Participation. Collaboration. Discovery. Transformation. In the performing arts we hold these words dear. We claim them, champion them, and sometimes sell them. But, for me, after 25 years working in theater, the reality of these concepts felt elusive at best; sometimes bullshit, at worse.

Then, last summer I joined Cornerstone Theater for a five-week institute and "community-based theater" project in Eureka, California. Cornerstone Theater is a 25-year-old, multi-ethnic, ensemble-based company in Los Angeles, whose mission is to build bridges between and within diverse communities by making theater with and for people of many ages, cultures and levels of theatrical experience. In August 2009, 16 other students and I spent every day in workshops with Cornerstone resident artists, designers, and administrators learning why and how to re-evaluate our assumptions about theater, and every night we worked with the local community to build a site-specific show about, for, and starring people in Eureka, California.

I came to the process skeptical. (Hopeful but skeptical.) I was going to be gone for Minnesota's best season, and for the Fringe Festival. Most of the students were younger and more sanguine than me. I found myself sleeping in a bunk bed and eating communal meals. There was a lot of sitting in circles and sharing. Lots of outreach to an extemely diverse, marginalized, sometimes gloomy, frequently reluctant community. It was ... uncomfortable. But, in only one month, there it was: true participation, real collaboration, amazing discovery, and, finally, transformation—not only for me as an artist but also for the community of participants and audience members from Eureka.

How do I describe it? Let me start with tech week which is, in many ways, just like any other tech week— a hundred, crazy urgent tasks—except. . .

We were creating fantastical costumes, sets, and hanging lights to tell the story of Jason and the Argonauts for our particular adaptation, Jason in Eureka. Except Cornerstone's staff, community volunteers, and 17 students were working our asses off to transform a working wood mill into an outdoor performance venue. It had to be beautiful enough to inspire, equipped for a full production, and safe enough for audience and performers of all abilities and disabilities.

We were also chasing and being chased by the horses, cats, and oxen that roam the grounds; keeping Judy, Irene, and Linda away from each other because they have, uhm, "political differences" (going back years at the senior citizen center). We're rounding up the barely-housed teens who have trouble getting to rehearsals; entertaining Joana, the precocious and already world-weary 11-year-old playing the lead; and practicing with the team of teen puppeteers who have a wide range of humor and disability.

Plus, we had to watch out for a cast member's "gentleman friend," no longer in our cast, but still very interested in the show, who has a little mental illness and a lot of anger. We're strapping body mics on to the soft-spoken and the shy.

We were not teaching people to perform; we were building a performance around what people bring. We're turned the biggest forklift I've ever seen into a serpent. Seriously.

How could we pull this off? And, even if we did, would anyone show up?

People can change

It was in tech week that my breath first caught in my throat, and I was startled to find tears streaming down my face: In the last scene of the play, a character asks, "Why do you all live here?" The answers were each written by a community member-participant about their real-life home in Eureka and delivered by a different actor in the play, so the performers know they are speaking Someone Else's Truth.

Peter Howard, our playwright, said that, "Making fictional characters that are an aggregate allows community members to be excited to see themselves in glimpses rather than [be] threatened by their story stolen, or offended that it was represented inaccurately or incompletely." Irene, a mother and grandmother who spent years as a single mom on the street, performed her monologue/answer to the question so sincerely and beautifully that everyone's frantic tech week scramble stopped; we were all paralyzed with recognition of one of those moments.

After the scene is done and we all applaud, Irene breaks down in tears saying how moving and yes, transforming, it is to speak her own and her neighbors' true feelings.

In an opening night pre-show ritual, standing in yet another circle, we all described our favorite moment in the show. Linda, our Queen Pelias (changed from King Pelias because, at auditions, Linda had the most regal stance), a conservative Tea Party Patriot, prone to statements of such racial ignorance that we all squirm to hear what she will say next, says she sees everyone in her community differently now. She wants to know them better and understand their differences.

In tears—yes, more tears, we all wore out our tear ducts—she explains that if she had ever before had an experience like this one, where people listened to each other, valued each other's voices, took care of each other, worked together on a meaningful project, she would have grown up to be a very different, a better, person.

So opening night arrived, and of course people showed up even though our marketing consisted only of a couple radio interviews and a lot of simple flyers. The bleachers were packed with hundreds of locals, many who had never been to theater before, never been to this wood mill before, all who wanted to hear their own story and see their friends, family, neighbors tell it. The show was fantastic, everything worked, a truly great performance rewarded with a heartfelt standing ovation.

And afterwards, as we cut a cake and the whole crowd stayed after and cheered, I kept overhearing sentences, through hugs, that began, "I never, " "I loved," "It made me think of," "I felt." I wandered around in a daze, wondering how we did this.

