Cornerstone Theatre Company does not believe in art for art's sake. Nor, for that matter, do they believe in merely putting on plays. At least not in the marbled-restroom, big-ticket-opulent sense of, say, the way the Taper puts on plays.
Rather, Cornerstone believes in art as a means of social change. And their shows are as likely to turn up in a conventional theater as they are in an old cattle barn (an adaptation of The Good Person of Setzuan), on the roof of a partially demolished cathedral (Crossings), behind prison bars (For All Time), or on the banks of the L.A. River (Touch the Water).
Nor does the company believe in doing disconnected productions of discrete works. Cornerstone produces epic, multi-year play cycles with heavy-lifting titles that seem drawn from a textbook on political philosophy. Their five-play Justice Cycle ran from 2007 through 2010, and their current Hunger Cycle launched last spring with Café Vida and Seed: a Weird Act of Faith.
The third show of the cycle, Lunch Lady Courage, opens tomorrow night at the Cocoanut Grove Theater on the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus. L.A. Weekly recently sat down with its author, playwright Peter Howard, at downtown's Pie Hole, where the writer spoke about Cornerstone's philosophy and his own experience of collaborating with Los Angeles high school students and food service workers to create the play.
Howard's history with Cornerstone dates back to its founding in 1986 by a group of friends and recent undergrads who had been doing extracurricular shows at Harvard and wanted to continue working with their guru, Cornerstone's Founding Artistic Director Bill Rauch.
“[We] wondered about the relevance and value of this art form we loved,” Howard recalls, “to people who were not living in major urban areas and going to elite colleges and had habitual theatergoing on their minds. So we set out on this adventure to test and to explore some of our favorite plays in communities that we perceived as perhaps having less access to live theater.”
What followed was a five-year road trip in which the collective traveled to rural communities around the country, devising large-scale community events in small towns out of classic play adaptations that addressed the concerns and interests and incorporated the talents of the people they met along the way. What in today's nonprofit foundation nomenclature is called community-based, community-engaged professional theater.
By 1992, however, as the members were approaching 30 and were feeling the pressure to root themselves in a more stable home life and the security of actual day jobs, the company decided to settle permanently in L.A., where they have been making socially-engaged, community-based theater ever since.
Like all of Cornerstone's artistic-programming decisions, Lunch Lady Courage was a consensus by the ensemble that emerged from two years of group discussions on the general theme of hunger. “Our process is very much playwright-led,” Howard says, “so the curiosity of the writers that we have engaged leads our enquiry into defining community.”
Thus, last year's Café Vida began with the idea that there had to be a restaurant play, which led to a collaboration with the downtown L.A. restaurant run by Homeboys Industry, which was then shaped into a finished play text by its guiding playwright Lisa Loomer.
Likewise, Howard says that Lunch Lady Courage's school-food setting grew out of the group's agreement that the Hunger Plays had to include an institutional food piece. “You know, large, mass distribution of meals. How does that work? What does that say about our values? … What's happening in public schools is among the most compelling social justice incubators and questions of our time, and I find it both terribly scary and incredibly exciting — the idea of exploring … the connection between food and learning and what that says about our values as voters, as legislators and as parents in a society.”
Howard describes the play that resulted as something of a take on Brecht's Mother Courage. “It is very much a response to Mother Courage quite explicitly,” he states. “In fact, one of the big threads of the play is that of a young man encountering this play text for the first time. So the family is the central structure of the play. A working woman with three young adult children in a time of conflict and crisis, moving forward and trying to survive, a woman who feeds — all of that is very present in this contemporary story which unfolds in a fictional urban high school.”
The play's high school may be fictional, but the story stuff that comprises it is anything but. Howard spent the better part of a year traveling to various high schools throughout the LAUSD, speaking to both students as well as food service professionals. Eventually, that brought him to Cornerstone's producing partner, the Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA), one of the five high schools that share the sprawling RFK Community Schools campus on the former site of the old Ambassador Hotel.
At LAHSA, Howard worked directly with students in a series of story-based workshops. “I'm asking about their lives,” he remembers, “their student lives. I'm asking them to write for me. I'm asking them to do improv stuff and I'm also reading sections of Mother Courage.” Brecht was not only a key touchstone during the process, but for Howard it was also a very personal choice. It was his own discovery of Brecht as a high school student that helped steer the budding writer into a theater career.
The German playwright must have struck a similar chord with the LAHSA students, since participating in the writing-improv workshops and then as actors in the subsequent rehearsals required them to stay on after school each day till 7 p.m.
And while director Chris Anthony's staging isn't strictly Brechtian, Lunch Lady Courage's Mother Courage origins are very much present in the production. Apart from the play's story arc, “there is a direct-address mentality,” Howard says, “a kind of straight-up storytelling that comes out in the play sometimes. But I think more than anything [is a portrayal of] the human struggle that he captures so ambiguously and with such complexity. That in spite of the play's title, whether this woman is courageous is one of the central questions that you have to [answer] if you're [seeing] it.”
Lunch Lady Courage runs at the Cocoanut Grove Theater through April 13.