A NEW CYCLE OF PLAYS ABOUT RELIGIOUS BELIEF PROMPTS L.A.'s
CORNERSTONE THEATER COMPANY TO RETHINK SOME DEFINITIONS-OF COMMUNITY,
OF TOLERANCE, OF CORNERSTONE ITSELF
A tale for all time: from left, Michele Mais, Christopher Liam
Moore, Ashby Semple and CA. Jones in Cornerstone's 1994 production
Everyman in the Mail.
THE LATE GREAT LUTHERAN PASTOR WILL BARNETT once gave a sermon in
which he posited that Doubting Thomas was the truest apostle-that his
demand to see and feel the Savior's wounds expressed not skepticism
but an abiding commitment to truth-seeking, and with it an implicit
faith that the truth was indeed out there to be found. It was more
important, in other words, that faith be tested than coddled.
Questions point the faithful forward; complacent dogmas stultify.
This questioning ethic is crucial to artists as well as apostles,
and Cornerstone Theater Company, the Los Angeles-based troupe that
creates plays about and with communities, embodies the risks and
rewards of this ethic in ways that don't begin or end in the theatre.
For one thing, Cornerstone doesn't have a theatre building, just a
warehouse office/rehearsal space in downtown L.A.'s artist loft
district. (The company did host public performances of some Erik Elm
plays in June, but this is not as yet a regular occurrence.)
Cornerstone performances have typically not been held in theatres at
all, since the troupe's mission has been to make art in the margins,
mostly off the radar of commercial or regional theatres. The margins
may be geographical, as in the troupe's initial five-year rural
period, or ethnic and socioeconomic, as in its historic 16-month
residency in Watts, in South Central Los Angeles. The work itself,
taking a cue from thinkers like Anne Bogart and Peter Brook, asks the
essential theatrical questions: What is theatre? Who is it for? Who
should make it? What is the role of the audience? The company's
process puts community members alongside its professional artists in
writing, staging and performing the work in venues such as school
gyms, parish halls, libraries and converted warehouses.
Expanding boundaries: Larry Dozier, Ahmed Enani and Theodore
Hardie in For Here or To Go?
He lives!: An audience in Port Gibson, Miss., watches Christopher
Liam Moore as Elvis in Cornerstone's tional tour of The Winter's
Now in its 16th year, Cornerstone has spent the last 12 months or
so in a state of managed upheaval and redefinition. Among its
priorities: enlisting a roster of younger, more diverse ensemble
artists; staging a holiday play, For Here or To Go?, at L.A.'s LORT
mothership, the Mark Taper Forum; and launching what is arguably its
most thematically ambitious project yet-a three-year cycle of
collaborations with communities of faith, from mosques to parishes to
less traditionally defined spiritual communities. The cycle kicks off
this month with the Festival of Faith, 21 shows at 5 religious venues
across Greater Los Angeles. Tellingly, this latest overhaul-in which
the company's future, budget, mission and personnel were open for
long, soul-searching discussion-was not an aberration but a perennial
rededication. That's business as usual for this ever-questing company
'THE RELENTLESS REDEFINITION CAN BE EXHAUSTING," admits Peter
Howard, a founding member who is writing Zones, the main show of this
fall's citywide Festival of Faith. "We have strong taste for
reinventing the wheel, and it's been that way from Day One."
Founding artistic director Bill Rauch, who will direct Howard's
audience-participatory piece, traces the tendency back to the mid-
'80s, when Cornerstone came together among a group of Harvard grads
who'd taken plenty of theatre classes and staged plays on their own.
"When we first started the company, some of us were thinking about
going to grad school," he says. "A professor told us, `You can get on
this escalator that's already moving,' by which he meant graduate
school, `or you can reinvent the wheel for yourself.' We were all
attracted to reinventing the wheel."
It was on the road around the U.S., in a blue van, that company
artists developed their signature M.O.: adapting classics, from Ibsen
to Aeschylus, to accommodate the stories and concerns of small towns
not served by the regional theatre system; involving townsfolk in all
stages of the process, from story meetings to performance; and then,
as a kind of inclusive capper, mounting a "bridge" show with members
of all these far-flung communities. The rural period culminated with
the national tour of a company-adapted Winter's Tale to such off-the-
map locales as Marmarth, N.D., Port Gibson, Miss., and Long Creek,
But the troupe didn't lose its creative wanderlust when it came to
L.A. Indeed, L.A. was chosen precisely for its mind-boggling cultural
and geographical diversity-not, as some early supporters cynically
assumed, to sell out to the coast's dominant media industry.
Admittedly, among the ongoing challenges of making theatre in the
shadow of Hollywood is holding onto artists lured away by lucrative
screen gigs. This giltedged sword touched close to home this year,
with two ensemble artists, Christopher Liam Moore and Shishir Kurup,
landing roles in Fox's interactive "reality" show, Murder in Small
Town X. The company has also manifestly benefited from industry
largesse-founding member Amy Brenneman, no longer active as a
Cornerstone artist now that she's occupied with CBS's series Judging
Amy, has proved an excellent celebrity patron and fund-raiser, no
But after nine years in L.A.-nine years of defining community
variously by ethnicity, neighborhood, profession, even birth date,
and earning the kind of national recognition for its methodology that
keeps the company flush with grant money and out-of-town commissions-
there was concern, says Howard, "about not repeating ourselves. We
felt we could get into a rut if we didn't expand the boundaries of
how we define community." What's more, Rauch explains, many company
members have matured, married, had kids-and, not coincidentally, seem
newly eager to address an issue that's come up repeatedly throughout
"Divisions of faith have come up again and again and again in our
work, between believers and non-believers, and between people who
believe different things," Rauch notes. "Even on projects we would
assume have nothing to do with people's religious beliefs, it's come
up with surprising frequency. Speaking generally, Cornerstone artists
are a group of people with rich, deeply spiritual lives but without
strong attachments to a religious tradition-while the majority of the
people we collaborate with in communities are attached to organized
religions. I guess when we were younger, we felt we didn't have to
really look at that. Now that we're maturing, we have a real hunger
to explore that gap."
