Cornerstone Theater Company: Cultivating community with Creative Seeds

by Daniel Penilla

in Audience (R)Evolution

Post image for Cornerstone Theater Company: Cultivating community with Creative Seeds

(Creative Seeds Community Connectors pictured with members of Urban Latin Dance Theater, Contra-Tiempo, during a performance of Full Still Hungry @ Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. Photo by Keith Alvarez. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)

Maria Cano and I finished packing up the car after a Creative Seeds Art Break led by Fabian Debora at Elysian Valley Gateway Park. Maria had been a community actor in Café Vida and Seed: A Weird Act of Faith and was now one of our eleven Community Connectors hired for Bliss Point, our fifth Hunger Cycle production in collaboration with addiction and recovery communities. She looked over and takes a moment before she says, “You know what?  More people need to come to these things. I want to see more people come to see this play.” I nodded and she continued, “We have been talking about things that I know about, that people that I have grown up with know because we’ve lived it.  Seeing this would do something. It did something for me when I was in it but now seeing it, I want more people to see the play.”

As we continued to drive Maria started asking questions about how we could make this happen, how we could and what we should be doing to get more people to experience the work that we are creating. She had an excitement and drive that was tinted with a frustration of wanting to be able to solve it instantly because it meant that much to her. Her questions aligned with questions and conversations that we were having as a company. Questions like: how can we deepen our engagement with communities? How do we increase audiences for our productions? How can we maintain relationships with past communities participants and partners? The questions that Maria raised led us to reimagining Creative Seeds and hiring past community participants as Community Connectors.

Daniel Penilla at Second Helpings Bliss Point Audience Reunion

(Daniel Penilla, left, at Second Helpings: Bliss Point Audience Reunion. Photo by CTC Staff.)

Creative Seeds are a host of art-filled events inspired and created with the community for each of our productions. They started in 2011, to launch our Hunger Cycle and have continued since. We invite community organizations and individuals to join us for Creative Seeds events that bring together artists, activists, thought leaders and community members to explore experiences of hunger. What we started feeling was that there was an opportunity to deepen our engagement with communities and audiences by changing the way we approached Creative Seeds. Instead of just inviting people to these events, we would invite Community Connectors to create these events with us and build audience for our current production, Bliss Point.

We reached out to past community participants from our four previous shows with a goal of hiring three people from each of the past four communities we had worked with. One of the challenges that we found early on was the need to hire a Creative Seeds Coordinator that would work with the Connectors throughout the process. Along with our Creative Seeds staff members, the Creative Seeds Coordinator, facilitated the bi-monthly Connector Convenings, oversaw the Menu of Creative Seeds Events, and kept the company connected to the work that the Connectors were hosting.

The Connectors started by having a Community Connectors retreat. Similar to our Two Day Intensives the Connectors spent a day learning about our process of creating plays with communities. They discussed the communities they would like to work with and what Creative Seeds events they were interested in hosting. They also met bi-monthly for Connector Convenings, in which they shared and strategized on the impact they felt these events would have on their communities and how they could get audience to the show. These convenings were rich in conversation and it was amazing to see a group of people that may not have collaborated together otherwise, offer ideas and share stories.

Set design workshop with the residents of Beit T’Shuvah led by Bliss Point set designer, Nephelie Andonyadis

(Set design workshop with the residents of Beit T’Shuvah led by Bliss Point set designer, Nephelie Andonyadis. Photo by Keith Alvarez. )

As the convenings progressed, the empowerment and connection to the production that the Connectors felt also seemed to increase. They shared stories of meeting people that they invited to the show. They made announcements at their church services, their children’s school events, and at family functions. They took their job very seriously and came back with ideas that kept our staff running to catch up with them. There was a great shift that happened naturally – the Connectors were asking for what was needed in order for their community to attend the production. Needs like printing more flyers they could carry with them, more time to canvass and meet with groups in their communities, and transportation for guests that they were bringing to Creative Seeds events and performances. At our final convening, after Bliss Point closed, the Connectors shared stories of being excited when someone came to see the play because they personally invited them. Or when they talked to someone at intermission that they met at one of the Creative Seeds events.

The Community Connectors curated and hosted a total of seven Creative Seeds events. These events consisted of four ART BREAKS: participatory art making activities culminating in collaborative work and exhibitions.  Two AT THE TABLE events: discussions with artists, leaders, advocates and community members; including post show discussions with the cast and artistic team of Bliss Point. And two SINGLE SERVINGS: performances, events and installations created by local and guest artists.  The Connectors worked closely with Creative Seeds Artists: Nephelie Andonyadis, Cornerstone Ensemble Member and scenic designer for Bliss Point, Fabian Debora, local artist and Substance Abuse Counselor at Homeboy Industries and Ana Maria Alvarez, Artistic Director of CONTRA-TIEMPO.

PARTNER NIGHT Beit T’Shuvah. An evening of discussion with our Bliss Point community and cast members

(PARTNER NIGHT: Beit T’Shuvah. An evening of discussion with our Bliss Point community and cast members. Photo by Cesar Ortega.)

The conversation that Maria and I shared that day has stayed with me. It continues to inspire new questions about how we can deepen the experiences of our audiences and community members. The relationships that the Connectors have built with each other, with the Creative Seeds Artists, and with their communities will continue to strengthen as long as we can continue to provide these opportunities.

7 - Daniel Penilla1Daniel Penilla moved to Los Angeles from the gritty suburban streets of Orange County to continue his journey as a storyteller.  He came to Cornerstone in 2011 as a student at the Summer Institute in Fowler and instantly felt connected to the work. He has worked with Cornerstone as an actor in Café Vida and assistant director for SEED: A Weird Act of Faith. He trained as an actor at Circle In The Square Theatre School and Labyrinth Theater Company and has a degree in Sociology with an emphasis in race, class, and gender from Cal State Fullerton. His experiences as a storyteller and love of creating and discovering have led him to work and develop relationships with various organizations and companies in many capacities. From acting, directing, and producing, to working as a theater consultant with the Santa Ana High School District to develop and implement curriculum that incorporates theater and ensemble models, he is always driven by the connection that the work brings. Daniel is excited to be a part of a team that creates opportunities with communities and individuals in a way that opens discussion for change.


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.