Monday, March 8, 2010

The CornerStone of Alfred

What if you had to describe the totality of Alfred? How would you do it? How would you present the story of a traffic light celebration or a place where an art show might spend a glorious hour in a public restroom or on a Main Street bench?

How would you introduce or symbolize the people who give Alfred life as an experience and not just an address? How would tuck Alfred, the entity, into a play and send it off to a stage where at least one person in the audience would emit that comforting sigh, slow and steady, that we stream through our bodies after a long or difficult journey?

Those questions and tasks were the topics tackled and mused during a weekend workshop with Cornerstone Theater Company. Cornerstone is a multi-ethnic, ensemble-based theater company that works with communities to help them create new plays or adapt classic plays in order to tell a story in a way that can create, define, strengthen or expand a community. That’s a simple description. Find more if you’d like at

In a list of things that I am not one would surely find “actor” so when Becky Prophet invited me to attend an acting workshop my first response was to look for a hiding place but Becky is a force of nature and her enthusiasm led created interest and curiosity so I braved the snow (and the threat of acting) and came to Alfred to be part of the process.

The workshop was presented by Paula Donnelly and Laurie Woolery from Cornerstone. Donnelly and Woolery both sport a huge list of theatrical involvements listing several theatrical groups, residencies and shows. They came to Alfred to develop their own image of the community through experience with residents and to demonstrate the exercises that Cornerstone employs.

During some early exercises we learned that the 26 participants were life-long residents of Alfred, people who chose to move to Alfred, people who were new to the area and people who expected a short-term (perhaps 4 year) relationship with the town. The group was made up of people with all manner of learning styles and found they could make sub groups with several commonalities such as favorite foods, having performed in groups or thinking that puppies are adorable. These were cultural mapping activities that required interaction and cooperation.

Cornerstone has guidelines for dialogue and we went over some of the elements in establishing a productive dialogue. There was discussion about the elements that define a community and the some of the ways of engaging with a community as well as guidelines for successful community meetings – all of which Donnelly and Woolery followed to make participants feel welcome and to keep everyone engaged.

During an exercise called wagon wheel, rotating pairs answered questions about their lives and their experiences in prejudice and assumptions. The focus moved from participants to the community as ideas built. In another exercise small groups talked about the specific characters that make Alfred come alive. Some of the “people” listed were art students, engineering students, and the town cops. Specific names included John Ninos, John Cunningham and Becky Prophet.

In describing Alfred through the senses people spoke of Nana’s, the Terra Cotta and Kinfolk when considering taste. For sight and smells they spoke of the hills and natural areas. The sound of peacefulness and the bells were commonly mentioned.
There were many small town stories shared from the memories of eating a can of pork and beans while walking down Main Street in the 1950s to the experience of arriving in Alfred just a few months ago and feeling welcomed from the first minute.

On the second day of the workshop a lot of these memories, impressions and details worked into short skits to try to explain the concept of Alfred. Whether or not this process continues and grows into something more the workshop was an interesting process in building a sense of community and learning to establish groups that work well together.

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