Trojan Women And The Founding Of Cornish Theater

1926 production of "Trojan Women" at Cornish. Photo: Courtesy of UM Library EVV - MB Papers.

Trojan Women And The Founding Of Cornish Theater

No single drama has quite the connection to Cornish history as "The Trojan Women." The Chicago Little Theatre tour led directly to the founding of Cornish's Theater Department and its enduring commitment to producing timely, relevant works.

Trojan Women And The Founding Of Cornish Theater

The 1921 announcement of the first season in the "new" Cornish Theater at Kerry Hall

By M Bocek and R Jones

Chicago Little Theatre’s 1915 touring production of Euripides’s The Trojan Women in Seattle brought founding Theater Department heads Ellen Van Volkenburg and Maurice Browne to Nellie Cornish’s attention. On the national scale, this production cemented the Chicago Little Theatre’s place in the forefront of the movement that came to bear its name: the Little Theatre Movement. Van Volkenburg was apparently unforgettable in the role of Hecuba, creating critical acclaim for the company throughout its tour. CLT’s production of The Trojan Women was overtly a political act, a reaction against the war in Europe and a warning against American involvement in a foreign war. The tour was co-produced by the Women’s Peace Party headed by the legendary Jane Addams. But when the United States entered the war and sentiment turned against the protestors, it also contributed to the financial demise of the CLT, making it possible for Nellie Cornish to offer Van Volkenburg and Browne a place in her school to teach and perform, carrying forward the ideas that they had pioneered in Chicago.

Today, we can see the 1914 tour of The Trojan Women tour as the inciting moment of the founding of Cornish’s Theater department four years later, beginning a tradition of producing theater that spoke to the times and reflected the social interests of the performers and the community.

In 1926, Van Volkenburg mounted a new production of The Trojan Women on the stage of the Cornish Little Theatre, now called PONCHO. The theater itself had been built in 1921 according to Browne’s specifications. The Trojan Women was just part of the repertoire of thought-provoking dramas brought to Cornish from the Chicago Little Theatre. From photos, the setting appears quite similar to the Raymond Johnson set for the CLT tour. The 1926 production also included in the cast probably the first African-American student at Cornish, Theodosia Young, daughter of famed Seattle art dealer Zoe Dusanne.

As part of the ongoing celebration of Theater’s centennial, a new production of The Trojan Women will be performed by a cast of more than 30 Theater faculty members, alumni, and current students at Raisbeck Performance Hall on November 30 and December 1, 2018. In the era of #metoo and unprecedented numbers of refugees around the world fleeing war-torn areas, The Trojan Women continues to resonate with modern audiences.

The Cornish production of 2018 will use an adaptation of Euripedes that playwright Ellen McLaughlin wrote as a response to the Bosnian War some twenty years ago and has continued to update as new atrocities occur. It’s a contemporary use of the Euripedes classic to comment on the state of the world that Van Volkenburg and Browne would have appreciated.

The performances on November 30 and December 1 are free and open to the public.

The Trojan Women by Euripides

Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Sheila Daniels
Raisbeck Performance Hall
November 30 and December 1, 8:00 p.m.

Featuring Theater Faculty member Kate Myre as Hecuba and 2018 Gregory-Award-winning alumna Aishé Keita as Helen.

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Do you have information about early Cornish Theater performances? We’d love to see photos, programs, and learn more about the beginnings of the Theater department. Please send to communications@cornish.edu.

Thank you to Lynette Hammarstrom of Yakima for the 1921 season advertisement.

Thank you to Mark Bocek and the University of Michigan for the photo of Cornish Theater’s 1926 production of “Trojan Women.” Identified in the photo are: Marion Litonius, center; standing, left to right, visible: 1. Unknown 2. Unknown 3. Catherine Lane 4. Kathryn Elliot 5. Theodosia Young 6. Mina Quevli 7. Ruth Husby 8. Willabel Bauban 9. Barbara Williams; kneeling, visible: Reitha Gehri (spelling?) and others unknown.