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In this interview, Leslie Tamaribuchi, managing director of Cornerstone Theater, offers a look at how the organization engages non-traditional participants in its productions.


Leslie, how do you begin the process of reaching out to new audience members?

Working with our ensemble and our board, we plan thematic projects that will take place over a two- to three-year period. Once our theme is determined, we go through a selection process in which we either choose specific communities or they ask us to work with them. For example, from 1997 to 1999, we created an initiative in which all productions involved diverse Los Angeles communities whose initials began with "BH" - from primarily Latino Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles to Beverly Hills!

What does it take to get communities involved?

We build relationships with the leaders of a wide range of local organizations in our targeted communities. Collaboration is our cornerstone. We want our support to be as diverse as possible...members of government agencies, nonprofit groups, religious and educational institutions-and arts organizations, if they exist. This multi-faceted group becomes our project advisory committee.

The important thing is that the committee members represent something of the complexity of the community we're working with. They help us to identify the different constituencies within the community as well as their key issues and concerns, and also help us determine how best to reach people. The committee also works with us on potential ideas for plays-most often, adaptations of classics but, occasionally, commissioned works.

What about "actors"? How do residents join a production?

While we are forming our committee, we are also building our core group of professionals, which includes the Cornerstone ensemble and several guest artists. Then we begin reaching out to residents who might want to join the production. To generate interest and excitement, we will generally hold community-wide theater workshops that double as auditions. These are held at several sites suggested by our committee, so that we can meet as many different people as possible.

We then cast the play and start a fairly traditional rehearsal process. About 80-90% of the cast is made up of non-professionals from the community. And there is no rule as to who gets the lead role. It's all up for grabs until we see who is participating. A lot of the art of our work-in terms of making the show the best it can be-is in the casting process. There are times when the play changes profoundly in terms of the people who participate. In fact, the lead might even change gender or age depending on who, we feel, is strong enough to carry the play during auditions!

The rehearsal process is also the play development process. It's a little about training but much more about finding the fit between the play and the people in the room. Rehearsals, which generally run about six to eight weeks, are held at school cafeterias, empty warehouses, community service halls, churches-even shopping malls. Usually, it's a site our advisory committee has helped us to find.

Residents aren't just serving as onstage performers, either. Many serve as assistants to our professional lighting, sound, costume designers, backstage crew or musicians. Every professional member of the production has between one to 12 community collaborators who work with them to get the play ready. While it is a mentoring and learning process, it's also very practical!

As Cornerstone moves more toward "bridging communities," what helps actors and crew to learn about each other?

In cases where we are bridging multiple communities, we build into the rehearsal process weekly dinners so people can get to know and understand each other's communities. Each dinner is hosted by a different cast member, who will select a favorite restaurant in his or her neighborhood. Some of the best insights into the art often stem from these informal gatherings.

How do you generate attention for and interest in productions in the community?

In addition to our marketing assistants, the advisory committee helps us raise visibility. This often involves traditional theater marketing as well as making sure that school, workplace and church colleagues of the actors and crew are alerted to the play.

The plays are all presented on a pay-what-you-can basis, and we are often helping with buses and other transportation. We usually run the shows for three to five weeks at a community venue, and the audience is usually composed of people from the immediate area as well as more traditional theater-goers who may be unfamiliar with neighborhood.

What happens after a project is finished?

We will generally sit down after a project and evaluate it with several layers of people, including the cast, crew, professional staff, and the advisory committee. This helps us assess not only how to do the work better in the future, but also how to continue the relationship after the play is over. Locally, this has taken the form of helping to establish local theater groups by providing equipment and professional advice or identifying people who want to work with future Cornerstone workshops and performances.

With out-of-town collaborations, we work to ensure that our host organization is finding ways to continue to interact with and support community residents who want to participate. For example, in the case of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., we encouraged the project advisory board to become an ongoing body to help them build diverse audiences.

What is your most important piece of advice to other groups that are trying to find ways to collaborate with their communities?

Look for that reciprocity in every relationship you build. We want to listen actively so we can fulfill the needs of our partners while staying true to our mission and artistic vision. Not every partnership is meant to be. From the outset, there has to be good dialogue about your goals and your partner's goals.

Also, expectations often change from the beginning of a project to the end. You and your partners must be flexible and willing to create along the way. The most important thing is to give and take enough so a relationship of trust can be built. Once that's there, many things are possible. Collaboration is as selfish a process as it is a generous one. We are very aware that one of the primary reasons we do it is to keep ourselves vital and invigorated as artists.