[Americana music begins]
Quinn: The first tagline that I heard in relation to Cornerstone’s work in Eastport is that they came to a rural area of Maine and built a bridge made out of theater between the white and Native American communities. As you could probably guess, the full story is a little more complicated than the tagline.
This is episode 2 of Setting the Stage. If you haven’t heard episode 1 yet, I recommend listening to that first. You can catch up in just 15 minutes and continue on this story.
Last episode we set the scene of Eastport, the rural Maine town with a struggling economy and a vibrant arts community that began to organize itself in the 1980s. In 1990, a group of those artists established a partnership with the Cornerstone Theater Company.
Cornerstone itself had only existed for a few years at that time. It was founded in 1986 by director Bill Rauch and playwright Alison Carey. For the first five years, they traveled around the United States and completed 12 residencies in various towns across America. The entire ensemble was comprised of young, white, recent Harvard graduates. Technically none of them were theater majors because Harvard had no theater department at the time, but they were all involved in the art form and were frustrated with the limited idea of “American theater” they were faced with in Boston.
I got the chance to talk to a few of members of Cornerstone. One of them was David Reiffel, who was a founding member of the ensemble.
David: My name is David Reiffel. I create music, words, and sounds for theater. So I’m a sound designer, a composer, a song writer, a playwright. I do all of those things. For Cornerstone I was the composer in residence and the sound designer. I joined Cornerstone in the very beginning. I guess we first started talking about it in 1985 and then in ‘86 we did our first, we went on the road for our first residency, which was in Newport News, Virginia. And I had… I had been an undergraduate at Harvard. During that time I had worked with Alison Carey, who was an actor at the time. And she introduced me to Bill Rauch. He was looking for a composer to do a show of his, and she said “oh you should talk to David Reiffel.” And Bill and I eventually, we didn’t end up working on that show but we ended up working on a lot of shows during his undergraduate time. He was I think three or four years behind me, but I was hanging out in Cambridge and continuing to be active in the Harvard theatrical scene. So he and I did a lot of shows together during his undergraduate time and then when he started Cornerstone, he asked me to come aboard.
Quinn: The residency in Eastport was actually Cornerstone’s twelfth rural production. They had been to towns in Virginia, North Dakota, Texas, Florida, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, Mississippi, and West Virginia. In each place they adapted texts written by canonical writers from Shakespeare to Brecht to fit the communities they resided in, changing the setting and weaving in regional slang contributed by community members. I asked David why Cornerstone chose to come to Eastport.
David: I know that we wanted to do something in the Northeast. We usually decided based on a desire to go to particular regions. Often it was a region people didn’t know very well, or that few of us knew very well. And I think Eastport was attractive not only because they had a theater there that we could use in the Masonic Hall, but that also it was a chance to work with the people at the Passamaquoddy Reservation, so that we could bring those communities together. We had you know, worked with lots of different kinds of communities, and the idea of Eastport and its island communities and these two different communities coming together was a very exciting idea for us.
Quinn: At the time that they arrived in Eastport, Cornerstone had recently received national attention for their staging of Romeo and Juliet in a Mississippi town that cast white people as the Capulets and black people as the Montagues. That’s another great headline—exciting social statements, bringing communities together, reaching across tension to create art. Reactions in the town itself were mixed. Some people claimed the production stirred up trouble where there was none, and pitted black and white people against each other unnecessarily. This stance somehow simultaneously existed alongside others stating that they were uncomfortable with the production because it depicted an interracial bedroom scene. Many articles and books have been written about and in relation to the residencies that Cornerstone did, especially the Mississippi production, but I bring it up here specifically to demonstrate that nothing is as simple as it seems from the outside. In Washington County all kinds of social differences exist, from the visible geographic racial divides to the invisible-to-outsiders but omnipresent divides about who’s local and who’s not.
David: Well we did a scouting trip that a bunch of us–we had a couple of groups coming in and doing scouting trips to meet people. And it was… it beautiful, for one thing, that’s the first thing that we noticed. It seemed like it had a lot of… I don’t want to say divisions. I guess there were subcommunities within the community, that it became very obvious that there were different kinds of people there, which is another thing that excited us. There were the people who were from away and the people who had been there all their lives. I may have the history wrong, but I think that the art center was kind of a “from away” project, or that’s the impression that I had. And they were our first contact. I mean maybe, I think part of it was a class thing, they were the better off people who contacted us first. As we worked there and got to know people better, it was reaching across those lines and having the piece be at least partially about those lines. That those lines really inform the adaptation that we did, which was of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. That was definitely at the center of the project that we were doing.
