Ten Years, a Stoplight, and Sleeping in a Copy Room
This post is part of a series about Cornerstone Theater Company's California Bridge Tour, the culmination of our work with ten communities over the past ten years through our Institute Summer Residency Program. Cornerstone's touring production California: The Tempest celebrates and unites these ten communities onstage, in the audiences, and in the content and themes of the play's script and design. This series uses the communities as jumping off points to share thinking and experiences specific to the project, as well as Cornerstone's longtime practice of creating community-based theater.
Where were you, ten years ago in the summer of 2004? Cornerstone Theater Company (CTC) was birthing a grand idea. The Cornerstone Summer Residency Institute was an experiment in teaching, art making, and strangers living together in a middle school. Cornerstone recognized that there were limited experiential opportunities for students to study community-based theatermaking. The company was receiving inquiries from people around the country looking for opportunities to shadow, intern, and learn about CTC’s methodology. There was a need in the field for immersive community-engaged training and there was a need for the company to find a way to teach our methodology. A small town called Lost Hills captured the hearts and imaginations of the CTC staff—and the school superintendent Jerry Scott wasn’t completely weirded out that a theater company wanted to sleep in his classrooms.
Ten years ago Lost Hills had an active Visioning Committee—a group striving to make the town healthier and safer for its residents. Many of the streets were not paved. There was no stoplight to slow down speeding traffic. There was an Arby’s, by the interstate. The town was most famous for its neighboring community of Blackwell’s Corner AKA “James Dean’s Last Stop.” A handful of concerned residents, a strong school superintendent, and a gregarious nun were the initial hosts that welcomed Cornerstone.
Ten years ago my life took a sharp turn—or more accurately a long flight from BWI to LAX and a two-and-a-half-hour drive north on I-5. I can clearly remember that first moment of coming down the Grapevine into the Central Valley and being awestruck—it’s all so damn big! And you can see so far! My familiar Virginia landscape suddenly seemed small. I remember the dorky joy of unpacking my little suitcase next to a single mattress on the floor of the copy room off the library. I was one of eighteen students from across the country. I’d come to learn, listen, and absorb as much as possible from the folks whose names I had read in my graduate studies. I was radiating the “a little too eager” vibe, which I now see and am completely charmed by in twenty-somethings. It was a time of saturated moments: making art mashed with living with strangers and teetering on emotional and physical limits in consecutive fourteen-hour days. Summer of 2004 was a foundation for how I make art, how I work as a community organizer, and where I began honing my ability to sleep almost anywhere.
Now ten years later, I find myself back in Lost Hills, on staff with Cornerstone as the Community Partnerships Associate for the touring production of California: The Tempest. From August 2014 through June 2015 we are revisiting all ten communities where we have hosted our Summer Residency program.
Earlier this year, in preparation for a round of site visits, we focused on reconnecting with our previous partners and cast members in each community. We made calls to disconnected numbers, and in some cases researched obituaries. We had occasional successful connections to grateful and excited voices that were thrilled we were coming back.
Caption: Chuy-Jesus Sanchez, a fifteen-year-old cast member in 2004, who died in a car accident one year before our April 2014 visit.
In April and May, playwright Alison Carey, director Michael John Garcés, and I—along with the occasional rotating cast of CTC staff—visited all ten host communities for the touring production of California: The Tempest. We spent one to three days in each place conducting story circles, youth workshops, interviews, and holding preliminary auditions. It was a whirlwind tour through the Golden State that solidified community partnerships, and informed Alison’s writing of the play.
Coming into town for our site visit to Lost Hills was like encountering a friend you loved but had long since been out of touch with—her smile is familiar but maybe you can’t recall her name. She looks at you like she knows you—and she does—but she knows some younger version of you. She hugs you like it hasn’t been ten years, like a lifetime hasn’t passed. She is genuinely happy you are back in town and you are wading through memories in the midst of reunion.
Ten years later and a recent $15 million investment by Lynda Resnick of Paramount Farms, and this town looks different! In April when we arrived for preliminary auditions we met ten of our previous cast members—all those calls paid off! Christian Nolgen is now fourteen-years-old and Luis Hernandez is twenty-one. When he was four, Christian said one of the sweetest lines in the play Waking Up in Lost Hills: “My eyes is open now!”
Agustin was one of our clown characters in Waking up in Lost Hills.
He recognizes me and in perfect broken English says his line from the play, “I wish our streets were paved.” And quickly follows it with “Now, have you seen? They are paved!” He laughs and his eyes twinkle with pride in his home. Now there are sidewalks! And a stoplight! Juan and Rosie are out walking in the new park. They join this informal mini-cast reunion at the community center, where we are all standing around laughing and a little dumbstruck.
I’m a little weepy because I remember who I was then. I remember how the stories of this community changed my life. I was shaped artistically, personally, and as an organizer. The community has stayed and made families, created a safe and healthy vision for their town, and made rich lives full of love. I’ve gone on to make art around the country—able to do so because of what I learned in Lost Hills.
We are now in rehearsals for California: The Tempest. Luis Hernandez is on the full ten-community tour with us as part of the production crew. While many of the previous cast members are unable to participate as performers this time, they are all excited to see the play—and fondly reflect on that experience as a special moment in their lives. They have also been strong community advocates for the show and encouraged their family members to participate as performers.
There are big existential questions surrounding this Bridge Tour. What is the impact it has on a community performer to participate in a play about their town? What is the impact that making a place-based-play has on the place? While as far as I know there is no direct connection between Lost Hills getting a stoplight and paved roads and a play Cornerstone produced ten years ago, I believe that part of the answer is somewhere in the twinkle in Agustin’s eye. The answer is in the way a community member glows when they talk about where they live and the treasures of that place. It changes us when we are truly seen by others—seen for our complex and beautiful existence. Lost Hills is no longer just a place to speed through on your way to the coast. It is a good place to raise a family, play soccer, and get fantastic homemade raspados and gorditas. And in September, it was a good place to see California: The Tempest and ask yourself, how different will I be in 10 years because of this moment?