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. In 2008, this group was awarded the Pine Mountain Club Community Service Award for providing three years of theatrical and communal events for the community to learn about community and social issues which gave PMC residents a chance to experience open communication about past and present events that have shaped our world today.
The Center of the World Festival (COWFEST) 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.
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—all who are willing to share their talent in expressing the mission of the Festival are welcomed with their ideas and contributions to the Festival. 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.
Pine Mountain Club, CA, (PMC) is mountain village surrounded on four sides by the Los Padres National Forest. A small, remote community of about 2400 full-time residents we are blessed by a wealth of natural beauty, four-seasons of star-studded nights, the sound of silence, clean air and pure spring water. Located about an hour from Bakersfield on the north, the Los Angeles suburbs on the South, and Ojai on the West, we are considered to be a bucolic “nearby faraway place.”
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