Founding Visions: Cornerstone Theater Updates the Classics

Cornerstone's California: The Tempest

This is the fourth of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theatre history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.

Today’s essay is by Sean Preston, who read an early Cornerstone Theater newsletter, in which they described their challenges and triumphs. This is from the years when Cornerstone was still touring the country adapting classics to local audiences through residencies. It is a charming essay, filled with the glow of youthful enthusiasm. As always, I hope you will provide feedback for the student, who will benefit from knowing alternative viewpoints. — Scott Walters

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Like many people, I got my first taste of real theater with the classics. You know, those shows that are done every year or so, no matter how many times everyone has seen them. Now don’t get me wrong: I love seeing a good production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or seeing the Stanley yell “Stella!” at the top of his lungs in yet another production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but at some point these classics that the theater community clings to need to be shaken up and given a new spin. I’m tired of knowing that every time I go to see a Shakespearean show I have nothing new to look forward to. The characters are always the same, the dialogue is the same out-of-date Renaissance English that we have all taught ourselves to understand. I can’t help but feel we can make these shows better.

Actually, I know we can make these shows better because it has been done — and done successfully — by the Cornerstone Theater Company for decades. This theater prides itself on the fact that it creates only original shows or adaptions of classic shows. Some of these include a wild west Hamlet in North Dakota, an interracial Romeo and Juliet in Mississippi and also California: The Tempest. In these shows, the company adapted characters, modernized references, added in songs and dances and did whatever else was necessary to make the show accessible to the people of the area in which they were playing.

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That last line is the important part: making it accessible to the local audience. To be able to revitalize a classic show, the first step is to know your audience and to know your community. Every community has its defining locations, people, rivalries and experiences that make it different from any other place in the world. With so many different places to draw experience from it baffles me that many communities would rather redo old ideas instead of creating something new. So why don’t we?

Cornerstone's 1989 production of Romeo and Juliet
Cornerstone’s 1989 production of Romeo and Juliet

The simple answer is that the theater community by and large has gotten lazy and scared. We are lazy, since we forego the work to make pieces unique and would instead just change the setting or worse just flat out copy the film or Broadway’s rendition of the original. We are scared because we fear financial failure. Many theaters choose their shows based on what they believe people will come see, but it has been shown that by choosing shows that the community can directly relate to you will garner larger audiences and more revenue. This makes me think that the only reason theaters don’t make this jump towards a newer, more innovative theater isn’t due to financial reasons, but due to a feeling of safety that has been brought about by the continuous repetition of classic shows.

As artists, we are challenged to create and change the environments around us. This trend of doing the same show the same way or using the visions of others to create the show is not becoming of our population and shows a halfhearted interest. When I go to the theater I want to be amazed, I want to relate to what is happening on stage and most of all I want to never leave a show feeling like I have seen this same thing before. For us to create that environment we have to band together and start re-inventing our own ways of thinking and making that leap into a more living breathing theater.

Sean Preston is a junior majoring in Drama. He is particularly interested in design, and is working as a research assistant for an author writing a book on Santo Loquasto.