcising your high school demons!
After five years of work with rural communities, we eventually chose to settle down in Los Angeles because of its remarkably diverse communities—it's like you're within driving distance of the whole world—and what started as a two-year urban residency became a home. Cornerstone Theater is now in its twenty-fifth year of working with urban and rural communities, continuing to thrive under the artistic leadership of Michael John Garces.
Over the years, the way we defined company at Cornerstone shifted and grew, but our commitment to the concept of company never wavered. I want to relate some of the lessons we learned along the way.
We learned that what we did always succeeded, even amidst occasional spectacular failure. People were always willing to come together across huge divisions in order to create art, whether they were African Americans and European Americans who had been locked in a two-decade long economic boycott in a Mississippi town, fundamentalist Christians and atheists debating the true nature of morality in a timber town in the Pacific Northwest, or neighbors in a South Los Angeles neighborhood who feared crossing a block to be in a show because of rival gangs. Surprisingly courageous individuals again and again crossed lines to form a company and make something beautiful.
We learned that everyone has a story to tell and that everyone has something to bring to the table. We did an adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe in a Great Plains farming town of 250 people at the height of the late-1980s family farm crisis; as we worked alongside farmers to adapt the play to their realities, Molière's play about religious hypocrisy became a story of the disintegration of the family farm. Our desire to be relevant with an exposé of televangelism quickly faded into irrelevance. As professional artists, we had to pose some of the questions—but we did not hold all, or even many, of the answers.
We learned that it's not always easy to build company. We learned about perseverance, about eating lunch with the tribal elders on a Paiute Native American reservation in Nevada for thirty days in a row until an elder finally agreed to be in our adaptation of the Greek tragic trilogy The Oresteia. We learned to bartend so that the bartender and his wife in a small town could play Horatio and Gertrude in a Wild West version of Hamlet. That was our first-ever community-based adaptation, and it was motivated by a Sunday-school teacher threatening to quit, which in turn launched a community-wide investigation into Shakespeare's blasphemy and our—I now quote a rancher who hit the nail on the head—"smart-ass college kid rewrites." We learned to listen harder in order to make better art. We learned to follow the community's lead in times of crisis, too. Eleven-year-old Tiffany Dozier was killed by gang gunfire in front of our performance site after a dance in the LA neighborhood of Pacoima, just weeks before our opening night. We wondered if it was responsible to have another nighttime event at the same facility so soon after this tragic murder. The cast, including friends and relatives of Tiffany, told us that the play had to go on because of Tiffany's death.
We learned to move out of our comfort zone in order to expand who was in the room. We learned to seek source texts outside the Western canon and to do passages of plays in Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog, and American Sign Language to create access through language. We learned again and again to find the courage to talk to the person in the room with whom you are certain you have the least in common and who makes you the most afraid. For me, it was usually guys with gun racks in the back of their pickups, some of whom went on to become my friends and colleagues.
We learned to assume that everything is possible. In Mississippi we cast as Romeo a high school senior, Edret Brinston, who had failed the state literacy test twice. Soon after mastering his leading role, he passed the test with flying colors and graduated from high school. In an LA neighborhood we undertook a three-play cycle. In the first show, we cast a young woman named Stephanie Escobar. In the second production, Stephanie's mother joined as an assistant stage manager and her brother Andrew ran the soundboard; by the third production, her sister Laura was on the backstage crew and their father, a bus driver by day, was playing in the show band. We learned that the arts are one of the few activities in which multiple generations of a single family can participate together—and we became determined to be an arts organization that created more of those opportunities for families.
We learned that to build something worthwhile, we had to take the time to engage deeply. We did our original projects in six weeks. By late in my time at Cornerstone, we devoted over four and a half years to a faith-based cycle of plays, creating individual projects with distinct Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious communities—including a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people of multiple faiths—and then bringing together members of all of those faith-based communities into what we called a Bridge Show. The character of a gay Muslim in this culminating project led to huge dissension and division—all of the straight Muslim cast members eventually quit—but there were hours and hours of deeply painful and meaningful conversations that opened many of our hearts and minds. Today, Cornerstone doesn't conceive of working in a community without being part of a larger, longer-term cycle of community projects that will culminate in a Bridge Show.
