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Bill Rauch, co-founder/artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company
In this interview, Bill Rauch, co-founder/artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company, discusses the organization's mission and how art has made bringing together diverse communities possible.
What is Cornerstone's mission?
Cornerstone Theater helps to build bridges between and within diverse communities, both in our home city of Los Angeles and around the nation. We're driven by a need to make a direct connection with our audiences and believe society can flourish only when its members know and respect one another. We believe that we have a responsibility to make theater in this spirit and that everyone is an artist - which is why our work often includes first-time community collaborators alongside experienced professionals.
How did the philosophy of reaching non-traditional audiences evolve?
When Cornerstone was first established, all of the founding members were driven by a real hunger to reach audiences that have historically not attended theater. Knowing that 98 percent of the population didn't regularly attend theatre was a huge motivator for us. So, Cornerstone literally hit the road, targeting rural areas. We wanted to go where the arts weren't.
How do you measure the success of Cornerstone's efforts in a community?
In the past, I used to measure Cornerstone's success by the number of plays that a "Cornerstone community" did after we moved on. I thought that if we had influenced a certain area to launch its own community theater, then we'd done what we set out to do. But after we did Romeo and Juliet in Port Gibson, Mississippi, I realized that I had to change my "yardstick." The play itself was based on the classic story and included an interracial cast. Artistically, it was a great success: it got national press, it was a really big deal. But they only put on one adult interracial play after we left. I thought to myself, "we failed." But some time later we went back with another tour, and I remember being pulled aside by a group of some of the local cast members from Romeo and Juliet. It turned out that Port Gibson had been selected to be a Main Street USA town which would provide them with federal funding toward revitalizing their main street area. Many of them served as local board members for the Main Street project, and evidently they had just been honored by Main Street USA for being the most racially integrated board in the Main Street program.
So the experience with Romeo and Juliet played a role on a different level in the community?
Exactly. They had all met and learned to work together during the play, which translated to their working together in the community. The work we do can be a very complicated process, but I've learned to trust it. Over the years we've gathered many stories of how this process has affected both individuals and communities. I've learned that it really can be a tool for positive change.
Why does Cornerstone select classical plays?
It's true-we do tend to focus on classical plays more than others. But we've also done locally written original plays and oral history plays. We really enjoy the classics, though, and find that they make for successful collaborations.
Why is that?
A classical play provides the structure of a pre-existing story, so it creates more of a level playing field between the members of the community and the professional actors. It allows for greater collaboration to adapt an old drama to contemporary realities. It means everyone involved has vital information to share.
What was the most memorable part of working on the "Steelbound" project?
When I first heard from Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, about their interest in doing an adaptation of "Prometheus Bound" as part of their Steel Festival, I got really excited. I knew it was a chance to be involved in something that would make a lasting impact on the community. We've done this kind of work for 14 years, but that was the most emotionally wrenching project I've ever been involved with. The people in that community were totally fearless in terms of sharing themselves and their experiences. To the day I die, I'll feel privileged to have been a part of that project.