Cornerstone Theater Company

Institute Summer Residency

Institute 2016 header

The Institute Summer Residency is the most comprehensive way to learn Cornerstone’s process for creating community-engaged theater.  It is designed for people who are looking for insight, tools and inspiration for engaging a community toward a specific project or goal. Through classes and hands-on participation in a production, Cornerstone’s Ensemble, staff, and guest artists share with students how we create a theatrical community-collaboration from start to finish.


Our Process

Launched in 2004, the Institute is inspired by Cornerstone’s initial years (1986 – 1991) spent as a traveling company collaborating with residents of (mostly) rural communities by living in that town for the length of a production. Those early residencies were often 3-months long, but the Institute Summer Residency is a more manageable but very full 32 days.

In the months preceding the residency, a Cornerstone playwright and other company members become acquainted with the community through research, visits, interviews, story circles, and other events and activities. The playwright writes a new script reflecting what she’s learned and what she is artistically inspired by. We read a draft of the script with those people in the community that we’ve met along the way. We seek feedback and discussion. In July, about a dozen Cornerstone company members and 15-20 student participants are in residence in the chosen community for a month. Cornerstone strives to involve community members in every aspect of the production, including acting in the play, working backstage, and being in the audience. During summer four weeks, we audition, cast and rehearse the play. We build the set and costumes and other design elements of the play. The production usually has three evening performances.

Admission to the play is always pay-what-you-can. Once the three performances are over, it is time to take down all the theatrical accouterments and end our residency.

I learned a lot of new tangible exercises and facilitation techniques. I also learned a lot about how to bring people to the table and allow ways for them to stay. I feel much more able to connect with communities different from my own.
– 2009 student participant

Student Experience and Expectations

Student participants have joined us from across the United States and from other countries. The application process is open to everyone over age 18. Theater experience is helpful but not required. Previous Institute students have included people aged 18 to 60+, educators, artists, undergraduate and graduate students, activists, community organizers, filmmakers, clergy, writers, community and arts organization board members, social workers, administrators, producers, etc. It’s not uncommon to have someone very early in their career in the same class as a person who has run their own theater company or had lots of other life experience.
The personalities and core values of successful participants are as varied as their occupations but it is helpful to be flexible, to appreciate diversity and to value mutual mentorship. Past students have applied seeking to enhance the community-engaged aspects of their work, and to study and collaborate with professionals who are well versed in ensemble, community-based theater.

Participants should come prepared for the joys and challenges of living and working in adapted environments within the collaborating community and committing to an intense 32-day schedule. Depending on the circumstances of the particular collaborating community, sometimes the participants do not live in the community but rather commute daily.

Participants should be open to participating in the variety of tasks in an all-hands-on-deck manner.

I wanted to know if theater actually has the ability to transform people and communities and whether it can lead to social action and in what ways.
– 2011 student participant


Classes usually take place in the morning and are taught by experienced Cornerstone company members and guest artists. There are approximately 10 class sessions that focus on sharing our process for creating theater in a community-based context. We do not teach the principles of these topics but rather explore- through discussion, lecture, and activities- how working with community impacts and informs all disciplines of theater.

Past topics have included: CTC 101- Case-studies of Cornerstone History, Concepts in Community-Based Theater, Community Engagement, The Rehearsal Room, Story Circles, Community Specific Text-Playwriting for Community, Design in Community Context, Community Representation, Principles of Directing in Community-based Context, Compositions, Future Projects, Fundraising and Budgets.

Many residencies have also included sessions with guest artists who share other, related practices.

Production Assignments

Each student is given a primary production assignment but can expect a variety of experiences. Preferences are communicated in the application and assignments are made based on students’ goals, background and experience, as well as the needs of the show. Students should expect to assist in areas outside their production assignment such as building or painting set pieces, sewing costumes, acquiring props, as well as community engagement. You might work with the lighting or sound departments, or assist in managing box office reservations. You may be asked to temporarily step into roles for absent actors during rehearsal. Each summer, and in each moment, the needs and opportunities vary.

Production Assignments have included: Actor/Performer, Musician, Assistant Stage Manager, Assistant Director, Movement Associate, Design Associate (costumes, sets, props, lights, sound), Script Assistant, Community-Engagement Associate, and more.

Student Community

Each Institute Summer Residency involves a series of distinct but overlapping communities. There’s the local, collaborating community, the Cornerstone Theater community- staff in residence with the program and others with limited presence, and the community of the 10 to 20 Student Participants.

The distinction between Cornerstone Theater and the Students is not relevant to the collaborating community; however, during the course of the residency the students are blended with Cornerstone and represent the company. The Students are also a unique circle sharing classroom discussions, a particular schedule and a double-outsider factor. The living and socializing circumstances are usually another unifying experience for the students.

Cornerstone strives to put together each class of students with an eye toward multiple levels of diversity and experience. There’s a great potential in learning as much from your student colleagues as from the rest of the Institute experiences.

There’s an additional community bond post-residency: the Institute Summer Residency alumni. As of 2015 there are 162 individuals out in the world who are graduates of the first 10 Institute Summer Residencies. Some live outside of the US, many are scattered across most regions of the country. There are occasional regional meetings of these folks and their colleagues with shared interest in the intersection of art and community.

I learned a ton from working within Cornerstone’s methodology alongside a group of peers equally passionate and learning in collaboration. And it was tremendously inspiring and validating to be in a room of people so similarly passionate and full of faith about the same ideals.
 2009 student participant