Quinn: I also interviewed James Bundy, former managing director of Cornerstone Theater. Fair warning: the audio quality in these interview clips is a little tough, but what he has to say is incredibly interesting, so I hope you bear with it.
James: I was–I had been to college with the founders of Cornerstone, although we were not in the same year, we were at Harvard around the same time. And I became aware of the company because one of my teachers, Joanne Green, kept in touch at the time. So I heard about what Cornerstone was doing and I became a supporter and I joined their board, I joined the board of trustees. And then I was invited by the company to interview to be their managing director, and at the time I was a professional actor but I was interested in doing other things in the theater besides acting, and so I joined the company in the spring of 1989.
Quinn: I asked James about what he observed in terms of the issues facing the towns of Eastport and Pleasant Point.
James: You know at the heart of what we were learned about Washington County was that it was, in terms of reported income, one of the two poorest counties in the United States. People in Eastport grow up with the sense that if they want to be able to earn a living in America, they have to leave the town in which they were raised. I think, you know—Cornerstone before I joined the company, Cornerstone had worked on a reservation in Shures, Nevada, and so we had had experience working with Native American people and I think that helped us. You know, I don’t think we were always–we were always learning. Every community we ever went to, we were always learning what the local customs were and what the local issues were. And we were at pains, I think, to have the work that we did on stage represent the culture of the community in which we were making it. So that’s why, you know, we took the title of Peer Gynt, which is how you might produce it if you were doing a Norwegian production, and turned it into Pier Gynt, and–I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the logo for the show, but it was a sardine can. And so I think our perception was that the issues that faced Eastport and the community and the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Pleasant Point were not unlike issues that people are dealing with in Native American communities and in the nation more broadly and have been ever since. So it didn’t strike us as particularly unusual, although there was obviously pain in some of the history.
Quinn: We’ll come back to the adaptation of Pier Gynt next episode, but first we have to talk about what motivated that adaptation in the first place. And for that we need to talk about that “pain in the history.” The point of this production was supposed to be about bridging of cultures. That’s not a simple idea anywhere, and it’s certainly not a simple idea in Washington County, Maine.
The Passamaquoddy people have been in the region that’s now known as Maine and New Brunswick for longer than written history. Its history is closely tied to Maine’s other tribe, the Penobscot—both groups speak closely related Algonquian languages. Now previously to colonization they did not organize themselves as tribes like this, but were identified as such by the English based on geographical location.
The Passamaquoddy people were a traditionally migratory tribe around what is now the Maine and New Brunswick coast. They followed animal and fish migrations through the seasons. They have a deep canoeing tradition, and today members of the tribe will craft canoes to celebrate their art and history. The Passamaquoddy people had early contact with the Europeans that colonized America, primarily the French and English, starting with Samuel de Champlain’s settlement of the area of 1604. That expedition was relatively friendly, but things quickly took a turn when Henry Hudson looted a village by the Penobscot River in 1609, which itself was followed by a pandemic that wiped out 75% of the New England coastal population. The Passamaquoddies did manage to hold on to most of their autonomy and land until 1760, when the English started claiming their land after the Seven Years’ War, and then continued stealing more land at several points over the next several decades. This led into the legislation from Duncan Scott in the early 1900s that required Native American children to attend schools that actively worked to destroy their language and culture.
The Passamaquoddy tribe has been sending a non-voting representative to the Maine state legislature since 1842, but its people were not able to vote until 1954.
So what does the bridging of cultures look like, coming after that history? I’ll come back to theater and Cornerstone soon, but to get a better perspective on the contemporary situation, I talked to someone who lives and works on this metaphorical bridge.
Now I’ve referenced the state of the Malecite-Passamaquoddy language multiple times over this very brief overview. It’s obvious that language is an essential part of culture and history, which is why it was deliberately oppressed in this case in an attempt to suppress that culture. Today there are only around 500 speakers of the Passamaquoddy language. In an effort to reverse that tide, there are initiatives to teach the language in reservation schools, as well as in certain regional high schools.
