By Sonja Arsham Kuftinec
Bill Rauch’s inspiring ATHE keynote dwelled with the conference theme of transitions. He spoke on the cusp of a move from Ashland, where he had spent twelve years as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), on his way to helm the new Perelman Performing Arts Center, under construction at the World Trade Center adjacent to where the Twin Towers once stood. Rauch movingly reflected on his time with OSF and on the company he cofounded in the 1980s, Cornerstone, as well looking ahead toward his new position.
Invited to respond to this keynote, I in turn looked back on my relationship with Bill Rauch, which has spanned over twenty-five years. I reviewed the book and myriad articles I had written about Rauch’s always collaborative work, as well as our published interviews and conversations. I combed through this archive with a dramaturgical eye, seeking the themes developed and keynotes struck by our relationship as artist and scholar. While I noted shifts over time, a core value of what David Román has termed “critical generosity” sustained the relationship,1enabling us to stay in conversation around the vexed dynamics of community and inclusion.
I initially explored this conundrum of “community” through my first published article—in Theatre Topics—composed with the aid of an ATHE mentorship program. “A Cornerstone for Rethinking Community Theatre” (1996) launched an analysis of the company’s work by thinking through the terms of “community” as a realm of exclusion as well as inclusion. The article read Cornerstone through an ethnographic lens, as manifesting community meanings through social and symbolic systems. (As I write this, I imagine Bill’s cautionary note in my ear on the obfuscation of academic language.) I argued that while Cornerstone’s production process animated communal networks and public spaces, staged collectively generated narratives, and often prompted interpersonal and social reconciliations, productions could also elide contradictions and complexities. I still note Bill’s propensity to end shows with hopeful full-ensemble choreography, and he still responds about the necessity of that hope. And both of us have moved the other.
Another recurrent theme emerged around doubleness and dialectics—particularly when Cornerstone worked with Brecht or when OSF’s repertory productions conversed with one another across stages. I wrote of “Cornerstone’s Community Chalk Circle” produced in 1995 with the Watts Labor Community Action Council (WLCAC) in Los Angeles, and of “Staging the City with the Good People of New Haven,” an adaptation of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan coproduced with the Long Wharf Theatre in 2000—both of which Rauch directed. Lynn Manning’s earthy adaptation in Watts drew attention to ethnic stereotypes as well as the ways that social circumstances defined characters. In Central Ave. Chalk Circle, black janitor Gertha Gibson (Grusha in Brecht’s original) escapes from police officers Superior and ButtKiss by playing into their stereotypes. “I thought I left some grits on the stove. I ran back to check (gesturing to Latina character) Right? Uh, Maria? (to Officer Superior) You know how we love our grits.” I also noted how Cornerstone ensemble member Lynn Jeffries’s design defamiliarized and illuminated. A world marked by paper and cardboard in the first act (narrated by the artist Azdak) shifted to one defined by janitorial iconography in the second act (narrated by Gertha). Both choices drew attention to the symbolic constructions of power: the clothing of the rich was made of tissue; the judge’s robe of garbage bags. And I still viscerally recall the moment that background wall units opened to reveal the WLCAC Warehouse setting as a police van drove downstage, its realism heightened by the stylized design worlds. I also recall the intense conversations Bill and I would have about the intersection of Cornerstone’s artistic and social impacts, which seemed moot when Central Ave. Chalk Circle won LA’s Ovation Award for best production.
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Bill Rauch delivering the keynote address at the 2019 ATHE conference.
Conversations with Bill continued as I immersed myself in archives, interviews, and rehearsals of The Good Person of New Haven. I pondered the dynamics of “goodness” and the tensions of representing the New Haven community to Long Wharf’s out-of-town subscriber base. I wondered about the double role of the engaged critic who also makes community-based performance. As a scholar, I felt called upon to question and contextualize. As a practitioner oriented toward critical generosity, I shared my less cynical responses to evoke what New Haven community actor Brian Olivieri referred to as “the beauty and dignity and passion” of the process, as well as its gaps and contradictions (qtd. in Collins-Hughes F7.)
