Outside the box — Joseph Cornell’s life now on stage
BY MARY HOULIHAN July 25, 2013 10:24AM
Mark Dodge and Katie Sherman star in the On the Spot Theatre Company's production of "How to Make a Rainbow."
‘How to Make a Rainbow’
♦ July 26-Aug. 18
♦ Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
♦ Tickets, $20
♦ (773) 404-7336;
Joseph Cornell, maker of collages, constructions and experimental films, is one of the more interesting characters in the annals of American art. A self-taught artist, he is best known for his glass-fronted boxes in which he arranged found objects to create visual poems about ideas, memories, fantasies and dreams.
Stare into one of these artworks and you can get lost in Cornell’s creative thinking. This is what happened to Michael Brayndick who for the past decade has been writing and shaping a play about the artist’s life. “How to Make a Rainbow,” written and directed by Brayndick, is now set to have its world premiere at On the Spot Theatre.
The play combines drama and humor, lyricism and fantasy and features Matthew Stroh, Katie Sherman, Erik Martin, Mark Dodge, Emma Brayndick and Casey Brayndick. The actors play multiple roles in bringing Cornell’s story to the stage.
Brayndick’s interest in Cornell began in graduate school at the University of Iowa where he was studying interdisciplinary arts and looking at the major metaphors in various media — film, modern art, literature and poetry. He would go on to write his dissertation on Cornell.
“He had this wonderful way of working across disciplines and combining disparate materials to create metaphors,” Brayndick says. “I love the fact that his work is so playful and fun and that there is so much to respond to in it.”
While working on the dissertation, he developed contacts at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian, which also became his base when some years later he began working on the play. The story of Cornell’s family had long fascinated Brayndick. The artist spent most of his life in Queens, New York, in a house on Utopia Parkway where he lived with his mother and disabled brother, Robert.
“How to Make a Rainbow” explores this familial relationship and its effect on Cornell. The play, which is a roundelay of scenes, also moves outside that circle to include Cornell’s connection to other artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali, the ballerina Marie Taglioni, the poet Emily Dickinson, and one lonely Medici princess.
Cornell was a very passionate observer of everything around him. But the artist was not without his frustrations as he moves from creating art to caring for his mother and brother.
“Part of what the play shows is that tension inside Cornell,” Brayndick says. “He was so invested in the ordinary details of everyday life that it was hard for him to disconnect his family life from his daily life from his artistic life. But without all these connections he might not have been able to do what he did with his art.”
Brayndick feels Cornell’s life’s work is an attempt to “reconnect to that wellspring of wonder and joy and happiness he had when he was very young.
“Cornell used that inspiration to create his art but not just as an escape from the present but as a way to make each moment in the present as fully lived as possible. The goal of the play is to, as best we can, evoke some of that wonder.”
As far as reading up on Cornell life before you see the play, Brayndick feels audience members will respond to the basic elements of family life underlined in the play. But it wouldn’t hurt to at least peruse Cornell’s Wikipedia page. And for those who want to learn more, Brayndick will take part in talkbacks after performances on July 27, Aug. 2 and 10.
NOTE: The Art Institute of Chicago has a great collection of Cornell’s work, a selection of which are on display at the museum. For a look at the complete collection, go to http://bit.ly/13ZLIon
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.