Cornerstone Theatre Performance

For the past seven years, the UNI Department of Theatre and the Cornerstone Program have collaborated to produce a theatrical presentation that dramatizes Cornerstone’s common read or put on a production that reflects the common read’s themes. This year the common read was a collection of works by different authors, entitled “The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015.” 

The Theatre Department selected “Wear Areas” by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, and “You are in the dark, in the car…” by Claudia Rankine from the collection. These pieces dealt with identity, how people treat and look at their bodies, and how our own bias and prejudice color the way we look at others. The Theatre faculty and students worked together to draw similarities between the two pieces, and integrate stories from their own experience to put together a theatrical staging reflecting those themes.

Workshop on the performance started on August 7, and went up until school began. Each day the students and faculty worked on the text and design. Professor Matt Weedman, who wrote and directed the piece, worked with the students on analyzing the common reads and generating discussions, stories and events that shaped the body of the script. Professor Jennifer Sheshko Wood and Ron Koinzan worked with them on bringing to life the design of the scenery, projections,
and lights. 

While the two original texts were included in the script, the majority of the words came from the students’ own experiences with body image, racism, prejudice, family and how they view the current world. Shesko Wood says the students’ stories “connected the Cornerstone students more solidly to the content of the common read, because they recognized
themselves in the words.”

In the second week of school, the students performed the piece 11 times, allowing for the Cornerstone sections to come during their class periods. Professor Matt Weedman then led a talk back after each performance and engaged the audience in a discussion about the process. The student performers were also able to reflect on what the experience was like for them and talk to the audience. Theatre Major Kendra Gliem, an ensemble actor in the production, says she “wanted the viewers to take away the importance of what is happening in the world right now” and be more empathetic to how other people
view themselves. 

Rachel Morgan, Cornerstone instructor and program co-head, says seeing the production and connecting it to the common read, her students were able to have classroom conversations about privilege, gender politics, and identity. Morgan says, “Seeing the actors tell their stories juxtaposed to the text helped my students not only understand what they read and see their own stories, but most importantly, the stories of others. As a new college freshman, it can be easy to disengage, given the recent experiences of leaving a hometown, a history of friendships, and physical closeness of family. However, the texts and the play really connected students to the stories of strangers during their second week of school.” 

The Cornerstone faculty uses the experience to spur writing assignments and Literature Circles as well as whole class discussions. Morgan’s students are in the process or writing their first narrative essay, which is related to “Wear Areas,” and how we create those wear areas. A student in Professor Deb Young’s class said the production helped them understand “not who I am, but why I am.” In class discussion in Morgan’s class, a student said that for the first time he realized how scary it could be to move through America as an African American male. 

Poet Mark Doty says “Literature makes other people more real to us.” By combining a reading and performance experience, the collaboration between the Department of Theatre and Cornerstone created a successful and powerful production.