Cornish Theater Department Turns 100

Seattle, WA -- Cornish College of the Arts' Theater Department begins a year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary starting with two challenging and important works by Caryl Churchill this fall.

“Caryl Churchill is without question one of the most important and influential English-language playwrights of the last 50 years,” says Theater Chair Richard E.T. White. “Her work encompasses a vast array of styles and genres, from adaptations of Greek classics (A Mouthful of Birds) to dramatic tone poems about rural existence (Fen), from time-jumping examinations of gender (Cloud 9) to unsparing dissections of the costs of power (Top Girls) and the excesses of capitalism (Serious Money). This year we produce one of her latest (Love and Information) in tandem with one of her earliest (Vinegar Tom), to celebrate the breadth of her craft and the stirring adventurousness of her thematic reach.”

The selection of Churchill for an in-depth exploration fits well with Cornish’s history of producing thought-provoking work in Seattle. The Theater department was created in 1918 by the founders of the Chicago Little Theatre, Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg. The couple’s Chicago company had introduced ground-breaking European playwrights writing about the human condition to American audiences, inspiring a movement of the same name. They also used theater as a tool for activism. Their touring production of The Trojan Women by Euripides, with Van Volkenburg as Hecuba, was billed as an anti-war play in the first years of World War I and sparked Nellie Cornish’s interest during a stop in Seattle. Nellie Cornish invited them to organize a professional company, then called Cornish Theatre, to run parallel with their teaching at her school. Later, Browne would design what is now known as the PONCHO theater at Kerry Hall to his specifications for “little theater.” 

Since then, Cornish has pioneered a number of innovations, starting with a touring company to bring theater to communities outside of Seattle in the 1920s, continuing with the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast by a school in the 1930s (an original play written and performed by Theater students and assisted by a young Chet Huntley), the establishment of an independent Performance Production department in 1983, and progressing to the 21st century when Theater students demonstrated how Microsoft's HoloLens could be used by entertainment in the 2016 BFA Exhibition.

Notable Theater alumni include Academy Award-winning actress Beatrice Straight, actor Brendan Fraser’90 and actor Riley Shanahan '15 who will play Cliff Steele/Robotman in the new TV series “Doom Patrol” (believed to be the first time two Cornish trained actors play same character in a TV series), cabaret star Lady Rizo, drag performer and winner of the fifth season of “RuPaul's Drag Race” Jinkx Monsoon, playwright/performer Ramiz Monsef (a 4th generation Cornish graduate), Broadway performer Don Darryl Rivera, television character actor C.S. Lee, performer Sarah Porkalob, Netflix series writer Joshua Conkel (“Sabrina” and “Series of Unfortunate Events”) and many more.

The fall season begins with Vinegar Tom by Churchill on October 19-27 at Raisbeck. “It is rooted in Brechtian Epic Theatre, but this time through a female lens. It is a fertile ground for acting, musical and comic performance skills,” says director Kaytlin McIntyre, who also calls the playwright and this work “shining examples of theater-as-activism and the practice of the artist-citizen-innovator.”

Opening November 1 at the Cornish Playhouse, Churchill’s Love And Information deals with the impact of digital communication on human connection. The play is “a vibrant, open-canvas project that welcomes as much creative choice, if not more, than it prescribes in the text. The 100+ characters in the play, experienced through 57 scenarios, are presented without specified gender, age, ethnicity, or names,” says director Michael Place.

Also in November will be the contemporary musical LIFT (music and lyrics by Craig Adams and book by Ian Watson) directed by Richard Gray. This will be followed by an anachronistic retelling of the 1869 Powell expedition, Men In Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, directed by Bobbin Ramsey. In December, the popular and annual cabaret at Raisbeck will be created by fourth year Theater students in collaboration with Timothy McCuen Piggee (co-director), Frances Leah King (vocal director), Katherine Strohmaier (music director), and Nicole Beerman (choreographer/co-director).