Summer in Fowler – Redux

Sep 30

Summer in Fowler – Redux

I was asked to write a blog for my theater company – and this was the post that is going to be featured on our website. Thought I’d include it here!

I remember driving up CA-99, with fellow Institute student Mary by my side, attempting to answer questions about Cornerstone and what she should expect over the next four weeks. Having worked for Cornerstone in various capacities for close to four years, one would think I knew exactly what kind of situation I was walking into. And I did know what the Institute looked like from the outside – a 4-week crash course in Cornerstone’s community-based methodology in the form of both formal classes and actual production work. But I wasn’t sure what the relationships between the 15 students would grow into, or how involved the students would be in producing the actual show, or how integral we would be to the actual process of making the play happen. I had never even been to Fowler – though I had passed the sign on my way to Yosemite a few times.

I want to be honest about how positively spoiled the students of the 8th Annual Institute were. Usually, students are lodged in makeshift arrangements in a school or church in the community. This means mattresses on the floor, 4 or 6 to a room, and showering in a literal shed with a bag full of water that you have to heat in the sunlight. Not kidding. Housing became a particular headache to arrange in Fowler, and because the folks at the local La Quinta wanted to offer a generous discount, we were able to stay in brand-new rooms with queen beds, new linens, a gym and a pool. We were not roughing it.

But the sense of camp-like community felt within the student and staff group was palpable. Every morning I walked into the Buddhist church youth hall to have my mismatched mug of coffee, my bowl of Kashi “go-lean” with coconut milk (picked out especially for me by Ensemble designer and summer chef Nephelie Andonyadis, since I have lactose issues), and conversation with one of the 14 strangers I was joining on this adventure. After breakfast, we would have group warm-up (led by a different student each day) followed by class until lunchtime. Our classes ranged from Community Engagement, to Playwriting in a Community-Based Context, to Design in a Community-Based Context. We were asked hard questions, and were invited to pose even more challenging questions to the artists who are actively participating in this work. We were welcomed to disagree.

As I got to know the town, and the people, I began to develop an affinity for a few specific locations. My favorite spot was definitely the library, not only because of the air conditioning and water fountain, but also because the folks working there were so supportive and excited about the work that Cornerstone was trying to do. If you walked into the library and announced that you were from Cornerstone, they would literally hand you the keys to the copier, the archive room and microfilm files, and send you on your way. We asked if we could use their front room to teach a theater workshop for kids – they asked how many chairs we needed, said the room was ours for the entire day AND placed an ad in the paper about the workshop. We asked if we could create a huge lobby display about the play – they immediately displayed it in front of all their other lobby material so that it was the ONLY thing you could see as you entered the building. We attended a “Friends of the Fowler Library” meeting to pass out flyers about the performances – they immediately asked if we had enough food and offered to bring by crates of peaches, nectarines and raisins (there was a lot of that going on in Fowler – people would just appear at our door with boxes full of fresh produce several times a day).

Panzak Park comes in a close second. Really, it’s almost a tie. The park is a shady spot of green, quiet and peaceful, with park benches, a picnic area, and a jungle gym. The park is also 10-degrees cooler than the rest of the town at any given time. A Man Comes to Fowler was performed there, and watching the park transform into a performance venue over the course of those 4 weeks was particularly incredible. Risers were built, along with scaffolding at least 40 feet high that held the light and sound booths. The small stage that already existed became puppet-land, where Master puppeteers maneuvered paper cut into tiny shapes that, when placed on an overhead projector, became awe-inspiring cityscapes and spooky graveyards. We maneuvered huge raisin bins and crates onto the concrete slab in front of the puppet-land that added dimension and weight to said slab. Amiya, our lighting designer, hung strands of light bulbs around the entire perimeter to create that state-fair kind of feeling that you might have if you lived in the pages of Anne of Green Gables.

Every night before the show was to begin, as Nikki called “places,” I would step out of my costume tent and look across the park to Fowler Baptist Church, aka the greenroom. As the actors spilled out of the church and made their way through the grass, I joked with Michael that it looked like a scene from “Children of the Corn.” They were emerging from the darkness, all 36 of them, in period costumes, backlit by the streetlamps on Merced. But on the last night of performances, as I watched this same routine, I was struck by how stunning the image actually was. There they were, the cheerleaders with their ribbons, Kurt in his overalls and straw hat, Lucy in her vibrant purple dress and slightly crooked wig (which was actually my fault, since I was in charge of wigs) – there were all of these people from Fowler, most of whom don’t think of themselves as “actors,” walking quietly to the stage that had been created just for them to shine. Walking into the world of a play that honored their history, walking into a celebration of their community, as their friends and families laughed and cried and cheered them on.

It was picturesque. It was everything it should have been.


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Summer in Fowler, CA

Aug 18

Summer in Fowler, CA

I’m not sure that I can describe with any semblance of accuracy the experience that I had this summer working and creating theater in Fowler, CA. Cornerstone goes into a different California community every summer and takes up residence in the town, asking community members of all types to be a part of a production. Simultaneously, students come from all over the country, and the world, to be a part of the process and learn Cornerstone’s methodology through classes and first-hand experience. Having worked at Cornerstone for 3 years, I had the unique experience of also being a student at the Institute – with all of this prior knowledge of the company’s work – and looking with new eyes at the practice of community-engaged theater.

There were many frustrations – during tech week particularly. At one point I was in my wardrobe tent behind the audience attempting to help 4 different people with quick changes, sweat running down my face, shakily pressing bobby pins into the wig of one of the community members. It seemed impossible to make this thing work – in all of its beastly glory.

There were moments that brought me to tears – in the circle on opening night – seeing the local children who were members of the cast become emotional when they were talking about how they didn’t want this experience to end. Seeing them shine and be loved and appreciated, and seeing them realize their own potential and grow in their confidence.

And there were moments where I questioned absolutely everything. Why are we doing this work? Does it matter to this community as much as we hope it will? Will it make a difference?

I hope so. It made a difference within me, and I think it’s safe to say it made a difference to the 35 members of the cast, and the crew, and the other Institute students. It was amazing, and insane, and thrilling, and scary.

And now off! To Baltimore for Jacquelyn’s wedding and to look at schools. And then when I come back, it’s application time. Teach for America, Johns Hopkins, Towson, George Washington, among others. Wish me luck!

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