- A Cornerstone for Rethinking Community Theatre
Theatre scholars and professional practitioners tend to refer to “community theatre” in pejorative terms, conjuring images of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland rummaging through Granny’s trunk in the barn, puttin’ on a show. This idea of community theatre may now be as clichéd as the genre itself is perceived to be. Recent collaborations between experienced theatre artists and a wide variety of communities have generated renewed appreciation for the social and aesthetic possibilities of community theatre. This field of performance, termed “community-based theatre,” or “grassroots theatre,” has begun to enter our consciousness in descriptive, practical terms but has yet to be clearly situated in a theoretical context. Some practitioners may fear that, perhaps, critique amounts to criticism, endangering the fragile foundations of nascent projects. In order to legitimize the field and investigate its potential for making meaning, however, it is essential to scrutinize community-based theatre and the ways in which the collaborative process helps to build, perform, and destabilize community.
Analysis of Cornerstone Theatre’s production process is an appropriate site for this critical exploration of community-based work. Founded in 1986, Cornerstone has worked in collaboration with rural and urban communities across the country. In the fall of 1994, I served as dramaturg for two productions with Cornerstone, as part of the company’s yearlong residency in Watts, Los Angeles. This experience complemented dissertation research conducted through newsletters, a company oral history, formal and informal interviews, and observations on process. My research and production experience have led me to propose that Cornerstone’s community-based work generates complex, aesthetically intriguing and engaging productions and contributes to a growing discourse on the nature of community and identity.
“Community” has been a problematic term for sociologists since at least the 1950s when, to the consternation of the field, George A. Hillery, Jr. described ninety-four use-definitions of community with very little in common among them (qtd. in Bell and Newby 27). The term serves as a convenient symbol encapsulating a number of contradictory ideas. As Raymond Williams notes in Keywords, references to “community” suggest positive connotations without clear meaning (66). This ambivalence of meaning is, in fact, an important element [End Page 91] of how “community” functions. In The Symbolic Constructions of Community, sociologist Anthony Cohen suggests that “community” operates as a “God word,” used symbolically to avoid the confrontation of its connotative differences (Introduction). “Community,” like “God,” symbolically unites those who believe in and employ the concept, even though these individuals may have vastly varying ideas as to its connotations.
We generally understand community as a function of commonality, whether that commonality is one of location, class, interest, age, or ethnic background. This idea of commonality lends community the positive connotation that Williams cites. However, as sociologists and cultural theorists such as Cohen, Paul Gilroy, and Iris Marion Young point out, commonality also implies boundaries, difference, and exclusion. 1 In order for a community to distinguish itself, its members must differentiate themselves in some way from other communities through boundaries of land, behavior, or background. These are fluid rather than stable boundaries, dependent on individual perceptions and definitions. Cornerstone’s local collaborations ground this discourse of “community,” defined by both commonality and exclusion, in concrete examples.
Original company members founded Cornerstone as a way to expand and diversify one particular community: the theatregoing audience. Co-founders Alison Carey and Bill Rauch were frustrated by what they felt to be a limited idea of national identity as defined by the audience of the American Repertory Theatre. Carey and Rauch felt that, despite its titular claims, this theatre’s mainly white, upper-middle-class audience did not represent the full diversity of America. Rauch, Carey, and other founding Cornerstone members decided that if they wanted to engage a truly diverse American theatre audience they needed to travel beyond the geographical and economic confines of East Coast regional theatres. Further discussion led to the insight that engaging an audience required working with them rather than merely performing for them. Carey comments, “if we were sincere in our desire to learn from people what makes good theatre, and whether theatre...