Finalist: Cornerstone Theater Company

From “Beyond the Diagnosis”
From “Beyond the Diagnosis”

In 2009, Cornerstone Theater Company recognized the need for financial flexibility during times of change and began looking at innovative ways to diversify its revenue sources, to develop new models of earning, and to prepare for the future.

A new option in a tough economy

Cornerstone began seeing a growing trend in corporate philanthropy and became interested in not only participating in that movement, but being on the forefront of it.  Cornerstone believed, and continues to believe, that building bridges between non-profit and for-profit companies brings potential for enormous social change.

At the time, non-profits were asking difficult questions about how they could keep their doors open in an increasingly tough economy with sparse foundation grants and individual funds.  In a perfect marriage of external and internal ambitions, Cornerstone was propelled to think outside of the standard methods of generating revenue.

Finding the right corporate partner

Cornerstone Theater Company began collaborating with the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Inc. to explore why some HIV+ patients are reluctant to seek treatment of change medications.  To present this issue, they created and presented a series of short plays based on the stories of real people living with HIV in cities across America.

Cornerstone’s long history of grassroots engagement with the African American community, combined with their methodology of peer-to-peer storytelling, provided the perfect answer to the pharmaceutical company’s need to reach out directly to individual African Americans affected by HIV – as Gilead’s traditional marketing techniques had proven inadequate thus far to engage that community in any meaningful way.

The partnership with Gilead Sciences was the first of its kind for Cornerstone Theater Company.

Participants and performers from “Beyond the Diagnosis”
Participants and performers from “Beyond the Diagnosis”

Co-creating with local community members for maximum impact

Three plays (in combination called “Beyond the Diagnosis”) were created to form an evening of performance based on the stories and experiences of those living with and/or caring for people with HIV/AIDS.  These plays reveal the obstacles that keep some patients from receiving the most up-to-date treatment for their condition.  Local community members in each city were invited to participate in story circles so that their stories are reflected in the performance; some were also cast as actors, ensuring that local audiences would see themselves represented on stage, and not just professional actors from outside the community.

The plays are book-ended by facilitated dialogue with the audience.  These powerful and educational evenings are tailored for numerous cities.  By the end of Cornerstone and Gilead’s partnership, they had taken the performances to over 15 cities including Detroit, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles.

Making a commitment to corporate partnerships

Entering into this unprecedented earned income relationship was altogether new, and somewhat risky, territory for Cornerstone.  However, the visionary venture paid off when the program became so successful that Cornerstone was able to create a new full-time staff position focusing on sourcing corporate partnerships and earned income revenue.

The development of this new position has gone on to bring in over $180,000, many new relationships and partnerships, and original programming that travels all over California.  These new programs give work to artists and staff members and reach communities that Cornerstone would not have been able to engage with otherwise.

About Cornerstone Theater Company

Cornerstone Theater produces new plays through the collaboration of people of many ages, cultures and levels of theatrical experience, building bridges between and within diverse communities.  Their work is based on the conviction that aesthetic practice is social justice, artistic expression is civic engagement, and that access to a creative forum is an essential part of the wellness and health of every individual and community.

With the help of a small yet dedicated staff and Ensemble, Cornerstone has commissioned more than 60 playwrights, produced over 90 new works, trained over 2,000 students in their unique methodology, and worked with tens of thousands of community members across the country.  Their plays celebrate many voices and are staged in theaters, parking lots, shopping malls, factories, schools and subway stations; they strive to include people who have never seen theater, let alone been up on stage; they take up residence in urban neighborhoods and small towns, collaborating with locals from start to finish, giving them the opportunity to tell their own stories through theater.

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Natalie Conneely is the Director of Development at Cornerstone Theater Company.