How does a town tell its story? If a stranger wandered into any of our Valley towns, what would they see, hear and feel?
Cornerstone Theater Company, a nationally recognized theater group based in Los Angeles, arrived in Fowler to do just that: discover life in a small town and create a play to tell its story.
Their approach: community-based theater, a blend of professionals and students but mainly community members. They sought input, collecting information from story circles (small group conversations) and interviews. It's as if the play began with informal conversations that not only could become part of the play, but the average person on the street may find themselves in the final script.
Cornerstone responds to what's here, adapting voices from the community, inviting community members to become actors and join in the production (full disclosure: my family and I are participating in the production, some of us are even on stage). Is it art brought to Fowler or is Fowler creating art? Are we amateurs trying to act or is Cornerstone the outlier, renegade theater company?
The play is called "A Man Comes to Fowler," but this is not a typical story -- not oral history, not a dramatized documentary. We hear stories, a glimpse into the past and present, based on the lives of real people. It's a window into who we are and aren't. A sense of place anchors emotions.
As a writer, I'm struck by the difference between story and performance. This play is not just about words but people and specifically place. A scene can take on different meanings based on who's in the room -- community members respond to the material and allowed to be themselves. Most involved are not professionals and it shows -- in a good way. We are misfits on stage, but so too would be a play about a Valley town if it were performed on Broadway.
The Cornerstone method is different. They've visited Fowler gathering images and impressions. They host a summer institute with students from across the nation and world, housed at the Buddhist Church in Fowler. Open auditions were held, not to judge but to invite participation, some roles invented to include those interested. A script was written and is rewritten as rehearsals unfold. Everyone is allowed input, they can help craft a scene or change a line. But numerous professionals -- including a seasoned director and script writer -- shepherd the process. They require patience.
This is not community theater staging a classic work. This community-based play will result in a professionally created work in the center of town, in the park with lighting, costumes and a shadow box background. This is all out of character for a small Valley town -- and yet may be precisely the universal character of all our towns: an appreciation of the everyday and transient life as our towns evolve and change.
This story ventures beyond words because it's performed. History comes alive? Actors telling stories? Yes, but it is something more -- the community actors slip into the themselves, not a character. Real people and places become the story, the history of this small community transformed.
I call it embodying. A small town's story is performed for the town by members of that community. A character becomes the whole character, not a symbol but a real person you recognize. A play is physical and that can make a story real. A play is performed live, actors work in the present. That's so very different for me as a writer.
Of course, stories are missing. Some are forgotten, some were never expressed, others may be too painful to be relived. Part of the way our small communities grow and evolve is to bury part of our history -- no one should be proud of the racism of the past, the discrimination by class, the prejudice of privilege. Some may want these stories told so we will remember; others want to move on.
Community-based theater responds to these contradictions by acting on stories that are shared. When it works, it's the evolution of a place that matters. Like many of our small towns, people do change and accept the past with humility and hesitancy. We then frame our stories so they translate into tolerance and acceptance. That's how we grow.
Fowler is not the Fowler of 80 years ago. Those who hated small-town minds have left. Those who long for the good old days will not engage in this play. Yet, I hope for more hard conversations. Over and over I hear a common description: Our small towns are good places to live in.
Missing are some of the critical voices and much of the passion that makes a place unique and powerful. Telling the truth in a small town is challenging. It requires people with courage to honestly address issues and listen deeply, to reflect and act on what is shared.
Perhaps that's why a professional theater company like Cornerstone comes to Fowler. To embody our story and creatively share it with ourselves, providing the community with an opportunity for deep listening. Cornerstone doesn't hold up a mirror. Instead, they help us understand that we hold the mirror to the past in our everyday actions and life.
How do we tell our story? We already are.
IF YOU GO Cornerstone Theater Company presents A Man Comes to Fowler, written by: Julie Marie Myatt, directed by: Laurie Woolery * 8:30 p.m. Aug. 11, 12 and 13, Panzak Park, East Merced and South Third Street in Fowler * Tickets: Pay what you can (free with suggested $10 donation) * Reservations and details: (800) 578-1335
Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. He is author of new book Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land. Send email to him at