February 08, 1988 12:00 PM

“I’m going to throw up,” said Ron Temple, standing outside the school gymnasium in Norcatur, Kans. “I’ve never been so scared. I can’t remember my name.” Though Temple is known as a rugged type, no one was surprised that the 6’9″ farmer was trembling in his work boots that night last December. He and assorted neighbors—a beautician, several housewives, even the mayor—were about to attempt a task in which they were all equally inexperienced: acting. Decorated with blue eye shadow for the first time in his life, Temple finally worked up the nerve to walk out onstage, where he began to recite the lines of Molière’s classic 17th-century comedy Tartuffe. The audience didn’t quite know what to make of it all. Luckily the script included a few wrinkles that hadn’t occurred to Molière but went over big in Norcatur: Motown-style music, guest appearances by three Santa Clauses, some parochial humor and a new title: Tartoof, or an Imposter in Norcatur—and at Christmas!

It takes imagination to dream up such an evening, and the members of the Cornerstone Theater have it. Formed in 1986 by director Bill Rauch, 25, the troupe consists of 11 young college grads—most of them Harvards—who are determined to bring theater to places it has seldom gone before. Ready to create loony rewrites of classics, they travel to remote towns all over the U.S. and train the citizens to stage and act in their own shows. In Marmarth, N.Dak. (pop. 193), Cornerstone persuaded the locals to produce a wild-West version of Hamlet, with the famous soliloquy staged in a shower stall. In Marfa, Texas (pop. 2,647), ranch hands cavorted through Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. “It’s a humbling experience,” says Cornerstone actor Christopher Moore, 23. “Someone who’s never acted before is fascinating onstage. You get a fresh perspective.”

In Norcatur, a northwest Kansas town with 195 inhabitants, five downtown streetlights and a single jail cell that has been converted to a closet for lack of use, the coming of Cornerstone was a major event. “I thought these Harvard kids would be on another level,” says Dorothy Kelley, 81, known mainly as a thrift-shop owner before she turned thespian. “But they’re just like us. We’ve become a big family.” Eventually 52 Norcaturians tried out for 25 parts, and 30 more volunteered to help with sets and costumes. Considering that Cornerstone has sometimes been forced to recruit actors off bar stools, the town was a hotbed of enthusiasm. “Some people were a little worried about the morality of theater people,” says Mayor Bill Nelson, whose council accepted the troupe’s offer to stage a show. “We have seven preschoolers here, you know. But once the kids got here, everybody’s been real excited.”

For Rauch, Cornerstone is the realization of an old ambition. He began writing offbeat adaptations of classics in seventh grade, when his Westport, Conn., classmates performed his modern version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After his 1984 graduation from Harvard, where he had directed 26 plays, Rauch signed on as assistant director at the American National Theater in Washington, D.C. A year later he realized his dream of bringing theater to the people when he and some friends formed Cornerstone and staged an interracial adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in Newport News, Va.

Traveling in a truck, a van and a car, the troupers live wherever they can—an abandoned railroad bunkhouse, an unoccupied antebellum mansion. They support themselves on grants, including $90,000 from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and with donations from supporters such as actress Kelly McGillis and playwright David Mamet. But cash often runs short, causing members of the troupe to forgo their $200-a-week salaries. Still, tickets were free for their $50,000, nine-night production of Tartoof, which drew capacity crowds from nearby towns.

That didn’t mean there weren’t critics. “It was kind of hard to follow,” says Geraldine Chambers, who came to watch her dad, farmer Hop Lockhart. “I think we’re not used to fine arts.” And while the budding actors of Marmarth, N.Dak., were roused to save their opera house after the visit from Cornerstone, life in Norcatur may not change much, although the townsfolk do talk of another production this spring. Farmer Lee Eckhart, 65, says that having only a bit role helped him keep his perspective on such theatrics. “If my part were bigger,” he says, “some agent mighta called me with a million-dollar deal, and I’d have to make a choice about my life.”

As for the Cornerstoners, they’re now working on a production for a Nevada Indian reservation, due later this year. Then they might even take on Alaska. “We’d do it during eternal night,” says managing director Alison Carey, 27. “They said that’s when they’d need us most.”

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