(DJ FEELGOOD hosting Skid Row Internet radio station at Cornerstone. Featuring exclusive interviews from Skid Row community actors in Love on San Pedro. Photographer: Dave Gaw. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)
One of my most memorable experiences with Cornerstone was sitting in the audience behind a mother who brought her little boy to see the play Love on San Pedro. Before the play started, the kid looked at his mom and with much excitement said to her, “Mom, I’ve never seen a play.” His mom looked back at him and smiling responded, “Me neither.”
At the beginning of the Hunger Cycle, a six-year, nine-play exploration of issues of hunger and food equity in underserved communities throughout Los Angeles and California, Cornerstone created a series of audience engagement events called Creative Seeds. Through Creative Seeds we aim to deepen our interactions with audiences and provide more opportunities for individuals to take hold of their artistic agency and connect more deeply to the cultural and artistic landscape that surrounds them but that so often remains invisible and inaccessible. This deepened engagement, we hope, will lead to repeat audiences for the Hunger Cycle and build bridges between the communities and audiences of each production.
Because Cornerstone’s work hinges on the exchange between artist and community, we are always seeking to facilitate the community’s story-telling and to cultivate their artistic talents through the hands-on approach of working alongside professional actors in high-quality productions. Likewise, we aim to create a theater experience for audiences that positions them as informed, receptive, and active listeners. To that end, we ask ourselves: How do we amplify the experience of audience members who are part of the community in which we are working for a given production? What is the most engaging and dynamic programming that we can build around our productions? How can we keep community participants (first time actors, designers, costumers) and audiences connected through the entire Hunger Cycle? And finally, how can we better include the community in the thinking and implementation of such programming?
(Audience members were invited to join the conversation about Love on San Pedro and the Skid Row community alongside Cornerstone artists, cast and community members. Photographer: Cornerstone Theater Company.)
As a way to answer some of these questions we have launched a new initiative to rethink Creative Seeds: Community Connectors. We will select 4 to 12 individuals from our past communities to shape new Creative Seeds with the help and support of staff and ensemble. In the past Creative Seeds was planned by Cornerstone staff; however, the fresh and unique perspective of community members, together with their leadership and intimate acquaintance with their respective communities, will revitalize this audience engagement programming. Part of the process of the Community Connectors will be to participate in workshops where Cornerstone artists and staff share working methods of community-based theater. Community Connectors will also meet with Cornerstone staff on a regular basis to receive mentoring and continued guidance as the project progresses.
We expect our challenges with Community Connectors to reflect those we face in the rehearsal room. In the midst of busy and often very difficult circumstances, community members chose to engage in art-making with us but are at times caught in a net of that difficulty—they stop coming, or they are unable to feel present, or concentrate because their minds are occupied with more urgent needs than art. This is a challenge innate to our work and our approach will be flexibility and understanding. We have a network of Cornerstone staff and ensemble providing support through training and guidance throughout the project.
(Love On San Pedro Cast and community members come together to talk about their experiences on this production. Photographer: Cornerstone Theater Company.)
Ultimately, the Community Connector initiative for Creative Seeds is an experiment in two types of engagement: community participation that hopefully leads to self-empowerment, and audience engagement that leads to more active arts participation. Our expectation is that in leveraging the relationship of some of our most dynamic and involved community members in the planning and implementation of Creative Seeds, we will create events that are more engaging for community audiences and we will cultivate leadership and self-empowerment among the Community Connectors, sparking a hunger for art and spurring the mobilization of their networks to work towards deeper arts engagement. At the same time, Creative Seeds events, like our plays, will provide conventional theatergoers with an opportunity to understand these unique communities more deeply.
Hearing that short talk between that little kid and his mom was something very powerful for me. However, what I really wanted to hear was the conversation that followed the performance. Does this mean that coming to the theater will become a new family tradition? How will this first experience with theater impact this mother and child? How do we provide an opportunity for them to take part in the art-making within this production, as their friends and neighbors are doing on stage? How do we make sure this first play is not their last?
Cesar Ivan Ortega graduated from the University of California, Riverside in 2013 with a B.A. in Theater. He was a student at the Cornerstone Summer Institute i10, in Salinas, CA. He worked for the Creative Seeds and Partner Nights during the run of Love on San Pedro, and is now helping develop these programs for the production of Bliss Point.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.