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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 197-222
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Staging the City with the Good People of New Haven
Do I err on the side of excessive ambition when I say that if New Haven can be captured onstage, we will have created a theatrical document which may have much to say about the future of the American city? 1
--Doug Hughes, Artistic Director Long Wharf Theatre
In 1997 Long Wharf Theatre's newly appointed Artistic Director, Doug Hughes, arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, driven to discover his adopted city's "center of civic energy." 2 This energy seemed absent from a site whose diverse neighborhoods appeared disconnected from each other and from a cohesive sense of urban identity. Theatre, he believed, could draw together the urban community and allow the city to look at itself. 3 Yet, Hughes understood that the historical relationship between New Haven and its professional resident theatres had been as fraught and disconnected as the urban terrain seemed to be. Both the Yale Repertory and the Long Wharf theatres focused their energies on producing classical texts and new works, unreflective of New Haven, and cast mainly with New York actors. In order to begin revising the relationship between the theatre and the city, Hughes decided he needed not only to reflect New Haven via a representational narrative and semiotically resonant production, but also by inviting the city onstage, casting local residents alongside professional actors. And he knew just the company to work with: Cornerstone Theater. [End Page 197]
Since 1986 Cornerstone Theater has been producing plays adapted and cast to represent local communities, variously defined by geography, age, ethnicity, workplace, and birthday, to name only a few. From 1986-1991 the company traveled the United States working mainly with small rural towns. Illustrative productions include a wild west Hamlet in Marmarth, North Dakota, a mixed race Romeo and Juliet in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and an adaptation of the Oresteia with a Native American reservation in Schurz, Nevada. 4 Cornerstone's urban work in Los Angeles, from 1992 to the present, includes residencies with Arab Americans citywide (Ghurba), a multi-lingual senior center (The Toy Truck), and urban postal workers, librarians, and police officers (Candude). 5 In 1993, Cornerstone collaborated with the Arena Stage and the [End Page 198] East of the Anacostia River residents of Washington D.C. to adapt Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, retitled A Community Carol. Hughes had seen and admired a number of Cornerstone's rural projects, and had heard of the Arena project. Based on these experiences, or "pilgrimages" as he referred to them, Hughes contacted co-founders Alison Carey, the company's most prolific play adapter, and Bill Rauch, Cornerstone's Artistic Director. Intermittently between the summer of 1997 and June 2000, Long Wharf, Cornerstone, various civic organizations, neighborhoods, and residents of New Haven worked together to produce The Good Person of New Haven. This adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechuan, set in New Haven and cast with local residents, manifested, celebrated, and critiqued the city. 6 At the same time, the production process raises questions about what it means to bring together and stage the city, while helping to reassess the function of contemporary regional theatre, and the role of the critic in community-based theatre-making.
With roots in early twentieth-century pageantry, the Little Theatre Movement, and grassroots performance, community-based theatre has emerged over the past several decades as a vital aesthetic and social practice. Many of the scholars associated with the field are, like myself, also practitioners. 7 While some practitioners ask important questions about the relationship of academia to the field, 8 and some scholars remain critical of the work's radical potential, 9 moving between the experiential and the analytic can enhance both the practice and process(ing) of community-based theatre. The scholar-practitioner can work in partnership with artists to investigate more deeply the meaning-making potential of the community-based production process. I began working with Cornerstone Theater in 1994 as a dramaturg and...