As audiences continue to decline for many arts organizations, a growing number of nonprofits are exploring the idea of community engagement as a way to attract new patrons and thrive in a changing economy.
Fortunately for Los Angeles' Cornerstone Theater, the concept is hardly new. Founded nearly 25 years ago, Cornerstone has long been producing plays that tell the stories of California communities, from Eureka to the Imperial Valley, by involving community members in the creative process. It's a successful model that is getting increased attention from other arts organizations.
"There are certainly more and more companies and artists taking this approach, from many different perspectives, in theater and other disciplines," said Artistic Director Michael John Garcés. A changing economic paradigm, he notes, is only one factor in spurring more mainstream theaters to reconsider their practice. The other is a desire to engage audiences at a more authentic level.
"I hope that you will begin to see it across the board, as people realize that it is healthier and leads to deeper relationships with audience — not to simply consider them 'audience.' We have to find better economic models for the structures of our companies, as the current, outdated ones aren't working. I think that the future is in engagement."
Most Cornerstone productions are community collaborations. Company artists immerse themselves in the specific communities where they're developing plays, creating a performance that combines professional actors with local residents. By working closely with these communities, they develop works that are informed by local issues, such as race, class, faith, poverty, human rights or social justice.
(Currently, for example, Cornerstone is collaborating with the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts on The Unrequited (Between Two Worlds),
which opens in May.)
The resulting plays — either new works or adaptations of classics — are then performed in a local venue — sometimes in a theater, but more often in a nontraditional venue like a school auditorium. Admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis, exposing many attendees to an art form they may never have seen before.
The company is currently working in collaboration with Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras, a traveling theater troupe made up entirely of day laborers. The troupe, created by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, presents original short plays about the struggles of living and working as a day laborer without documentation in Los Angeles. Since 2008, the troupe has performed at job centers and work sites all over greater Los Angeles, for more than 3,000 fellow day laborers.
The concept of community storytelling has been a consistent theme for Cornerstone since it was established in 1986 by Director Bill Rauch and playwright Alison Carey. The company has been supported by the Irvine Foundation since 1992. Current funding supports the Cornerstone Institute, which offers summer residencies and two-day intensive workshops that teach the Cornerstone approach to outsiders in hopes of spreading the model to other communities.
In the institute's Summer Residency program, Cornerstone artists and students live in the community to tell the stories of local residents and involve them throughout the production process. Recent productions have been held in Eureka, Holtville (Imperial County) and the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacoima. This summer's eighth annual residency will present a play in the Fresno County town of Fowler from August 11 to 13.
"Cornerstone's ability to engage everyday Californians in the art making process, both as storytellers and performers, really enriches the overall community experience and helps people engage with one another through the arts in a meaningful way," said Josephine Ramirez, Irvine's Arts program director. "This unique program provides new opportunities for people to express their creativity and build new connections and cross-cultural understandings that can have lasting impacts in communities throughout the state."
Cornerstone company members say that they get a lot out of summer residency productions, despite the challenges of cramped living arrangements and an accelerated play production process that can be made more challenging due to its reliance on amateur locals who volunteer their time to participate onstage or backstage.
"My world view is expanded by each project," said Paula Donnelly, director of the Cornerstone Institute. "I learn new perspectives both about the greater world and about how and why to make theater. I've learned about farming, California history, immigration, internment and being present with elderly folks. Working with communities reminds me how much fun theater is to create and how much fun it should be to attend."
Smaller communities are favored because people tend to know each other better. As many as 60 community members might be involved in a production — either onstage or behind the scenes — along with a handful of Cornerstone professionals and students.
Quite often, Garcés noted, the biggest challenge is cutting through the natural skepticism among local community members about having an outside, Los Angeles-based artistic group tell their story. The playwrights then must find willing partners to help lead them to the richest stories and build a trusting relationship that eventually turns into a partnership.
"It's always extremely challenging," Garcés said. "We enter into a community cold and we're looking for people who are willing to work with us. You can easily get paralyzed with 'I don't know how to do this.'"
But perhaps the bigger reward is what Cornerstone members hear from locals who are engaged in the process, either as participants or audience members.
Donnelly recalls Cornerstone members going into the small border town of Holtville in 2007, expecting to hear stories of racial, class and immigration tensions. Instead, they found a community that, while still dealing with assimilation, was more united in their concern over its long-term economic sustainability, a theme that featured prominently in the resulting play.
Quentin Burke, a resident of Holtville, wrote after a Cornerstone residency in his border town that the buzz about the production was so strong that many were disappointed they hadn't seen the play before it closed.
"While one cannot say that Holtville has racial tensions, still, life proceeds here on two levels," Burke wrote in an email to Cornerstone. "Dare we hope that in some small way, Cornerstone has helped bridge those two levels? The packed auditorium on those three nights certainly speaks to the positive influence your visit has had on the community."
Other communities noted that the Cornerstone experience provided an appetite for more plays and more art-making opportunities.
"Somehow it felt so right to have a theater production there, and especially the kind of theater that reaches out, that teaches, that brings people together and connects their hearts," said Viviana Hollenbeck of Blue Ox Historic Park in Eureka, which hosted the 2009 production of Jason in Eureka. "And so we — along with all the audience members — were changed. We now know that some type of future endeavor involving theater is part of our future."