Cornerstone Theatre Company delivers a taste of Queens

Cornerstone Theatre Company delivers a taste of Queens
Three Queens College students have been selected to participate in Cornerstone Theater Company’s production of “The Cardinal.”
Courtesy of Megan Wanlass
By Tammy Scileppi

A lot of cool and progressive ideas have taken root in the Golden State, so it’s not surprising that Cornerstone Theater Company, a California-based troupe, has come up with an innovative approach to producing plays.

Drawing their inspiration and material from the residents of local communities, the Los Angeles-based theater company decided to travel to the east coast this summer. Their goal was to create a new play with and about the people of Queens.

Queens College has been hosting Cornerstone’s first Institute Summer Residency outside of their home state since July.

Created in collaboration with the Queens community and local residents, “The Cardinal,” written by Cusi Cram and directed by Juliette Carrillo, focuses on Flushing, portraying the borough’s many different cultural voices, not only in its story-telling but also in its design.

This weekend, you can experience something new and different, as both residents and professional actors perform the new production on stage at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts: Goldstein Theatre at Queens College — located at 65-30 Kissena Blvd. in Flushing — Friday, Aug. 10 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 11 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Three Queens College students were selected to participate in all facets of the production, as part of a team that includes theater-makers and artists from around the world.

“We could not be more pleased and honored to be in residence at Queens College,” said Michael John Garcés, Cornerstone Theater Company’s longtime artistic director. “The college represents the borough in all of its beautiful diversity and is deeply committed to equity and social justice, which makes it a perfect partner for us. On a personal note, I lived in Queens for almost a decade, and am really excited to be coming back to the place where I started my career in the theatre.”

This immersive learning experience has been all about building new community-based relationships and connecting with locals to learn and share stories. In preparation, Cornerstone company members have spent time over the past five months exploring Queens by attending community meetings and events. For this production, 12 members, as well as 13 Institute Participants from across the United States and Canada, have been in residence at Queens College to produce the play. In addition to Queens College, other local organizations including Pomonok Community Center, The Central Queens Y and Flushing Town Hall, have provided developmental assistance.

“Cornerstone’s received tremendous hospitality in Queens. We are excited to put the community on stage with a beautiful theatrical production,” said Paula Donnelly, Cornerstone’s director of engagement.

Guest playwright and New Yorker, Cusi Cram, is an educator and an advocate for women in the arts. She adapted “The Odyssey” to reflect the stories and histories of what it means to call Queens home for this world premiere play featuring original music and a spectacular shadow puppet portrayal of the urban landscape of The World’s Borough.

Two of the three Queens College students — Institute Participants who have worked as peers with the professional artists — weighed in about their unique Cornerstone experiences.

Kayla Rivera, 21, is a “proud member” of the LGBT+ community, and said she loves to express herself through theater and improv.

“I’m very excited to bring this community piece to life both as a collaborator, and as a born and raised Queens native,” Rivera said. “So far, my experience working on the play has been incredible. I am lucky enough to have been cast in the show as the character, Rosalba, who is a friend of the central character.”

“As someone who is both a Cornerstone Institute Participant, as well as a Queens community member, I’ve had a lot of fun bringing other institute participants into our community spaces,” Rivera added. “I feel connected to both sides of this process and am so proud of all the work we’ve done so far in rehearsals. Seeing all the work community members have put into learning their lines, their blocking, and their characters has been so inspiring. I cannot wait to see a story about Flushing, Queens, be told by people who call Flushing their home.”

Claire Kostova, another student who took part in the residency program, said she has been working on a project which has been “growing and shifting and heavily influenced by some of the notions brought up” in her theatre and dance courses at Queens College.

“In just a few days, the Institute Program has provided not only tools but also specific questions that can allow a conversation to grow into a deep investigation with a community,” she said. “Cornerstone set out to create a very ambitious play this summer as Queens is so big but also so diverse. How do we tell a single story which highlights that diversity when we have different needs and struggles, with such minimal amount of time?”

“Our program puts a strong emphasis on experiential learning and joining with a professional theater company of this stature to produce a new work provides an incredible opportunity to provide hands on professional training, as well as insight into the process of community-based art making,” said Meghan E. Healey, Associate Professor of Design and Chair of the Department of Drama, Theater, and Dance at Queens College CUNY. “The Institute is also special because of the art makers from around the country who come to work with Cornerstone and learn their methodologies, thereby putting our students into peer level contact with accomplished professionals whom they can collaborate and work with in future projects.”

The play’s main character, Sophie, embarks on a journey through her neighborhood in search of answers to questions about her family and home. Strangers and neighbors offer insights, but not everyone is what they seem. Will she find what she is looking for on the 7 Train? At a picnic in Corona Park? Amidst the flowers of a community garden? Or could the answers lie on a flight from JFK?

“One thing I have learned in 15 years of teaching at Queens is that the people here have tremendous Queens pride. I think this play captures so much of what it means to live, work, and study in Queens, and what makes this place unlike anywhere else,” Healey said. “People from Queens have a special bond, to each other and to our borough, and I’m so excited to share this piece that really captures that with our neighbors and friends. I truly hope that all [TimesLedger] readers will join us for this celebration of our neighborhood and stay to talk with us about what we got right, or wrong!”

Cornerstone has been a leader in the community-engaged arts movement for more than 30 years, working with renowned playwrights in California, across the country, and internationally, to create highly impactful new plays.

Tickets are pay-what-you-can — with a suggested donation of $10. For more information and to reserve tickets email info@cornerstonetheater.org or call 1 (800) 578-1335.

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