In the winter of 2016, co-recipients of the 2016 Ann Shaw Fellowship – Cortney McEniry and Lily Junker – traveled to Los Angeles to attend Cornerstone Theater Company’s Two Day Intensive (2DI) training program as research and prep for a new high school program that they would pilot at McCarter Theatre Center in the summer of 2016. McEniry would serve as lead teaching artist and facilitator, while Junker serves as McCarter’s curriculum & instruction manager.
Walking with Cortney from our hotel and into the “Arts District” in Los Angeles (relishing the sunshine and my retreat from the snowy New Jersey winter), I was struck by the old and new in conversation all around me. Visible from one street was a tent-city in Skid Row and looking the other direction, an opulent hotel, towering above storefronts. A few blocks later, ancient furniture warehouses were converted into sleek breweries; empty buildings with gated loading docks shared a street with boutiques displaying screen-printed cowboy shirts; coffee shops with concrete walls and I-beams from former factories sold $10 juices behind reclaimed wood countertops; everywhere we turned murals of brilliant colors and diverse styles covered walls and windows. And in the heart of it all stood an unassuming brick building with a simple sign above the door and a small, vibrant mural of its own – Cornerstone Theatre Company.
During our time at Cornerstone’s Two Day Intensive (2DI), we would only begin to discover how fascinating and complicated the neighborhood’s evolution was (and remains), but it certainly seems a fitting location for a company that strives to make theater with and about communities. Cornerstone’s surroundings could inspire an endless number of artistic projects and complex conversations about art-making, gentrification, restoration, and preservation. It’s no wonder the culminating experience of our weekend was venturing onto the community to create guerilla-style pieces together and with people who live and work there. But I am getting ahead of myself…
After long-admiring and reading about their work, Cortney McEniry and I were honored to have arrived at Cornerstone Theatre Company, where we would be spending two intense days of training and conversation. We were eager for the formal instruction of the Intensive, but also to meet other folks from around the country who were interested in learning more about, actively making, or working in their own areas to cultivate an interest in community-based works of art.
The 2DI participants in our cohort included actors, playwrights, directors, students, professors, teaching artists, activists and more. We were all at various points in our journeys with community-based work and this proved to be an asset to our conversations during our time together. Individuals who’d been doing the work for a long time were invigorated by fresh ideas and challenges to old concepts, while newcomers were grateful for veterans’ insights, expertise, and recommended systems.
We spent our first morning getting to know one another, identifying what communities we felt we represented and/or hoped to work with, and flagging questions we had about community-based work in general (How do we create work that reflects the community’s thoughts, concerns, wishes and struggles without appropriating an individuals’ experiences? How does one avoid being a “parachute artist” when working in a community not one’s own?). We set our own personal intentions (via three-word missions) for our time together, before collectively unpacking Cornerstone’s mission statement:
“Cornerstone Theater Company makes new plays with and about communities. By combining the artistry of people with many levels of theatrical experience, we act upon the conviction that artistic expression is civic engagement and that access to a creative forum is essential to the wellness and health of every individual and community.”
During a conversation about selecting community partners, we were encouraged by Cornerstone’s practice of asking “who is usually spoken to and who may not typically be heard” when considering which organizations they’re interested in partnering with within a community. In thinking through the steps taken when identifying community partners, Cornerstone and the assembled group emphasized the importance of open and clear communication about 1) what the relationship between the arts organization and community will be, and 2) the capacity of each of the groups.
As a group, we discussed what the a “mutually beneficial” relationship between a community and an arts organization might look like. We grappled with the potential pitfalls of creating this “mutually beneficial” relationship with a community (Who can be the judge of this?), as well as with the concept of “leaving a gift” (as Cornerstone recommends in some cases). We found ourselves questioning how to avoid the hierarchy or power structure that this approach might set up, which can be counter-productive or even in opposition of this type of work. Following these trains of thought, we often found ourselves coming back to the notion that each situation warrants different decisions and that often, we have to use our best judgment surrounding relationships, needs, and expectations.