We learned that we should cross lines, too. As a professional arts organization, we had a responsibility to help found or strengthen local resources that would exist long after our residency ended. After playing a lead in a Cornerstone production, Ron Temple, a farmer who stands six feet, nine inches tall, founded an arts organization in his rural Kansas community of Norcatur; years later a state tourism brochure cited the town as "being known far and wide for its arts and culture." During his Cornerstone show, Ron turned his farm over to his sons-in-law and spent fourteen hours a day rehearsing and trying to learn his lines. "This acting thing," Ron said to a camera crew from CBS Evening News, "is a lot like sex. Everybody knows a little bit about it, but it's the technique that counts."
Guillermo Aviles was a high school senior who planned to enlist in the military after graduation. When he was cast in a leading part in a Cornerstone production in the San Miguel neighborhood of the LA community of Watts, the director persuaded the talented young man to apply to college to study theatre. Guillermo not only became the first in his family to achieve higher education, but he received his master's degree as well. With a portion of box-office proceeds from the Cornerstone project in Watts, Guillermo helped to found the Watts Village Theatre Company, which is still creating work under his leadership seventeen years later.
We learned that you often can't know the ripples of the work and that you have to maintain faith. Three years after our hugely controversial and successful biracial Romeo and Juliet in Port Gibson, Mississippi, the community had created only one biracial show on its own. I'll confess to you now that I felt ashamed: I feared that we had failed these folks in the long haul. When revisiting the community as part of a national tour, at least twenty people told us the same story: Port Gibson became part of Main Street USA, a federally funded program for small towns to revitalize their Main Streets. The community had recently been honored for having the most racially integrated board in the United States. "It was because of the play," was the constant refrain. "We all met and learned to trust each other through the play." Talk about the power of company! The results of artistic work that strengthens community cannot be measured solely through an artistic lens.
In the 1980s when we started our company, we were constantly asked whether what we were doing was art or social work, as if no one could conceive of art as being something that is central to community identity. Cornerstone doesn't get asked that question anymore, because the way people perceive art has changed. In fact, many of you have been at the vanguard of participatory art-making, and I'm optimistic enough to believe that the rest of our society is starting to catch up with what you all know so well.
As I mentioned earlier, Cornerstone's company makes major policy and programming decisions by consensus. This means that a decision is not reached until everyone can agree to it and that any one individual can block a decision from being made. True consensus decision making, as those of you who practice it know, is insanely time consuming and very trying. It can also result in a much wiser decision than would have been made by any individual, no matter how inspired.
One of many examples of this involved our first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). After banging on the door of the NEA for two years—at that time, to us, an eternity—we received the stamp of approval of our first federal grant the same year that Jesse Helms authored the obscenity clause. Any organization receiving federal funds would have to sign an oath promising, in essence, to not do anything obscene, including but not limited to depictions of homoeroticism—a linguistic turn that I remember vividly two decades later. At that time, I was terrified of turning down the grant: as a young company, we had fought so hard to win it. Moreover, Theatre Communications Group, of which we were a brand-new member, took the official position that it was necessary to sign the oath, albeit under protest, in order to not prove to conservative legislators that the endowment was no longer needed—a pretty darned compelling argument to me at the time. It was only through the rigors of consensus decision making that I finally saw the group's wisdom and changed my position. If Cornerstone were to be footnoted someday as the final nail in the coffin of the NEA, my colleagues' argument went, then we'd wear that label with pride and not with shame. I was saved from my own fear through a consensus process.
Excerpted from Theatre History Studies 2012 VOLUME 32 Copyright © 2012 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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