Hey, Fowler, you get to take the stage once again. This theater thing gets in your bones, right?
In 2011, the small city found itself in the spotlight when the traveling professional Cornerstone Theater Company pulled into town for an extended stay. This was a different kind of touring company — one that works extensively with people in each community it visits to craft a play with a decidedly local touch.
The result in Fowler was a play titled, appropriately enough, “A Man Comes to Fowler,” and it took a crack at revealing the textures and nuances of the town, often in the residents’ own words.
Noted writer and farmer David Mas Masumoto, whose family participated in the production, wrote about the production in The Bee: “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.”
Now it’s 2015, and Cornerstone is back in Fowler — catching up with old friends, making some new ones — as the company puts together another locally sourced show. This one has a different twist, however. Fowler is one of 10 cities in the state to host “California: The Tempest,” a loose adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Other cities in the tour include Arvin, Lost Hills, Eureka, Holtville, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Shakespeare has been adapted, modified, set in outer space and on a loading zone of a Wal-Mart, tinkered with, blown apart, stuffed in a food processor and everything else you can think of over the years, of course. So rewriting one of his works, as playwright Alison Carey has done with “California: The Tempest,” is nothing new.
Thus we have Prosper, not Prospero, who was governor of California until her sister, Antonia, bounced her out of the seat 18 years ago. Marked for death, Prosper and her daughter, Minerva (the Miranda from the original play) escape to a mountaintop, where Prosper gains the magical powers key to her in the play.
In place of the huge storm at sea that Prospero arranges in the original Shakespeare version, Prosper summons both a storm and earthquake — a nice local touch — that forces Antonia’s private plane to crash on the mountaintop, setting up the hijinks and drama to come.
Along the way, such present-day topics as democracy, corporations and cell phones are bandied about, along with a discussion about what a “new” California could look like after the destruction of the earthquake.
Again, it isn’t the tinkering with Shakespeare that is the story here. What is impressive is how Cornerstone comes into a city and helps tailor the show to that community.
Traveling with a complement of 13 actors — four of whom are professionals — the Cornerstone tour is joined in each city by a cast of between 15 and 20 locals in the chorus along with locals in four speaking roles and playing spirits. An advanced team arrived in Fowler nearly two weeks ago to collaboratively write the text spoken by the chorus, which offers the best example of local flavor in the production.
When the company played in Salinas a few weeks ago, for example, one of the big local concerts was police violence, says Michael John Garces, the company’s artistic director.
It’s too early to say what Fowler’s cast will work into the chorus. (Maybe a rain dance?)
For Garces, the impact of his nonprofit company’s work in different California communities has a lot to do with not only getting local audiences to observe the art of theater, but also to convince people with little or no acting experience to actually participate.
“Walking across the stage and speaking with confidence can be pretty life-changing,” he says. “And when you’re in the audience and seeing someone you know from your community on stage, that can be exciting.”
Shakespeare can be intimidating for actors and audiences alike. And because of that it can feel very distant and unattainable. But that’s not what the playwright intended, Garces reminds us. Like opera, the works of Shakespeare were written to be crowd-pleasers and accessible, not the exclusive province of the educated and well-to-do.
“California: The Tempest” can break down barriers and get everyone’s artistic juices flowing, and the result can be an impressive display of civic democracy.
“They’re just stories,” Garces says. “And anybody’s stories can be on stage.”