Through the New California Arts Fund, Cornerstone is building a more sustainable business model to support their work empowering marginalized communities through playmaking.
Cornerstone Theater Company makes new plays with and about communities. For over 30 years, Cornerstone has brought together an ensemble of professional artists of the highest caliber with people who would never think of themselves as artists to produce works of excellence based on the stories, concerns and issues of a given community. Plays are developed through “story circles,” intimate gatherings of community members who have experienced firsthand the issues being explored, for open and uncensored discussions facilitated by theater company members. These are real stories about real people, creating empathy and setting a new context for compassion among audiences and performers alike. Through in-depth residencies with these communities, the Cornerstone ensemble initiates conversation to give voice to stories rarely heard in the mainstream. In a California where too many people lack economic and political opportunity, avenues for a community to unite, discuss, express their concerns, and share their stories are essential.
Through the playmaking process, communities develop agency to take action and make change on policies and social constructs that affect their lives. The Hunger Cycle was a series of 9 plays commissioned by Cornerstone over the past 6 years looking at resource scarcity and inequity among a wide range of Californians: urban and rural farmers, former gang members now working food production, people living on skid row, volunteers for food banks, Native American Los Angelenos, and more. Engaging in this conversation through aesthetic practice enabled participants to expand their notion about the potential in themselves and their own community to find abundance and address inequity.
In 2018, Cornerstone began The Change Series - a collection of projects exploring communities seeking to activate change or responding to change that is occurring around them. As Los Angeles neighborhoods undergo profound changes in economic prosperity and diversity, Cornerstone is concentrating on communities who don’t feel like they have a voice in their own destiny, working to help them find the agency, tools and stories to rise up and take action. In the coming years, the Cornerstone ensemble is also focused on adapting how they work to a changing world, collaborating with new artists and creative industries to expand their own practice and scale their impact.
Sigrid Gilmer, Cornerstone Ensemble Member and Playwright
Cornerstone’s innovative method of deep community engagement to create new plays has long been an inspiration to the arts field. The ensemble is beginning to explore developing a space in LA for Community Engaged Art Making - a collaborative gathering space with national importance, rooted in a home community - finally providing a proper physical home to the method and the team. This new home would also enable Cornerstone to host more conversations and creative opportunities with policymakers, community leaders, and art makers, a critical aspect of their changemaking process and a potential new revenue stream for their business model. However, the company is moving cautiously into these planning stages, wary of becoming the very harbingers of adverse change to a neighborhood that their work pushes against.
Cornerstone’s work in and with communities goes beyond the nonprofit sector. Over the decades, they have partnered with a wide range of corporations and other organizations to foster dialogue and provide creative services that meet the client’s goals using Cornerstone’s signature methodology. As experts in creating a context in which people feel comfortable sharing difficult stories, and using narrative to promote empathy and behavior change, one of their largest scale efforts was a highly acclaimed six-city national tour for Gilead Pharmaceutical to improve HIV treatment in African American communities. The ensemble expects this entrepreneurial arm of Cornerstone’s work to flourish in the years to come.