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COVER STORY : Theater for the Boonies : For five years, the Cornerstone Company has been bringing Shakespeare et al. to remote, rural communities; now it’s pushing west to settle in L.A.

<i> Peter Sagal is a writer and playwright living in Los Angeles</i>

The Walker River Indian Reservation is huge, the largest in Nevada, 36,000 acres as arid and empty as any foisted upon this continent’s native people. Schurz (pop. 850), the only town on the reservation, is disproportionately tiny, so small that at least two Nevada directory-assistance operators had never heard of it. If you’re blowing along Route 95 on a dark night, you’d miss the town entirely if it wasn’t for the sudden drop to a 25 m.p.h. limit. In just 300 yards you’ve punched through the middle of Schurz and are back to cruising speed. The place isn’t even big enough to be a respectable speed trap.

On a bright day in mid-July, a long-distance bus pulled off the highway, followed by a pair of trucks with trailers and an old Toyota. The Cornerstone Theater Company had arrived at the fourth stop of its first national tour, bringing its adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” subtitled “An Interstate Adventure,” to the Paiute Indians of Walker River. For two nights, Schurz would be the most vibrant theater town in western Nevada. Again.

Cornerstone first visited Schurz in 1988, then needing only one beat-up van to carry its members and equipment. A small, tightly knit group of theater artists, most of them recent graduates of Harvard, they had formed a company dedicated to bringing original theater to the smallest and most isolated of American communities. The company members--four actors, a designer, a composer, technicians and a director--lived in Schurz for four months. The result of their stay was “The House on Walker River,” an adaptation of Euripides’ “Oresteia” set on the Walker River Indian Reservation, performed in the town’s welding shop by a cast of mostly local people.

From there, Cornerstone went on to more “residencies,” performing adaptations of Chekhov in Montgomery, W. Va., Ibsen in Eastport, Me., Brecht in Long Creek, Ore., and Noel Coward in Marfa, Tex. In May, at the end of its fifth year, the company gathered together 40 actors and crew members from each of the dozen towns the group had lived and worked in and brought them to Kansas to rehearse its adapted, updated musical version of Shakespeare’s romance. Then, with corporate sponsorship, a new administrative staff and a budget that, at $750,000, is 10 times the one they had when they first worked in Schurz, the troupe members hit the road, beginning a 9,000-mile tour that would take them back to all their former residencies as well as the major East Coast cities.

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It might be called a farewell tour. Cornerstone has been celebrated again and again in the national media, from the New Yorker to “60 Minutes,” as if by rejecting mainstream professional theater it had struck a wistful chord among arts observers. But with this journey the company puts a cap on its achievements in rural America, because once the tour ends, Cornerstone heads for an even more daunting wilderness. After a year of deliberation, the company chose Los Angeles for its “urban residency.” The performers will try to bring their gifts to those urban communities that by virtue of race or language or culture are as isolated as the people of Schurz.

“We called a number of different people in different cities, and the people we talked to in Los Angeles were consistently more excited and more full of the sense of possibilities,” says Cornerstone’s artistic director and co-founder Bill Rauch. “Everyone else said, ‘No, we can’t get the funding, there’s no interest.’ ” (Los Angeles Festival artistic director Peter Sellars, whom Rauch once assisted at the National Theater in Washington, is a strong supporter of Cornerstone.) Current plans have the company moving to L.A. in January to begin a 30-month residency that will include three projects with different cultural communities--the first one most likely with Arab-Americans--and a fourth, mini-reunion show, in addition to a project produced on their own.

Rauch is not worried about the legendary stepchild status of theater in Los Angeles. “Where the hospitality really matters is in terms of the specific community we’re working with. If we excite people in the wider community, and get regular theatergoers to come down, great. But the original thrust will be what it’s been in the rural communities, which is to work with people who live in a specific community and create something for (them).”

Noon of the first day in Schurz: Rauch, 29, calls the company members together behind the bleachers they’ve set up in the parking lot of the Tribal Hall. The actors and crew arrive bleary-eyed from spare beds and couches all over town. Rauch has notes on the last performance, in Long Creek, three days earlier; he’s taken the time to write them on index cards, one for each actor.

