September 1, 2011
Summer in Fowler
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.
“The sense of camp-like community … was palpable.”
I want to be honest about how positively spoiled the students of the 8th Institute Summer Residency 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).
“Watching the park transform into a performance venue over the course of those 4 weeks was particularly incredible.”
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.
Sabrina Sikes Thornton is Cornerstone’s Associate Director of Development, and a graduate of the 8th Cornerstone Institute Summer Residency.