Our afternoon was spent writing and exploring some of Cornerstone’s approaches to adapting pre-existing works to fit a community’s specific reality and discussing additional ways to customize a performance piece to a location or community. Perhaps most intriguing and exciting to think about when working with young people, were Cornerstone’s “6 F’s of Design within a Community-Based Context” – which include: FORUM, FOLK CULTURE, FACSIMILE, FOUND OBJECTS, FABRICATION, FIND A WAY.
After an evening of restorative ramen (when in Little Tokyo…) and continued conversation, Cortney established that she was interested in finding ways to train the young artists in the McCarter’s High School Intensive program to be community-based theatre makers, as opposed to simply being participants in the process. She wanted to give the students the power to create and facilitate community-based work of their own with respect, care, and expertise beyond their time with her.
Sunday, or Day Two, found us examining the logistics of producing community-based work as we participated in a mock audition process and brainstorming solutions to proposed tricky scenarios that could arise in rehearsal.
For auditions, Cornerstone places an emphasis on breaking down perceived barriers for participants (having to be prepared for an audition, language differences, literacy concerns, etc…), offering ways to make even the “greenest” actor feel comfortable and confident in the room. We also discussed the inherent challenges and joys of working with an ensemble of professional and non-professional actors (managing expectations, developing a shared vocabulary, etc…).
In sharing our solutions to the proposed scenarios, we were given insight into how Cornerstone handled similar difficult situations – what worked and what they wished they’d done differently. In the end, these conversations were some of our most thought-provoking for me as they highlighted how challenging this work can be, how unique each project is, and how highly collaborative the work must remain throughout the entire process.
The afternoon found us working together to explore our surroundings and apply some of the techniques we’d been discussing. As I alluded to earlier, in small groups, we took to the streets to create short, site-responsive performance pieces with strict parameters. The short creation and rehearsal time challenged us to make decisions quickly, communicate clearly, and in some cases simplify our storytelling or message. The surroundings were rife with possibility and inspiration. Many of the pieces addressed gentrification and the changing demographics (and price points) in the neighborhood.
In many ways, our time at Cornerstone left us all with more questions than answers when it comes to creating community-based work. That’s in no way a criticism of the 2DI programming, but it is revelatory in terms of the importance of remaining flexible when doing this kind of work – as artists and as people. Cornerstone seems to deeply understand and honor this concept. A community-based project – like any other work of art – must have a clear vision, but it must also leave room to grow, change, and expand to best reflect those artists who are creating it. Community-based art projects, just like the communities they represent, must be diverse and deeply rooted in relationships. What is optimal for one group could ultimately be another’s downfall. No two models will ever be identical, and consequently, training artists to do this work is tricky and requires their being willing to use their best judgment, try and fail, and trust their collaborators.
Not dissimilarly, no two theatres are exactly the same. They vary in size, budget, mission, and perhaps most notably, they each call their own unique community home.
This summer, when students in the artists in our High School Intensive set out with the mission of exploring and responding to their surroundings, they weren’t presented with the colorful murals, converted factories, and gated loading docks that Cortney and I saw in Los Angeles. McCarter Theatre Center, located in tree-filled Princeton, New Jersey, is surrounded by stone halls reminiscent of Hogwarts, the familiar signs of Starbucks and CVS hung above historic entryways to storefronts with narrow doors and low ceilings, and graveyards where former presidents and politicians are buried.
Fortunately, the process’ purpose is to serve any community and any group of artists. It goes without saying that the students’ responses were very different from those we saw on our final day of the 2DI. And yet, just as our presentations on the streets surrounding Cornerstone made statements about what we’d learned about our new “community” and our ensemble, everything the students at McCarter created together – from day one’s collaborations to their culminating performance on the Matthews Stage – spoke to who they are as artists and individuals, the beauty and challenges within their community, and their own place within it.