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Cleveland Artist Spotlights
Cornell Calhoun, III
Cornell Calhoun, III
I believe you’ve got to have goals. It doesn’t matter if they’re close or far-reaching. You’ve just got to have something to sustain yourself. Something to work towards.
Cornell Calhoun, III is a playwright and actor who was born and raised in Cleveland, and to this day still calls it his home. We sat down with him to talk about his artistic career and how he got to where he is now. Even as a seasoned playwright, having a career that spans five decades, Calhoun continues to grow as an artist. He strives to meet his goals, his three biggest being: 1) to have a play at the Cleveland Play House, 2) to have a play at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and 3) to win a Tony so he can stand on TV and say “this Tony is for Cleveland.”
1. How did you get introduced to your craft?
I began writing poetry and short stories in high school. My high school English Teacher encouraged my writing. In college I began acting and Professor Shedrick Lyons helped me to produce my first play in 1968: “The Chocolate Garden.” The play centered around the first black family moving into a white neighborhood and the struggles that ensued. I had personally experienced “backlash” resulting from black neighbors moving into white neighborhoods and the negative events that resulted from such moves in 1965.
2. Describe briefly the work that you do.
I serve as Arts and Culture Coordinator for the City of Cleveland. In that capacity, I am responsible for all City sponsored Arts and Culture events, including the display of all Arts Events in the Rotunda. This includes all art displays, musical and theater performances.
3. Do you have any long-standing influences?
Although persons living in the neighborhood were poor, it was a very “close knit” community. Neighbors taking care of each other, both adults and children. State Representative Troy Lee James, representing the 12th District, owned a grocery store that was the community “gathering place” for both adults and children. Not only did it serve as a “safe” place to be, it served as a “communication center.”
4. Describe your idea of artistic success.
Being a successful teller of stories and being able to influence the audience. Using a blank canvass to paint portraits of the City- - the blessings, the failures, the curses, the challenges and the never ending HOPE! Having the ability to speak to the audience and to say that no matter how hard the struggle there is always HOPE!
5. What is your process for generating new ideas?
An insightful television story or sharing personal stories or events. I love talking to people, sharing their stories and taking notes about their experiences. Music is also an important part of the process.
6. What role does music play for you in generating new ideas and producing written work?
Music is almost essential. I am currently writing a piece called “Crystal Clear” that will be done at the Dobama Theatre in June of 2016. It’s about the journey of a mother, her 3 daughters and her ex-husband as they deal with cancer. A couple days ago, I was listening to “Blew Your Mind” by Paul Hardcastle, and while listening, I envisioned how the mother would initially introduce the audience to the fact that she had cancer. I imagined how the children would respond. Music adds so much color to whatever you are writing or directing because even though it’s audio, it’s also visual. I use music in my plays to create a mood and a time. I can hear a song and it will take me right back to where I was when I heard it before.
7. How do you feel your works affects your audience?
I want my audience to be moved by the events that reflects true life with all of the ups and downs, the tragedies, miseries and disappointments. I want my audience to feel hope and to know that one can always find beauty in life regardless of the trials and tribulations. No one can rest on past laurels and accomplishments. One must continue to strive to be successful in life, as exemplified in my play “The Mighty Scarabs.” Understanding that a successful life is not measured by material things, fame or accolades, but is measured by relentless strength and a dedication to living.
8. Was there a turning point in your life which led you to your pure outlook on ideas of personal success and contentment?
I believe that whatever you put out in life, you get back. So, I don’t necessarily worry about being compensated for certain things because I believe I’ve gotten this far because I’ve always been a giving person. I’m always a person people can depend on and I don’t take any compensation. I guess it’s just my belief in God. I believe if you’re a good person, good things are gonna happen for you. Doesn’t mean you won’t face hard times - everybody does.
There’s this quote in my play, “The Chocolate Garden” that says, “The one thing about dealing with bad times is it makes you stronger and you know that good times are coming, so you still have something to look forward to.” That’s how I’ve always looked at life. I’ve given a lot more than I’ve gotten, and I’m okay with that. I want to see other people happy. I take pride in knowing that somebody else felt good. And it probably came from my parents. When we were little, my mother made sure that we always acknowledged birthdays with a card or something. That taught me the value of making somebody else feel good and happy.
9. From what you describe about your work, a recurring theme that seems to emerge is the concept of resilience and human strength. What interests you about this concept? Is the exploration derived from personal experience or the observed experience of others?
Well, my whole life I had to show resilience. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood and had to deal with a lot of issues. Many of my family members fell victim to the ills in their community. I don’t smoke or drink and fortunately I never was incarcerated. Seeing the ills of my family helped to fortify me. I had a sister who was mentally ill and I grew up with a lot of rough characters. My goal was to make it and I had a lot of friends who didn’t make it because they fell prey to the streets. Most of my work centers around Cleveland, the inner city, and what people have to deal with in the inner city. One thing The Plain Dealer said in an article about me is that I write about what I know.