Lynn: My name is Lynn Mitchell. I am a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe down in Sipayik in down in Pleasant Point, Maine. I’ve worked for Maine Indian Education, the superintendent’s office, for 31 years. But for the past three years, I’ve started teaching the Passamaquoddy culture language over at the Calais High School every other morning.
Quinn: So how many students do you have?
Lynn: I have… well I’ve capped the class off because I didn’t want it to get too big, because I’ve done Girl Scouts and the more girls you get, you know what I mean? So fourteen is what I take. In the beginning I started with twelve but then I opened it to fourteen. And usually–and they’re grades nine through twelve, and there’s a mixture of both Native and non-Native students. So we of course have two reservations and they’re both Passamaquoddies, one at Pleasant Point, Sipayik, and another one at Indian Township, Motahkomikuk, and so pretty much half the students come–like I said, half Native, half non-Native attend the class.
Quinn: So do you know why Calais High School decided to add this language?
Lynn: I think it was Jay Skriletz, I don’t know if you’re aware with him—aware of him? Mano y Mano, I know that he had a fund, a grant, that paid for this to make it happen. And he wanted it at all the Native schools, I mean all high schools in the area, but the funding—reached out but what also happened three years ago was the reservation also received a huge grant for language immersion. So all those teachers who would have been teaching in the high school were focusing on the little little kids. Preschool kids. And I think they get some kindergarten that would come to them for like half a day and then they go back to the elementary school. So they were all busy in the immersion program. So he showed up here one day and said “hey Lynn, how would you feel about teaching?” And I was like whoa, I wanted to do this maybe when I’m older—of course I’m 52. [laughter] But he said you know you’d be with another speaker, an elder. And I said sure, I’d be able to do that. And so things happened and well there was no other–no one else to come in my class with me. He said, “well can you still do it?” And I was like, you know when you’re a baby, you have to learn how to get up and walk, you don’t just get up and start running–well they say some kids do–but you know you have to start with the basics. So that’s what I did, and that’s what I do. And we have a good time at it.
Quinn: So what does it mean to you, especially as someone who was not directly teaching this language until recently, what does it mean to you to be teaching this to a new generation?
Lynn: Oh my god, my roots are going further into the ground. It’s like, um… I don’t mean to cry but–it’s something I should have done, wish I could have done my whole life. You know what I mean? It’s like–because you don’t realize until something’s gone, you know what I mean, or it’s on the verge of extinction. And the language, it defines us of who we are. It defines us. And the people, the kids that come and take the class, you know what I mean? They just love the class, and we have such a good time. And they come out, and they have a good understanding, but we need to keep it going. And the elementary school have this class in the schools, and any teachers—I get to talk to the teachers that are going to be working in our Indian schools at the beginning of the year, and that’s my big push you know, you might not be Native but attend this class with your kids, learn what you can I said, because you are going to help us make it happen. And keep the language alive. So, yeah, sorry—
Quinn: No, thank you for sharing that.
Lynn: It’s huge, it’s… it’s just huge. You know when you’re a teenager, yeah it’s our language, you know what I mean? And I know even one boy had told his grandmother, she’s like are you taking the class? And he said no, it’s a dying language. Broke his mother’s heart! And he said he signed up for my class and his grandmother cried. So it ended up really good. We’ve come a long way, baby. You’re probably not old enough to know that phrase, but we’ve come a long way. Just having our presence, just being there, open and… There a real, it’s come around full face I think. There’s still–I don’t want to say little stinkers on both sides, I tell you, because a few years ago I went to give blood at Baileyville. I was walking in with my friend Cheryl, and someone swore profanity at us. “Blank Indians, go home,” I was like “Cheryl, I’m going to kick your butt when we get out of here.” And she laughed. But we still went in to give blood. Well I didn’t have enough iron, but she got to go and I waited. But you know what I mean, you just move on. But then I know on our school, there are people who are swearing at non-Natives, you know what I mean? So there’s prejudice on both sides still, it’s there, but I think the more we keep working together, the more we’re like “hey.” It’s coming around.
Quinn: There’s a lot at stake here in the question of what it means to bridge these communities, even more so 30 years ago. And that takes us back to 1990—just 36 years after the Passamaquoddies of Pleasant Point were granted the right to vote.
