The Center of the World Festival grew from the efforts of a local amateur theater, the Free Speech Zone Theatre, which is a grass-roots group comprised of local people who live in Pine Mountain Club (PMC), a community nestled in the Los Padres National Forest in California. All members of this readers theatre, be they working class or wealthy, retired or young parents, share the desire to create a local community space where all amateurs who love the theatre can come together to explore and create art-based civic dialogue. Their efforts began in 2005, with reader theater productions of "To Inherit the Wind," "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine", and "What I Heard About Iraq."
In 2008, this group was awarded the Pine Mountain Club Community Service Award for providing significant opportunities for the community to learn about community and social issues, with a recognition that read: “In the past three years, they have put on three theatrical readings followed by roundtable discussions. Through these theatrical and communal discussion events, they have given PMC residents a chance to experience open communication about past and present events that have shaped our world today. Providing a free speech atmosphere for social discussion is a plus and should be celebrated.”
The Center of the World Festival (COWFEST for short) was founded in 2008 to take the vision of Free Speech Zone Theatre to a wider audience. COWFEST combines multimedia theatre productions with cultural and community education. Geared for community audiences, its productions address the issues and interests of the community with powerful and innovative dialogic techniques. Productions include recorded interview material, theater, public art, song, music, dance, video and slides, and other creative avenues of expression.
Through celebrating the cultural significance of our geographical location at the base of Mt. Pinos, COWFEST seeks to dissolve the boundaries that separate people. The Festival takes its inspiration from Chumash legends and the spiritual significance of Mt. Pinos to the Chumash people, believed by them to be “the center of the world.” The festival themes are based upon the Chumash concept of maintaining balance with the universe and humankind; ancient ceremonies were conducted on Mt. Pinos for that purpose. We take “balance” to mean “peaceful co-existence” with each other and with nature. Using this idea of balance, we create a socially purposeful theater through stories that give meaning to our human existence.
The Center of the World Festival is a collaborative community theater event, which joins together local groups. Writers, poets, actors, readers, musicians, singers, artists, dancers and all creative individuals who are willing to share their talent in expressing the mission of the Festival are welcomed with their ideas and contributions to the Festival.
Our presentations can be provocative. They can convey stories that people don't want to hear, thus causing a community dialogue. Other stories appeal to inclusivity, encouraging us to resolve the conflicts that separate us. Committed to the idea that “localized arts” can be agents of social change, COWFEST seeks to bring about real community transformation through the communitas theater creative process.
The term “communitas” is defined as an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness. In communitas theater, community members are involved with the art before, during, and after productions. They are necessary to the theater’s existence in ways well beyond economic support. Community-based ensembles do not embrace the “star system” of mainstream theater; they strive for a more egalitarian ideal. They balance experimentation with awareness of what the audience wants, likes, hopes for, can tolerate, will be inspired by. Local characters and issues are frequently the subject of original stories that reveal voices and points of view that can be absorbed by the community from a new perspective.
Communitas theater creates collectively generated theater with non-professionals. The more people engage with the work, the greater their emotional and intellectual investment. The residents conduct research, gather materials in workshop and focus groups, develop and stage a play that reflects the needs and wishes of the community. Communitas theater accomplishes social change by going to the roots of the problem and includes the people who are planted in that place. It is art-based civic dialogue which facilitates the self-expression of communities that have a vested interest in change, yet are conservative in the sense of preserving or celebrating a cultural heritage.
Communitas theater also has been referred to as “community cultural development” to define a range of initiatives undertaken by the community members to express identity, concerns and aspirations through the arts and communication media, while building cultural capacity and local sustainability and contributing to social change. Communitas theater reflects a deep belief in the power of art to bring different people together, with the result that stereotypes are cracked open in the unfolding of art which expresses, generates and challenges meaning in a specific community.
With this goal of community transformation, COWFEST aspires to join a long tradition of socially active community theater. In Euro-American culture, this tradition goes back to the ancient Athenians, who understood drama as something that enhanced both their communal well being and their relationship with nature. Every spring they held a festival that celebrated the nature god Dionysos with comic and tragic drama that delved into divisive social issues at the heart of their city and future. Today, although many have forgotten the necessary role of the arts in the building of sustainable community, it is known that the success of community development programs and processes is highly increased (or diminished) by the presence (or absence) of creative arts/cultural elements.
We and our four neighboring communities (total population of approximately 10,000) have suffered tremendous economic loss due to the current recession. We are surrounded by a constant threat of forest wildfire, while at the same time, the most “green” of economies, in the form of woody biomass energy, goes unused and untapped. Likewise, other resources lie stagnant and underutilized. The need for communal action is great, yet division among our community members often prevents us from joining together to solve our problems. Some residents can perceive change as a threat to their values. In making our applicaton for nonprofit recognition by the Federal government, we proposed the development of a model for inspiring rural communities to work together. We believe this model will provide a credible plan for dissemination of information and utilization of results to audiences elsewhere in our region and the nation.
The mission of the Center of the World Festival is:
To provide a gathering point for a community to witness and participate in stories intended to explain and give meaning to human experience;
To provide education about the cultural significance of our geographical area;
To nourish a sense of community and rekindle a deep connection to the land that will encourage a stewardship mentality and promote local sustainability;
To promote the arts and community creativity as a force for bringing about social change;
To educate the community on issues of significance to it, such as conflict resolution;
To provide research and workshop opportunities for our community on environmentalism, nature, geography, and ecologically-aware communitas theater;
To broaden community recognition that our ecosystem is part of a cultural system and that our geographical area is inseparable from our history and success as a community;
To further our vision that theater, life, and ecology are symbiotic and interconnected as a complex system of communication and transformation;
To offer ongoing community-based events in the form of workshops, networking services, festivals, and the promotion of projects that further the vision of communitas theater;
To develop our local cultural tourism for sustainability by (1) showcasing the traditions, values and lifestyles of historical indigenous cultural communities (i.e. festivals, rituals), (2) incorporating the local members by training and employing them and in the process encouraging them to participate in the Festival activities.
To research and educate about the concept of Transformational Activism, the idea that people need to transform themselves internally as well in external action in order to create meaningful change in the world. This may be achieved through peacekeeping techniques like conflict resolution; through opening minds to new ideas, historical perspectives, and cultures; through exploring the transformational economics of how resources might flow in a sustainable local community; and, finally, through providing venues for collective creativity. This multilevel process, by creating deep connections between people, will tap into the power of mass collaboration in a way that transforms participants into more compassionate and environmentally aware community members.
The Center of the World Festival is a 501(c)(3) charity and a California State Nonprofit Corporation.
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 1929, Frazier Park, CA 93225-1929
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