I remembered Laurie Woolery, our director, saying, "You don't bring people together. People choose to use you and your project as a vehicle to come together."

At strike, Eric and Viviana, who own the wood mill, ask us not to take down the platforms we'd built because they want to host more shows. The seniors are planning a play-reading series at the center. Justin is going to go take some acting classes. Rob talks about how great it would be to include arts in the programs at the veteran healing center that the Veterans for Peace are building in the Redwoods. Everyone is dreaming about what they can do next. Things sure felt different from the gloomy town clouded over with apathy that we'd found when we arrived. Did they change? Or did we just know them better now? Both are good.

I remember Peter explaining that Cornerstone usually does adaptations, and that adapation is a great metaphor for the collaboration, "It's something we can both relate to, coming together into a new, third thing. You learn about Hamlet. I learn about your community. We both learn about something that is neither of us."

Why work so hard?

My path here was a zigzagging one. Theater saved my life when I was young, stupid, lost. So I kept doing it. But silly musicals, stuffy period pieces, and self-righteous coffeehouse diatribes didn't feel like they were saving—or even affecting—anyone. I started my own company. Timely political shows. Post-show talkbacks. Years of no money, no audiences, shitty venues, preaching to the choir. Sigh. I took a break, got a normal job, made some money, hung out with normal people, and got bored out of my mind.

Moved here, discovered the Fringe Festival and ended up running it for five years. Community! (Add ten exclamation points to that.) Artists, audiences, neighborhoods come together and celebrate adventurous art. Yay! Five years later, I couldn't remember the name of anyone I met, no matter how many times I meet them, as though I'd worn out all my memory cells and some brain cells. And I missed making art myself.

Back to freelance directing, and I'm happy to be an artist again. But I'm also continually aware that I feel the ideals that motivate me to do theater much more tangibly in the rehearsal room than at the performances where most of our audiences just sit quietly, smile politely, and seem to leave no more effected than they would be by a decent movie, TV show, or day of Facebooking. Marketing feels like begging. I lose track of why the audience is here, why I think they should be here. Plus, I recognize a certain pressure to chase opportunities as an artist where virtuosity, resources, and stature are available; yet the larger the theater I work in, the further the audience feels from us, and the more I feel how difficult it is to steer a huge ship down adventurous streams.

While attending Nautilus Music-Theatre's Wesley Balk Institute (a treasure in our own community; if you haven't done it yet, do it, they just extended the deadline), it occurred to me that if the art I'm making isn't firmly connected to my ideals, passion, and dreams, then why work so hard, sacrifice so much, be so vulnerable? Might as well work in an office, have health benefits, take vacations, and have an easy, respectable answer to the cocktail party question, "What do you do?"

Cornerstone Theater started with the question, "Is theater still relevant?" Their methodology, developed over 24 years on the road all over the country and in their 17-year-old home in Los Angeles, starts with a community (defined geographically or circumstantially). Artists mix with community in story circle sessions where they find diverse voices, overlapping themes. The playwright selects a classic source text with similar, resonant themes. The playwright creates an adaptation, set in and about this specific community, rewriting at every stage of production to fit the community members that show up.

The director casts the show primarily with community members with little or no performance experience, mixing in exceptional professional performers, not necessarily in the lead roles. The company selects a site—never a theater—a site that is meaningful to the community and run by generous people who want to share. Brilliant, creative, problem-solving designers transform the space. Nimble, energetic, generous professionals (stage managers, composers, choreographers) shepherd everyone through the process, being role models for professionalism, sparking creativity, cultivating and nurturing everyone's voice. But the company members are not social workers or teachers, and the goal is not to educate or bring culture to the uncultured. The goal is to make a really great show.

After a couple weeks of classes at the institute, I observed that they were teaching us the same values and skills I thought we all used in regular theater processes: collaboration, listening, dramatic truth, action. I asked Michael John Garces, Cornerstone's artistic director, what was the difference, then, between community-based and regular theater.

He said there was really only one: In "regular" theater, we start with a story we want to tell and find just the right people to tell it. With community-based theater, we find the people, then tell the story they have to tell." And Laurie throws in, "It's about the true invitation."

I found it hard to believe, but later in a workshop when Michael said, "Community-based theater involves stepping out into the unknown, collaborating with fate first," I felt called out on my own skepticism. And then I saw the way our production used just what every member of that diverse cast and crew had to bring and mixed in the best of our craft to make it into a show. The show was good. Very good. And the show was their story, using their voices. And the audience could feel it. They leaned forward. Laughed. Shrieked. Moaned. Had strong opinions about what they saw and stayed afterwards to talk about it. . .

Hmm. Packed houses of people who were dramatically effected by live performance, who walked out seeing their own community, themselves, and their place in it with new eyes? Yeah, that's what I was looking for all along.