August 25, 2015
The [Intern]al Perspective: Reflections on the California Bridge Tour
“I’ve done plays. You might meet some nice people and maybe not. You might connect and maybe not. But there was something about this experience where I connected with everybody. I went to LA. I rode a bus for 6 hours because I wanted to see the show. I wanted to see it from a different perspective and I was excited about being there. I knew that I had made friends with people I will always have, and made a connection with a theater company that personifies the way I walk through the world. It was really, really wonderful.”
There was a pause. “You still there?” Iris Diaz was worried that I had stopped listening or that the call had dropped. “Yes, yes, I’m still here!” I just had no words, no follow up questions to her response because all I felt was a gushing feeling of pride for Cornerstone. She was the sixth person I had interviewed about their experience with Cornerstone Theater Company and California: The Tempest. Doing these interviews, I realized I could not have anticipated or accounted for all the unique, subtle and tender ways in which the tour impacted the lives of its community participants.
This past year, Cornerstone, celebrating a decade of Institute Summer Residencies with a new production, California: The Tempest, returned to ten California communities where they incorporated local community members into a play by gathering their input as well as casting them in roles onstage. The community members I interviewed participated as actors in the play or as advisors or local organizational partners.
Over the span of three weeks, I spoke with a diverse group of participants. Their ages ranged from pre-teens to senior citizens. Their occupations ranged from actors to social workers, middle school teachers to retirees. They came from sprawling cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to quiet farming towns like Weedpatch and Fowler. These participants didn’t have much in common except for their willingness to passionately and insightfully tell me what Cornerstone’s work meant to them.
Some of the participants had previous theater or performance experience of some kind, though most didn’t. As San Francisco cast member, Sarah Bennett pointed out,
“There were a lot of older adults there too who were like, ‘I’ve never done a play and I’ve always wanted to do a play.’ I’m thinking, my god, this hard for me to commit to. This is pretty amazing that [these seniors are] taking the train from the east bay and doing it all on their own and realizing something they’ve always wanted to be a part of, just later in life.”
Listening to Sarah Bennett, two things became clearer to me. First: Cornerstone was creating new points of access in theater; bringing theater to people who would not have otherwise gotten the opportunity to experience it. This community access was heightened not only by making theater locationally available, but also by making plays that were contextually relatable and a production schedule that was do-able in terms of time. Second: Every participant interviewed felt that the reward of involvement in this Cornerstone production surpassed the sacrifice they made to be involved. While Sarah was amazed at the seniors’ efforts to participate, her own story echoed this challenge. Even struggling to get out of work early and find a babysitter for the first time, Sarah voiced how committed she felt to California: The Tempest. Hearing her voice ripple as she recapped some of her most memorable experiences later in the interview, the personal worth of her involvement was palpable.
Another significant benefit from California: The Tempest reported in interviews was the project’s capacity to bring a diversity of people together. While race, religion, and background were a part of this diversity, most interviewees commented on the diversity of age in Cornerstone’s work.
“I never really got to interact with the older community,” 17-year-old Fowler community participant Manpreet Kaur commented. “I only ever interacted with my high school friends or students in general. But now I met 60 year olds and 30 year olds who had been living in Fowler their whole lives. And I got this amazing new perspective.”
Bennett also echoed this idea: “I don’t really have that much contact with seniors. My dad’s no longer living. So within that it was great to talk to a lot of people who had a lot of Bay Area history, real history that was here.”
Sunset Middle School teacher Jose Valadez, from a small, unincorporated, rural town, added, “It was amazing to see how Cornerstone was bringing this broad group of people spread across all of California and they brought them together for this one thing. And I remember, I think it was Peter and Bahni, they shared this little moment at the very first performance at Weedpatch, one of them said to the other, ‘We’re in a gym in Weedpatch and we’re performing Shakespeare and we’re taking it very seriously.’ To be a part of that is truly unique. There was no business in any of that transpiring right there where it did, but it did. No one in his or her right mind would have done any of that. But that’s what makes it such a unique experience; no one is doing that!”
“No one is doing that!” I repeated to myself thinking back on the interview. For me, to do something that no one else is doing teeters on the line between insanity and impactful ingenuity. Valadez’s story spoke to that end; Cornerstone’s production of California: The Tempest, bringing Shakespeare to an agricultural town like Weedpatch, could be seen by some as a little crazy. But really, Cornerstone’s work is innovative and original. Cornerstone brings together an ensemble of professional artists with people who would never think of themselves as artists to produce unique works based on their concerns. Participants have the opportunity to creatively express and share their concern and affection for their community, fostering new bonds and understanding within the community. Most importantly, I realized that “No one is doing that!” proves the need for Cornerstone’s work because if Cornerstone didn’t, who would?
Bridging social justice and art, Cornerstone reminds me of the infinite possibility of art in its power to bring people together. In a literal sense, Cornerstone’s production of California: The Tempest brought together people of different ages and backgrounds. But, in a figurative sense, the production served as a foundation for people to bond over their mutual interest in theater and concern and love for their community. Amassing a collection of recorded interviews and transcripts, I find that this physical record doesn’t even begin to account for the impact Cornerstone makes and the overwhelming sense of warmth and togetherness it generates. I’m grateful and proud to have worked for Cornerstone. I could not have asked for a more welcoming, kind and fiercely devoted community to be a part of this summer.
Written by Clara Bartlett, Cornerstone’s Data Analysis Intern. Clara is studying Philosophy at Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA. This internship is made possible by the Wellesley College Department of Philosophy and the Pforzheimer Summer Internship Program.