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“My only goal is to keep ‘em down to one side of the card,” says cast member Ron Temple, looking at his densely penciled notes. Temple, 53, farms 4,000 acres of wheat near Norcatur, Kan. One day in 1987, he was running his combine when a young woman he’d never seen before approached and asked him to audition for a play. Two months later, he debuted as Orgon in Cornerstone’s adaptation of Moliere, “Tartoof, or an Impostor in Norcatur--and at Christmas!” Cornerstone then invited Temple to become a member of its board of directors, and he’s traveled with the troupe on fund-raising trips, describing the company’s effect on small towns like Norcatur. In “The Winter’s Tale,” he plays the Shepherd--adapted, with him in mind, to be the Farmer.

After handing out the cards, Rauch addresses the whole company. In the scene in which Hermione’s innocence is about to be revealed, people aren’t demonstrating the right degree of anticipation. He leads everyone in a breath-bating and eye-widening drill. Then, he announces a physical and vocal warm-up, three hours before the 7 p.m. curtain. There’s some grumbling--the cast of mostly non-professionals isn’t used to the rigor of the tour, and many of them can’t understand why they spend so much time preparing and so little time, it seems, actually performing.

Edret Brinston, 21, of Port Gibson, Miss., raises a hand. “Yes?” Rauch says. “Why do we have to warm up?” Brinston asks. (This kind of questioning is allowed, even encouraged--Cornerstone operates as a fervent democracy.) “Because the people who are responsible for how the show looks feel that a warm-up helps your performance, even if you don’t think so,” Rauch says. Brinston folds his arms and asks no more questions. Democracy only goes so far.

The tour has been tough: None of the performers, professional or amateur, had ever done this before. Money is short, as are tempers. The company has consistently had the misfortune of arriving in each locale just as another major event was occurring--no small coincidence when you consider how little happens in these towns. In Norcatur, the wheat harvest kept audiences away, and Long Creek was celebrating its centennial. The company had arrived in Schurz to discover that the annual Indian Powwow and Rodeo was starting up in Fallon, 40 miles away, on the night of its second performance. If the troupe wants to play for the Paiutes, tonight’s the night.

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The weather, though, becomes perverse. The local hosts assure the company that it never rains in Nevada in July, but as curtain time approaches, storm clouds gather overhead. The company has rehearsed an indoor show and has a venue ready in the Tribal Gym just a few hundred yards away. But the indoor show lacks some of the thrills of the outdoor version, such as actors making entrances and exits in pickup trucks. At 6:30 cast and crew begin to prepare to move into the gym, but at 7 the clouds look like they’re moving away, so stage manager Tim Banker announces that the show will be outside after all.

As the actors and crew reassemble the set in front of the bleachers, the tribal chairman, Anita Collins, arrives with her family, late and thankful for the delay. “I would have been here sooner,” she says, “but Grandpa went out to irrigate and he didn’t come back.” Collins, the de facto mayor of Schurz, administers the tribe as an autonomous entity, a “nation within a nation.”

She remembers Cornerstone’s first stay in Schurz with pleasure, although she acknowledges that it was difficult to interest members of her tribe in the project. “Theater isn’t the kind of thing we do,” she says. “It goes against our idea of nodzemi , which means humility, not showing off.” Cornerstone persisted, however, and when “The House on Walker River” opened, it featured some appropriate typecasting: Collins’ predecessor in the role of the Tribal Chief and the nurse at the medical clinic, Romi Voorhees, as the Nurse.

Like many people in Schurz, Collins credits Cornerstone with having a particularly beneficial effect on the young people on the reservation. “People just blossomed before our eyes,” she remembers. “Ramona Dewey--who knew she had such a beautiful voice?” Dewey, 19, is now a member of the touring company, as is nurse Voorhees.

