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Vocal Locals 

Jason in Eureka, the Great Depression and Friends in Blue Lake

Bug fight from The Only Friends We Have.  Photo courtesy of Under the Table.
  • Bug fight from The Only Friends We Have. Photo courtesy of Under the Table.

Cornerstone Theater generated some high-wattage alums: movie and TV star Amy Brenneman was a founding member of its acting ensemble, and Bill Rauch, its founding artistic director in 1986, now runs the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But Cornerstone became legendary for its collaborations with local communities on grassroots productions in North Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, West Virginia and elsewhere, accomplished mostly in its first five years. Now headquartered in Los Angeles and exploring other definitions of community there, it has returned to the road through its Cornerstone Institute program. This summer, it is in Eureka.

Invited by Tinamarie Ivey and Dan Stone of Sanctuary Stage (now back at St. Bernard's School), Cornerstone participants began coming up to meet people and conduct their research some eight months ago. Actors, designers and other company members arrived in mid-July. They've auditioned local residents for onstage roles and started building sets and making masks at St. Bernard's and the Ink People. Rehearsals are underway at Blue Ox Millworks, where the final production will be presented. Locals of all ages are involved in every aspect, adding their talents while learning the Cornerstone approach.

I met some of the Cornerstone travelers at St. Bernard's and they were warm, engaged and enthusiastic, but also thoughtful and sensitive to the possible pitfalls. They try to bring particular professional skills and experience to shaping a local story with local participation, but without imposing their viewpoint. Peter Howard, another founding member, has been writing the script, combining contemporary Eureka with the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. He calls the overall process "mutual mentoring." The site-specific production, which includes singing and dancing, will be at Blue Ox Historic Park and incorporates some of its physical features in the play. Jason in Eureka runs Aug. 6-8. Reservations are recommended: 800-385-7791.

With thanks to Cornerstone for a specific technique, Dell'Arte presented its own community-based production during the Mad River Festival: The Body Remembers. For their Dell'Arte School thesis project, Brian Moore and Liza Bielby explored the 1930s Great Depression experiences of Timber Ridge Assisted Living Center residents, partly inspired by Stud Terkel's oral history, Hard Times.

Moore was the appealing onstage host, but the stars were five women from Timber Ridge: Arline Hubbard, Helen Buck, Antoinette Cusumano (a spry 96 years old), Theo Feeney and Dawn Lucchesi. Their stories were supplemented by audio and some often effective but disappointingly projected photos and video.

True to their training, the Dell'Arteans used a variety of physical techniques to unlock and express memories, and to incorporate movement on the stage. The depth of their research and the honing and editing they did were evident and admirable. Together with the enthusiasm of the stars, it all resulted in some lovely moments, and memories that were surprisingly moving because they were otherwise so mundane. The remembered reality could be riveting as well, as in the ordinary photo of happy young adults at the beach. All the men in the photo died within a few years, in World War II.

If the pitfall for Cornerstone is seeming presumptuous, for this production it was being condescending to these elders. But that didn't happen. Several Dell'Arte students assisted onstage, and the respectful, affectionate intergenerational flow characterized the evening.

The Depression experiences of these women spanned the country, though few were specific to the North Coast. Even though the show was shaped to these particular women, I would have liked a larger historical context (as Terkel provides) for the Great Depression, and more about male experiences. For example, there was audio of a man's voice mentioning, "hobo-ing ... We went any place just to be going some place." How many people know now that at the height of the Depression, hopping freight trains to look for illusory jobs became this hopeless constant motion, and more than a million (mostly) men were perpetually riding the rails? Terkel is a good guide to the 1930s, but so is Woody Guthrie.

Those days are alive in my own family history, and some final lines in this show sounded similar to something my maternal grandmother used to say: "You just do the best you can, and that's what we did."

The last show of the Mad River Festival was The Only Friends We Have, created and performed by Dell'Arte alums Matt Chapman, Josh Matthews and Sarah Petersiel of New York's Under the Table company.What starts as a clownish slice of Beckett-like absurdity becomes a real and recognizable story of tensions (sexual and otherwise) among three young friends. Though the pastiche of comedic bits at times seemed familiar and formulaic in this 50-minute show, the performers were memorable and there were imaginative moments and laughs for all ages.

Coming Up: North Coast Rep opens the contemporary comedy, The Love List by Norm Foster on Thursday, July 23 at 8.

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