While these articles and my reviews of OSF seasons emerged from (and often inspired) exchanges with Bill, we occasionally archived the conversations themselves. In 2003, we spoke together at the University of Minnesota on the topic of the “Artist and Scholar in Conversation” (later published in Theater). In 2011, we publicly conversed following Bill’s keynote at the Mid-American Theatre Conference. At this later convening, Bill spoke of several Cornerstone principles such as inclusion, noting that I had been getting him to look harder at that word. He also spoke of the impact of our dialogue: “I think differently about the work that I do because of questions that you ask me” (“Keeping Company”).
At the same time, I pushed against the smoothness of certain repeated Cornerstone anecdotes. I poked at the parts of stories left out (success stories that omitted jail time; the staff and community members who left or didn’t make it through a tour). And Bill in turn worried about the stories he no longer remembers to question. We spoke of the hard moments where intolerance could no longer be tolerated and the values of productive dissent and rupture. We grappled with the complexity of audience development, Bill acknowledging that “[t]here are times that I walk into a show [at OSF] and I feel like my lungs are collapsing a little bit by the lack of diversity” (“Keeping Company”). Although we also spoke of then OSF staff member Freda Casillas’s extraordinary audience development manifesto. Over a year, Casillas worked with OSF leadership to develop a statement around audience diversity and inclusion. As Bill noted in our MATC conversation, “It’s a document that’s used to help hold my feet to the fire, which I love. Even when I hate it, I love it.”
Outside of those conversations with Bill, I had others that further deepened the dynamics of audience development. At the 2013 ATHE conference I co-organized, keynote speaker Luis Alfaro spoke of his work at OSF encouraging Latinx audiences to attend the theatre via off-campus conversations in laundromats and an on-campus taco truck. Director and Penumbra Theatre founding artistic director Lou Bellamy spoke with me and Stephanie Lein Walseth of the potentials and pitfalls of partnering with OSF: whether a predominantly white institution was willing to accept an African American theatre’s role as expert. Speaking of Rauch, Bellamy observed, “He’s got an egalitarian sense of social justice, [but] he is still wielding the big stick in this collaboration. These institutions are equal in value, but not necessarily in money or amount of work” (“Eyes Wide Open”). OSF has intentionally shifted a number of representational dynamics over the course of Rauch’s tenure as artistic director. Designers, directors, and leadership have shifted to include a wider array of women and artists of color. And as Rauch notes in his ATHE keynote, OSF’s acting company transformed from 22 percent actors of color in 2007 to over 70 percent actors of color today. At the same time, the company has been careful to assess whether they are the best theatre for some culturally specific work, given their still predominantly white (and fiercely loyal) audience base.
In writing of Bill’s artistry with Cornerstone and OSF, I frequently draw upon the notion of colliding truths—an idea that the ATHE keynote picks up on in Bill’s invitation to “embrace the hard conversations,” as well as his citation of Robbie McCauley’s call to make art that can “house the contradictions.” In navigating these conversations and collisions, Bill insists on the continuous activation of community. This activation includes individual conversations with OSF’s acting company, personal emails to disgruntled audience members ranting about the perils of inclusion, even taking reviewers to lunch to discuss their critiques. (Backstage West editor Rob Kendt ended up in a Cornerstone production after such a lunch.) In conversation with Bill Rauch for over twenty-five years, I have learned to hold complexities with him as well as to navigate my own blind spots. Input from others in Cornerstone, Watts, New Haven, and Ashland has also kept me humble about the limits of my knowledge and alive to the impact of theatre on individuals and audiences.
I am still in conversation with Bill and with the companies he has kept and will hold. I am in the midst of reviewing his final OSF season. Bill and I are co-writing an article on rethinking canons for a forthcoming anthology. I am looking ahead to the art anticipated to occur in the midst of World Trade.