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The show finally begins at 7:45. Cornerstone professional Peter Howard, in the role of Leontes Smith, Mayor of New Urban, has to shout above the growing wind; the microphones pop, crackle and fail. Lightning flashes on the hills rising above town, while crew members glance nervously at the tall supporting poles sticking up from the aluminum bleachers. Finally, just as Howard is about to condemn his innocent wife to death, Bill Rauch steps into the playing area and announces that they’ll continue the show inside.

With the audience helping, the major set pieces and props are moved inside in 15 minutes and the show does go on. However, by now it’s two hours behind schedule; there’s no lighting and no microphones, and the shouted lines are getting lost in the cavernous gym. A good chunk of the audience leaves at intermission, including Anita Collins and family. But the actors pull through to the end, receiving a warm ovation from the 60 or so people remaining in the audience. Exhausted by the five-hour marathon, everyone staggers home to bed. “It’s been tough,” says Ron Temple. “In North Dakota, we had a 120-car coal train go by when we were on stage.”

The next day, many of the Indians leave for the rodeo in Fallon. The National Weather Service prediction for the evening is more rain. The company, gathered again behind the bleachers, begins dismantling the lighting towers and carrying them inside.

The touring company of 50 ranges in age from 7 to 76; a collection of workers, teachers, farmers, drifters, parents and children. Some have left school, others have left jobs they might not get back when they return. Two of them have to place regular calls to probation officers. On this tour, however, they are equal: all paid the same salary ($200 a week) as the 13 young artists who form Cornerstone’s “permanent” membership.

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Edret Brinston might be the most famous of the tour’s community actors. In 1988, he was a senior track star at the all-black public high school in Port Gibson, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He tells the story, with practiced enjoyment, of how he heard that some people were holding auditions for a production of “Romeo and Juliet” and how he shouted out to them, joking, “Hey! Let me be Romeo!”

Cornerstone’s interracial version of the play, set in “Verona, Miss.,” caused a stir around the state and elsewhere; Brinston, who is black, was pictured with his white, Harvard-educated Juliet, Cornerstone actor Amy Brenneman, on the cover of American Theatre magazine, bringing Brinston a degree of fame he never anticipated outside an athletic field.

But the years since that success have gone poorly; he says he turned down a number of track scholarships so he could “just tool around Mississippi, trying to make money, (get) in with a lot of girls.” He fathered a child, broke with the mother (“She thinks I’m the doggiest”), moved in with another woman, worked in odd jobs. “I haven’t been much of a maintainer,” he says. Then Cornerstone found him in Jackson and offered him the role of Camillo, Leontes’ trusted counselor in “The Winter’s Tale.”

“I wanted to act again,” he says. “I have to act a lot in real life. I’m always smiling. Being with the show is a dream come true. This is a dream trip for me. Mt. Rushmore. Lake Tahoe. Who’d have thought I’d ever see Lake Tahoe?” After the tour, Brinston plans to go to Milwaukee to see his father, whom he met for the first time only a year ago, and then, perhaps, to New York to look for an agent.

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Rod Prichard, 30, of Marmath, N.D., played Laertes in “The Marmath Hamlet,” Cornerstone’s first rural residency, in 1986. A self-described “onetime heavy drinker,” he says he sobered up for that show. “I stayed sober too, and afterward went to Sioux City, worked in a packing house,” he says. “Then I got injured and started drinking again, taking handfuls of Valium. And all this time, I was still getting stuff from Cornerstone in the mail.”

When the call came to invite him on the tour, Prichard was in a bar back in Marmath, “getting hammered.”

“The phone rang; it was Bill Rauch. He invited me on the tour. I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘There’s no drinking on the tour.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ I hung up, and the sheriff came 30 minutes later to put me in a 40-day dry-out. I got out two days before rehearsals started in Kansas.” Prichard, who plays Florizel in the show, and says he has not had a drink since rehearsals began, also plans to become a professional actor after the tour.

For others on the tour, the lives left behind were more prosperous. Johnny Bain of Dinwiddie County, Va., had to close down a successful real estate business for the summer. Merry Desmond, a teacher who had worked on a Cornerstone show in Miami with AIDS patients who were her students, found herself becoming desperate for the urban amenities she had at home. “I went to Tahoe the other day to have lunch,” she admitted. “I had an Absolut gimlet, radicchio and endive, with balsamic vinaigrette. It was fantastic.”

