Backstage: Bringing theater to the people where they live

Before becoming Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Bill Rauch was the Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company. Cornerstone is a multi-ethnic theater ensemble, based in Los Angeles, which produces new plays nationwide. This is a second of a two-part column. The first part was published on Sept. 5. Find it online at www.dailytidings.com.

BR: We started Cornerstone because we heard that only 2 percent of the American people went to professional theater on a regular basis. We thought, “Even if we’re lucky enough to be successful in the professional theater, we’ll have only performed for 2 percent of our fellow citizens. That’s not good enough.”

We went to isolated rural communities and put on plays with the people who live there, because we could learn more about what interested people, and re-invent theater from the ground up. We would move to very small towns, anywhere from 200 to 2,000 people — Towns that would make Ashland look like a giant metropolis.

We would usually adapt a classic play, and set it in the community that we were working with. It was incredible work; it was life-changing for all of us who were part of it. We did that work on the road, in small towns, for five years.

We actually did a project here in eastern Oregon in 1988 in a little town called Lawncreek, just over the mountain from John Day, adapting a Brecht play, “The Good Person of Szechwan.” We did it as the “The Good Person of Lawncreek.” We put it on in a cattle auction barn, where we would have to wet down the dirt floor before the audience came in, so that the dust wouldn’t rise up. We built an outhouse for the audience and pitched a tent for the actors as a dressing room. It was one of the best shows we ever did.

EH: Did you have any unexpected reactions to any of these productions?

BR: Always, because you’re finding an intersection between a classic play and a community. Everybody had opinions about how you represent the community. There were always divisions and dissention within a community, but there was always healing and opportunities for people to come together. That was very powerful.

After five years on the road, working in small towns, we moved to Los Angeles to begin to do the same kind of work in greater L.A. The idea of moving to L.A. was that we could work with disparate communities and then invite them to pull together across community lines on a more regular basis.

We began to conceive projects in cycles that were sequences. For example, we did a faith-based cycle, where we worked with 10 different religious communities. Then we did a “bridge show” that brought people together from all of those faith traditions.

In the L.A. neighborhood of Watts, we did projects with distinct African-American and then distinct Latino pockets of Watts. Then we did a “bridge show” that brought together the larger community of Watts.

EH: How were these productions funded?

BR: Cornerstone’s funding was 10-percent earned income and 90-percent contributed income — government grants; individual grants; and individual contributions. The box office was always “pay what you can,” not a lot of money from the box office, because we were working in low-income communities. Then we would leave behind some of the proceeds for the community to keep on doing theater after we left. I was Cornerstone’s artistic director for 20 years. It was beautiful work. It is still going strong.

For tickets to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit, www.osfashland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

For information about the Cornerstone Theater Company, visit cornerstonetheater.org.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding cast member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.

 

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