This is when a group of idealistic young theater students met the aging primarily-white population of Eastport and the rebuilding Passamaquoddy population of Pleasant Point. This is where everything—the racial history, the economic struggles, the concerns over who’s from here and who isn’t—this is where everything starts to become about theater.
The Cornerstone theater company had established a connection in the area, had access to a local theater space, and were now staying in Eastport. But how do you get people to join in your ambitious musical theater project? Apparently, by talking to everyone. This is part of the story that’s unwavering across everyone I talked to: they went to the coffeeshops, they went to the bars, and they went to the churches.
I heard it from Lou Esposito, who was part of the theater scene before Cornerstone even arrived:
Lou: It was summertime, and these—I guess there were maybe 8, these young Harvard grads, not your typical demographic for Eastport, but there was a lot of energy and they infiltrated the town. They went to all the churches, they did little coffee shops, and put on little skits. They got a lot of buzz, a lot of excitement going within the community to kind of build on what had happened up until that point. It was important to them to be really inclusive, they made a big effort at Pleasant Point and all that sort of thing, to recruit and just to get people interested in and wanting to be part of what they were doing.
Quinn: I heard it from Greg Biss, who has been deeply involved in Eastport music for decades:
Greg: They very consciously tried to interact with as many local people as they could. And they were particularly interested in doing that at the reservation. As a result, there was a very good Indian participation in that endeavor. Something that we’ve been trying to build on at the Art Center with varying success. They were quite successful about it. And you know, they not only went to bars and whatever parties they could get themselves invited to, but they went to church. I think to meet people, the impression I had was that they were not regular churchgoers themselves, but they understood that there was a contingent of Eastporters that did so and they were trying to get in touch with those people as well. So they really really quite clearly and specifically went out of there way to interact with people in whatever ways they could devise to do so. That was kind of a remarkable, I think, aspect of their presence here.
Quinn: And I heard about it from the guiding force of the Eastport arts community, Joyce Weber:
Joyce: Let’s see they arrived on a Saturday night, and what they did, the thirteen of them spread out throughout the town and the community and go to all the bars and restaurants and wherever they could talk with people. They went over to Pleasant Point and talked to people there. And then on Sunday morning they went to all the churches. James, um, whatever his last name is, stood up in church–my church–and made a nice speech about the theater coming and everybody was very polite and nice. And I thought that was very nice that they were doing this, but I thought no one’s going to respond to this kind of stuff. Well they scheduled interviews with people and meeting people at 3:00 Sunday afternoon. Eighty people showed up! I couldn’t believe it! We opened up the Masonic Hall there and they were streaming up the streets. I could believe it, it was a miracle. Partly because each member of the Cornerstone theater was so personable. And they loved what they were doing so much, and they were young and excited about this project. People just really responded to that. So they interviewed people all Sunday afternoon and took their names and ways to get in touch with them. That’s where it was from there. Then they began to have organizational meetings. So the people in town were involved with it right from the beginning, it wasn’t Cornerstone coming here and just plunking us with a theater. It was our theater. We were a part of it right from the get-go. It was a great way to organize it and to make it happen.
Quinn: There are so many ways to measure the success of this residency. Was it all about that initial tagline, bringing the cultures of two communities onto one stage and backstage as well? Was it about expressing social concern through theater, and resonating them with the community? Was it about teaching that community to carry on with that work and create sustainable art?
Next episode we’ll be tackling that idea of what the goals of Cornerstone’s work in Eastport and across the county were, and how they did or didn’t reach them. Setting the Stage returns in two weeks with more about the Pier Gynt production in Eastport, and more importantly, what happened once the curtain went down.
Setting the Stage is written and produced by me, Quinn Rose. You heard interviews in this episode with David Reiffel, James Bundy, Lynn Mitchell, Lou Esposito, Greg Biss, and Joyce Weber. Our music is Fireflies and Stardust from incompetech.com and our show art was designed by Allison Truj. You can find us on Twitter @setthestagefm or online at settingthestagepodcast.com, where there are transcripts of all the episodes. If you would like to get a free sticker of our beautiful show art, you can do that buy writing a review of us in Apple Podcasts and sending it to Setting the Stage on Twitter.
Thank you for listening, and keep an ear out for our next episode on February 28.