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But all of them made sacrifices to come, postponing or canceling five months of their regular lives. Desmond, a single mother, has brought her 7-year-old daughter, Celina, along at Cornerstone’s invitation; she plays a majorette in the show.

None of the company members could imagine refusing the chance to go “on tour,” which in their conversations sounds less like a summer job than a higher state of being. For the duration of the tour, they are travelers, actors, entertainers, honored guests, artists. They are taking part in something they sincerely insist is larger than themselves. “Of course,” says Temple, who’s missing most of his wheat harvest, “if anybody but Bill Rauch had asked me to do this, I would have told ‘em where to go.”

Rauch co-founded the company with Alison Carey in 1986. As they tell the story, when they were fresh out of Harvard, Rauch, Carey and the other future members of Cornerstone found themselves baffled by the concept of “the American theater.” As “children of the suburbs,” in Carey’s phrase, they thought they didn’t know what America was, and they didn’t believe that the urban professional theater could speak to the mass of the people who live in this country. Not being able to find a credible American theater, they set out to invent one.

One of the keys to Cornerstone’s success is Rauch’s direction of the plays, which in his vision should never condescend to the audience or the non-professional casts. He specializes in imaginative, kinetic stagings--Cornerstone plays never stop moving--and a respectful use of local talent and language. The “interstate adventure,” he says, was a basic part of Cornerstone’s thinking from the beginning.

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“We’ve been planning this tour since (Cornerstone was) 3 months old,” he says. “As soon as we started meeting these people, the possibility of bringing them together was the obvious thing to do.”

Actor Christopher Moore, 27, one of the company’s founding members, says: “We were in Marmath, doing ‘Hamlet,’ thinking it would be sad if it were a one-shot deal. If this were the only time we could work with some like Rod Prichard. . . . Some of the grant people we talk to accuse us of being a one-shot ‘cultural vaccine'--that’s not how we see ourselves at all. So we asked ourselves, ‘How can we keep up the contact? How do we make Cornerstone and theater a continuing part of these people’s lives?’ ”

“One of the great things about this,” Moore says, “is that the people here are really part of the Cornerstone mythology--Rod and Edret and Jessica Carrasco from Marfa. When we were putting the tour together, we wondered: ‘Would Jessica’s father let her come? Would Wanda Daniels’ boss in the restaurant in West Virginia give her the summer off?’ When they finally met in Kansas for the rehearsal period, I’m sure to them it was just meeting people from different parts of the country. But for me, it was the clash of the titans.”

Bringing these myths together was not easy. In one case, production manager Benajah Cobb spent every day off during the rehearsal period in Norcatur trying to persuade a bureaucrat in Kansas’ parole system to let the company’s crew head, a 21-year-old who had gotten drunk and stolen some cars, come along on the tour. “She thought it would be rewarding him,” says Carey, who is married to Cobb. “She said he had to serve his debt to society.” Cobb got positive testimonials from the judge and from the owners of the cars, and finally, two days before the tour pulled out of town, the crew head got his clearance. The young man has proved indispensable to the company, Carey says, and has become engaged to one of the actresses.

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The second and final performance in Schurz: This time, the company is ready for the rain. A surprisingly large house fills the bleachers in the gym--many of the people from the surrounding towns who saw “The House on Walker River” have come back to show their support. Before the show, a check for $150, donated by two local casinos, is presented to the company; everyone applauds.

As another storm falls on the empty bleachers outside, Cornerstone’s “Winter’s Tale” unfolds with full lighting and amplification in the gym. This time, the show comes through. In Shakespeare’s play, Leontes, the ruler of a mythical kingdom, wrongfully accuses his wife, Hermione, of adultery with another prince. Rauch and the company have transposed the play to an American idiom, making it a tale of an archetypal city and town, with characters based in many cases on the lives of the actors themselves. Hermione becomes a coal miner’s daughter because that’s what actress Wanda Daniels is--thankfully, her boss at the restaurant did give her the summer off.