I was writing my book on Cornerstone when the Twin Towers fell; I wrote of the moment in its preface. Of how the country at first seemed united in horror and grief—I heard of a college student who drove all night from Boston to New York just to “give water to firefighters, lift rocks, anything” (Staging America xv). But more complex and difficult stories emerged from the youth I worked with at Seeds of Peace, an organization that advocates coexistence among Middle East teens.
At the center of World Trade, there is both the opportunity for dynamic exchange that reckons with the ghosts of violent dissension, and a wrestling with the hauntings of capitalism that that structure trade.
I imagine that Bill’s curation and direction at the Perelman Center will continue to house these contradictions, to hold the hard conversations, to offer us moments when we look down, look inside, then look up again. I recall the scene concluding Long Bridge Over Deep Waters, Cornerstone’s 2005 faith-based bridge show that brought together a cast of over fifty actors from multiple communities of faith in LA (Islamic, Christian, GLBTQ inclusive, and so on). At the show’s finale, the cast took the stage against the starlit night. The words sustain across the bridge of time archived in James Still’s evocative script:
I am Chinese Christian.I am a mystic and a Jew.I’m a Jew too! But I played a Christian.(Jonathan) I was raised a Catholic boy.(Stephanie) So was I.I am a born-again Hindu.I am an ardent atheist.I am cosmic dust.
Materializations of cosmic dust, we all house such an array of contradictions. When we are critical and generous with one another, as Bill Rauch has modeled in his artistry and conversations, we also house the possibilities of crafting moments and movements that sustain us.
1. Román cited the term “critical generosity” in a 2003 convening at the University of Minnesota later published in Theater magazine: “I thought the critic had a responsibility to be incredibly generous to the generosity that was already being produced by the artist . . . that it was okay to explore what the work meant to me, the kind of feelings it produced, the energies that were being created in the room, the kinds of investments people brought to the space . . . [at the same time] the scholar who participates in these worlds always needs to be careful of being reduced to a mere publicist for the work, undermining his or her critical capacities” (Kuftinec 2003a, 121–22).
Central Ave. Chalk Circle. By Lynn Manning, adapted from Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht (trans. Eric Bentley), produced by Cornerstone Theatre Company, directed by Bill Rauch. Watts, California. 1995. Performance.
Collins-Hughes, Laura. “Idealism in Action.” New Haven Register. 7 May 2000, F2–7. Print.
Kuftinec, Sonja Arsham. “A Cornerstone for Rethinking Community Theatre.” Theater Topics 6.1 (1996): 91–104. Print.
———. “Cornerstone’s Community Chalk Circle.” The Brecht Yearbook 22 (1997): 239–51. Print.
———. “Staging the City with the Good People of New Haven.” Theatre Journal 58.2 (2001): 197–222. Print.
———, with Tim Miller, Bill Rauch, and David Román. “Critical Relations: The Artist and Scholar in Conversation.” Theater 33.3 (2003a): 119–31. Print.
———. Staging America: Cornerstone and Community-Based Theater. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 2003b. Print.
———. “Gay Muslims and Salty Meat Pies: The Limits of Performing Community.” Political Performances. Ed. Avi Oz and Susan Haedicke. London: Rodopi P, 2009. 349–70. Print.
———, with Stephanie Lien Walseth and Lou Bellamy. “Eyes Wide Open: The Potentials (and Pitfalls) of Partnership.” HowlRound. 14 July 2015. Web.
———, and Bill Rauch. “Keeping Company with Bill Rauch: 2011 MATC Keynote Interview, Minneapolis.” Theatre/Practice: The Online Journal of the Practice/Production Symposium of the Mid-America Theatre Conference 5. 2016. Web.
Long Bridge Over Deep Waters. By James Still, produced by Cornerstone Theatre Company, directed by Bill Rauch. Los Angeles. 2005. Performance.