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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 328-330
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Sonja Kuftinec's Staging America, the first full-length study of the well-known Cornerstone Theater, moves between documentation of Cornerstone's history and practices and critical analysis of the questions and problems that plague any community-based theatre (CBT), including Cornerstone. As a scholar who observed Cornerstone's practices for six months and as an artist/activist who has worked with various communities to create performance, Kuftinec takes advantage of both proximity and distance, treading carefully and self-reflexively [End Page 328] on the difficult terrain of CBT. She is sympathetic to Cornerstone's goals, admires their effects on communities, and also is skeptical of their unintended imperialism and inability to really change institutions. Kuftinec observed meetings and rehearsals, attended Cornerstone productions and post-show discussions, interviewed members of the ensemble and participants in productions, eavesdropped on audience members' conversations, and examined publicity materials and mission statements. Staging America is at once a lively story, a rich ethnographic account of the ensemble's ever-changing processes, and an important intervention in the field of CBT.
In the introduction, Kuftinec interweaves her own history and investments as a performer, spectator, and educator with the purpose of the project as a whole, paying particular attention to current debates around identity politics and ethical ethnography. She then moves into a valuable historical overview of US community theatre, which, as she writes, "has an image problem" (23). By placing Cornerstone's work in the tradition of activist, community-based civic theatre, which ranges from the assimilationist pageant The New Pilgrims (1918), to the writings of Percy Mackaye, to the Little Theatre movement, the Group Theatre, and political theatres of the 1960s such as El Teatro Campesino, Kuftinec traces a new narrative of US theatre history, which emphasizes theatre's margins, the participation of amateurs, and the purpose of performance in a community.
The next four chapters follow Cornerstone's activities from its inception in 1986. In its first six years, Cornerstone members temporarily located themselves in rural communities and small towns, working with area citizens to create plays. These productions dealt with locally resonant issues rendered through classical works and resulted in productions like Our Town in Newport News, Virginia (1986) and a Wild West musical Hamlet in Marmarth, North Dakota (1986), among others. As Kuftinec notes, this period of Cornerstone's work found them understanding community as a geographically-based, non-moving place, while the ensemble members were itinerant. Although these productions frequently engaged the community in fruitful discussions and garnered new audiences and participants, "early Cornerstone rhetoric betrayed some insensitivity to the power dynamics implicit in a group of Harvard graduates initiating production of classic texts with small rural towns" (66). Cornerstone's national touring production of A Winter's Tale (1991), which Kuftinec analyzes in detail, was produced with participants from prior Cornerstone residencies and brought to the fore contradictions of rhetoric, purpose, and collab-oration.
In 1992, Cornerstone decided to move permanently to Los Angeles to establish a base from which to do work focusing on urban issues and problems. Here Cornerstone understood community to mean an incomprehensibly large and diverse group of overlapping locations, neighborhoods, identities, and constituencies. Their numerous projects following this relocation, developed with and among specific, differently-defined communities, included an adaptation of the Sanskrit play The Clay Cart (1992) and Chay Yew's A Beautiful Country (1998).
In the early 1990s, Cornerstone began collaborating with two regional theatres, and Kuftinec looks closely at two examples: A Community Carol, based on A Christmas Carol, at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (1993) and The Good Person of New Haven, based on Brecht's play, at Long Wharf (2000). These coproductions intended both to invite more local community members to participate in the theatre and to influence and hopefully change the theatre's institutional practices, and Kuftinec evocatively recounts the differently inflected struggles between Cornerstone and each theatre...