Rod Prichard makes a stalwart and brave Florizel; Edret Brinston’s Camillo, now press aide to Leontes, dances a mean hip-hop but carries an edge of sadness and grace. Composer David Reiffel’s 16 original songs are the highlight of the show--a production number late in the second act, in which the whole cast sings of the difficulty of finding and going home, brings tears to some in the audience and in the cast.

Shakespeare’s rogue Autolycus has become Panasonic, a singing con man with a love for gadgets, played by the acrobatic Moore. A scene set at a “Fourth of July Potluck"--a sheep-shearing festival in the original--calls for entertainment from the locals, so Ingrid Keady of Schurz gets up and sings “Home Means Nevada” while the rest of the audience is invited down to eat cookies.

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Once all the identities and romances are sorted out, the play rejoins Leontes as he is brought to view a statue of Hermione, who supposedly died years before. The crate is opened, and Daniels is revealed, absolutely still. Alison Carey, as Paulina, cries, “You must awaken your faith,” a line that has become a mantra among this company, and to chords of music Daniels, a waitress no more, breaks her stillness and walks toward Peter Howard, kissing him deeply. (“Bill said I could either kiss him or hit him,” she says later. “And if I didn’t kiss him like I meant it, I might as well hit him.”)

The show’s a smash and everyone--cast, crew and audience--is flush with pleasure afterward. Shane Young, 21, and his wife of one year, Jennifer, 18, happened to see a sign touting the show along the highway and are glad they came. Jennifer (who wears a T-shirt for the rock band Great White featuring a naked woman on a fishhook) says this version of the play was better than one she saw on videotape in high school. Shane thinks that the play compares favorably with the big musicals he’s seen in Las Vegas.

Everyone heads for home, trying not to dwell on the next day’s chore of striking and packing. The company then gets a day in Las Vegas, and then it’s on to Marfa (near Big Bend in West Texas), for the next gig. Jessica Carrasco, 19, who starred in Cornerstone’s “That Marfa Fever” four years ago, is the only member of the company who will be impatient to leave Las Vegas. “I’m really excited to see my family, to see my Dad, to tell him: ‘There’s a whole country out there!’ ”

Eight more weeks and nine more stops in the tour, and then this unique company will disperse. Wanda Daniels will get home on a Thursday, get married over the weekend and be back at work at the restaurant on Monday. Cornerstone, shrunk again to its 13 permanent members, will go on hiatus in preparation for its move to Los Angeles. (Rauch had been scheduled to direct Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in the fall, but that production was canceled because of budgetary reasons, according to LATC.)

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For the past year, the company members had been looking for a city to make their permanent home. They say that the rural work had run its course, that they have become tired of traveling, of living out of suitcases as perennial guests. They want to continue their work, but most are now approaching the age of 30 or have passed it, and they also want homes of their own, as well as opportunities to work as actors and artists outside Cornerstone.

“Having a permanent home will help the work,” Rauch says. “It will be great to not have to spend so much time surviving, setting up an office and home wherever we go.”

“Wherever we’ve been,” says Christopher Moore, “people have always said, ‘No, it won’t work, people aren’t interested in theater, it’s not going to happen.’ And it’s always happened. Maybe I’m naive to think of L.A. as just another community, but I’m a member of the Cornerstone cult. I believe that if you put the art in the hands of the people who live where you’re doing it, of course they’re going to come see it, because it means something.”

They’re a hit in Schurz and probably will be again in most of the stops along the way. The members of Cornerstone are acutely aware, however, that working amid the distractions and pressures of Los Angeles will be a different proposition. Inevitably, the company will change, and some of them admit to being as terrified as they are excited about the move. But then again, this is a theater company that’s accustomed to adversity.

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“We’ve dealt with harvesting and ranching and all those kinds of things,” Moore says. “Now people will be late for rehearsal not because they had to milk the cow but because they got stuck in gridlock.”


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