Howard, in fact, found that that gap wasn't as wide as he'd
thought-and in the process of talking to fellow theatre artists for
his Zones project, has had some preconceptions shattered.
"My stereotype of artists, I guess because of their independent
spirits, is that they tend to be less frequently attached to specific
doctrines or religious traditions," says Howard. "But the more I find
myself talking to theatre artists who are Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim,
and have a strong connection to those traditions, the more I find my
stereotypes being bashed.
Why not stop and stay a while?: Omar Gomez, left, with Rob Kendt
in For Here or To Go?
"Part of it's just getting over the fear of asking. You're not
always sure how eager people are to share their spiritual life. But
I've found if you open the door, even just a crack, this flood of
experiences and realities come pouring in about religious life. It's
something I hadn't thought about much here in L.A., and it suddenly
seems like the most important thing in the world."
Of course, if people aren't eager to share their religious
beliefs, it may be because that's how tolerance works in many circles
of public life: Don't ask, don't tell. We can all just get along if
we stick to sports and the weather-or, in the theatre, to the script
and the lighting plot. But Cornerstone's experience with a longtime
stage manager some years ago opened some fresh wounds-and led to a
kind of healing, or at least to a form of managed care.
"We found out in the course of talking with [this stage manager]
that while she said she loved Chris and me," Rauch recalls, referring
to his life partner, Christopher Liam Moore, "she believed that we
were going to hell." The stage manager, a bornagain Christian, had
worked closely with the company for two years. "It forced us to re-
examine what we meant by tolerance and inclusion. Was there room in
our definition of inclusion to include someone whose beliefs were
that gays and lesbians would go to hell?" A facilitator was brought
in from the National Conference for Community and Justice, a human
relations organization that has parlayed its history of interfaith
dialogue (its original name was the National Conference of Christians
and Jews) into an expertise at dialogue on divisive issues. A three-
hour discussion ensued in which a "lot of emotion was aired," and
Rauch and the stage manager essentially agreed to disagree. She
continued to work with the company for another year before moving on.
Peter Howard works at the NCCJ when he's not working on a
Cornerstone show. He'\s been a critical figure in incorporating the
conference's dialogue process into the faith-based cycle, and even
into the heart of his Zones play, in which he plans to incorporate a
robust brand of story-motivated audience participation, nothing like
the hoary models of the post-show talkback session or the murder-
mystery cheering section. NCCJ program director Lucky Altman, who has
a background in facilitating dialogues between adherents of eight
major world religions, says that the dialogue process is about
finding out "how far can we go before we part ways. We don't dismiss
each other-we disagree. And the division doesn't have to keep us from
working together. It doesn't have to keep us on separate planets."
ATTENDEES TO THIS FALL'S FESTIVAL OF FAITH may be forgiven for
feeling that they are visiting an unexplored solar system, with 21
shows in five venues: Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights;
the Faith United Methodist Church in Watts; New Horizons School, an
Islamic private school in Pasadena; the Baha'i Center in Baldwin
Hills; and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. The subject matter ranges
from inter- and intra-faith conflicts to the role of women in
traditional religions, from the nature of ritual to the often comical
family dynamics of churchgoing.
While the faith theme is in some ways a departure, this festival's
eclectic freeway sprawl is consistent with Cornerstone's best work in
Los Angeles, which has helped reveal an impossibly diverse and
persistently self-segregated city to itself, and has led theatregoers
to places they may never have had reason to visit at all, let alone
to visit for the sake of seeing plays.The faith-based cycle, which
will continue through 2004, engages a city with 600 distinct
spiritual expressions, according to a recent study by the Center for
Religion and Civic Culture at USC.
Cornerstone closed another big gap with last year's holiday show,
For Here or To Go?, a kind of "super-bridge" show, which assembled
folks from all of the company's L.A. community collaborations up to
then, and did so on L.A.'s main mainstage, the Taper. The show's
raucous audience interaction, though scripted, was both a
dramatization of the company's preoccupations with representation and
inclusion and a precursor, it now seems, to the full-contact
unscripted interaction of Zones. And, with its tale of colliding
observations of Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and Hanukkah, it pointed
the way to the troupe's new faith-based focus.
There was another community member engaged with For Here or To Go?
about whom, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am duty-bound to
report: Among the show's endless audience disruptions was the 1 lth-
hour announcement by a local newspaper critic that he was there to
review the show-which prompted the onstage band to exit in disgust,
and the show's de facto lead, a hamburger-flipper-turned-quixotic-
warrior, to invite the critic onstage to supply the missing
In one of the more surreally satisfying moments in recent L.A.
theatre history, this critic stood center stage on a platform at the
Taper, sang a bemused mini-review and led the cast in a cheery
A critic offering holiday wishes? I'd say it was a subversive
joke, except that it would have been at my expense, since I was that
critic. Doubting Thomas as an apostle, indeed.
Rob Kendt is the editor of Backstage West in Los Angeles.