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How Face-to-Face Art Changes Lives: Cornerstone's Bill Rauch testifies before Congress

On April 14, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee held a public hearing that included the issue of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. TCG asked Bill Rauch, co-founder and artistic director of Cornerstone Theatre Company, the Los Angeles-based ensemble that builds bridges between diverse communities throughout the nation, to testify. Rauch was a member of the TCG board of directors from 1992 until 1998; he has served as a panelist for the NEA as well as the California Arts Council. What follows is Rauch's entire testimony.

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee. I am honored to have this opportunity to testify in support of the National Endowment for the Arts on behalf of Theatre Communications Group and the American Arts Alliance. My name is Bill Rauch, and I run a small theatre company called Cornerstone which works in Los Angeles, and across the nation. By bringing together people face to face to create community-based theatre, we build bridges across differences of racial, economic and religious backgrounds.

Back in 1986 when I co-founded Cornerstone, all 11 of the founding members shared a frustration with who theatre audiences were — or, more to the point, who they weren't. We had a hunch that in the process of creating work for audiences who didn't normally go to theatre, we would not only build a larger, more populist arts audience, but that we in turn would become better artists. In order to make the exchange as deep as possible, we developed the idea that is still at the heart of Cornerstone's community collaborations 13 years later: to put community-based artists onstage and backstage alongside the company's professionals and create a play that is set in — that both examines and celebrates — the community we're working with; and to offer all performances on a pay-what-you-can basis, and donate back part of the proceeds so the community can keep on doing theatre. We started out by selecting communities which were isolated by sheer geography — small towns. Real small. And from Maine to Florida, from Nevada to West Virginia, we've learned first hand about the power of the arts to change lives.

Edret Brinston was a high school track star in Port Gibson, Miss., a town of 2,000 along the Mississippi River. Edret had failed his state literacy test twice; that spring he would receive a certificate of attendance but not a diploma. To the horror of some community residents, we cast this young man as Romeo in our bi-racial production of Romeo and Juliet. But we had no choice; he was the best actor. And we really do believe in the words of our mission statement: that everyone is an artist. Of course, Edret went on to learn his lines faster than anyone else, was a brilliant Romeo, and, with renewed confidence, he passed the state literacy test on his third try and graduated from high school.

Ron Temple is the largest grain farmer in the tiny farming community of Norcatur, Kan. — largest in every sense of the word, since he stands six feet nine inches tall. Ron had never been in a play before, but we cast him in the leading role in a Molière comedy. He turned his farm over to his sons-in-law and spent 12 hours a day rehearsing and memorizing his lines. Ron teases me that I ruined his life, because after his triumphant stage debut, he went on to found, in a town of 220, the Norcatur Arts and Humanities Commission, which in turn has inspired the founding of five other community theatres in neighboring towns. In fact, 19 of 20 communities Cornerstone has worked with have gone on to found community-based theatres. Ron has directed up to three shows a year, testified to the state senate on the importance of rural arts, and served on Cornerstone's board. Norcatur is now known in local tourism brochures for its "theatre and culture."

I've also seen firsthand the power of theatre to change the lives of entire families. In 1994, we cast a young girl named Stephanie Escobar in a Latino neighborhood within the L.A. community of Watts. Stephanie's mom hung out during rehearsals and before long she was made the assistant stage manager. A few months later we produced our second play in Watts. Not only did Mom again serve as assistant stage manager, but this time both daughters were on the crew, and teenage son Andrew ran the sound board. In our culminating production in Watts, we quickly signed up Mom and all three kids, but this time the Escobar father decided he had missed out on a good thing. An accomplished percussionist as well as a bus driver by day, Mr. Escobar provided the beat for the show's band and proudly told us that theatre was the first activity that his whole family could participate in together. The Escobar family are all part of the newly founded Watts Village Theatre Company, and Andrew has decided to pursue a career as a sound designer.

Without the support of the NEA, Cornerstone would not have been able to transform the lives of these and tens of thousands of other ordinary citizens in both rural and inner-city communities across the country. It works not only because of the people we're reaching, but because I am a part of an ensemble of some of the most gifted theatre artists in the U.S., creating work of the highest artistic excellence. We are proud to be part of the spectrum of federally supported arts programs that span our culture's largest and oldest institutions to grassroots, community-based companies such as Cornerstone. On behalf of the millions of people that we and arts organizations like us have yet to reach in the years to come, I urge you to support the fullest possible funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Thank you.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group.

Original CAN/API publication: September 1999


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