Talking Shop: CTG Experiments with Community Programming in Boyle Heights, CA

by Leslie K. Johnson

in MetLife/TCG A-ha! Think It Do It

(The following post features work by a MetLife/TCG A-ha! grantee–to learn more about the program, click here.)

Not often enough, CTG Production Department Operations Director Dawn Holiski and I have lunch at Border Grill to catch up and “talk shop”. Inspired by the work of many theatres, recent research and national conversations about audience engagement and community programming (including themes and ideas raised at TCG’s Audience (R)evolution), our company had been discussing when, where and how Center Theatre Group might start to experiment with some of our ideas about participatory arts engagement. At a time when traditional arts participation is dropping and audience expectations are changing – we are seeking to explore the question: How can we make the art of theatre integral to people’s daily lives? But, as Dawn and I enjoyed our Mexican Chopped Salads, I lamented “I am not sure you can foster a true and ongoing sense of community without a place to commune.” Sipping her Minty Lime Cooler, Dawn responded, “Well, what about the Shop?”


Since 2005, CTG has worked in our 9,945 square-foot costume and prop shop located in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. A highly productive and bustling space when we are in key production time periods, the large workrooms are rarely used on weekends and evenings, and there is a discernable ebb and flow of intense work periods and downtime. Could this be our community space?

Our TCG Aha! Do It! grant supports our new initiative to pilot a series of workshops and events at The Shop that will provide opportunities for residents from all walks of life to express their creativity, build community and connect the craft of theatre with their daily lives.

The Shop also offers CTG a valuable opportunity to fulfill another institutional goal: to broaden our reach. The Shop is situated amongst a population that is 97% Latino with 47% of households reporting a total income less than $25,000 annually, compared to 6% and 1% of CTG’s general audience respectively.  That said, Boyle Heights has a vibrant, visible arts and cultural history and scene. And indeed the community is experiencing a burgeoning redevelopment, catalyzed by the Metro Rail Gold Line, among other factors.  As a neighborhood in transition with a rich cultural heritage, Boyle Heights offers a variety of potential partners for our work.  Recognizing the rich opportunities and assets already at work just outside our shop door, we also seek to answer: What does it look like to be a good neighbor?

So, we have our “place” to commune. But, woe is me! One of the first challenges that we face is the space itself:


It’s Where?: While Boyle Heights certainly has a burgeoning arts scene, most of that activity is situated in the northwest corner of the neighborhood, while our shop sits in the southwest corner of town amongst other industrial warehouses, near the train tracks, historic Sears department store and Farmer John’s market. We aren’t exactly located in the “hip and happening” part of town. (Note to self 1: Look into bus routes, are there nearby stops? How can we help folks from one end of town get to us? What might create a draw to bring folks to The Shop?)


chicanopowermuralestradacourtsThere is the large Wyvernwood housing project right across Olympic Blvd. where we are hoping to draw many participants…if it is still there. There is an ongoing visible controversy about tearing down to “modernize” and” improve” the complex. Ironically, right next door is Estrada Courts low-income housing project, well known for its murals, which reflect the Chicano barrio culture and traditions of the area. And while heated arguments, demonstrations and picketing have taken place at Wyvernwood, Estrada Courts goes ignored.

Am I at the right place?: Another challenge is that the place does not say “be welcome, come create and share your stories.” In fact, if you didn’t have the address you wouldn’t even know The Shop was there. The Shop is actually two buildings separated by two alleyways which pick-up and container trucks regularly barrel down all day long. (Note to self 2: Consider what kind of permanent, prominent signage might be needed so participants can find their way. Talk about ideas for where folks will park, pedestrian safety and how to make sure folks feel secure during weekend and evening hours.)


(This is the front door and the view along our front and back alleyway.)

sideofshopsideofshop2sideofshop3By contrast, the inside of The Shop is an oasis! There are large, modular work spaces, a variety of large and small workrooms and meeting spaces. There’s natural light and a kitchen (She types jealously from her small, poor ventilated, windowless office near the bathrooms and the stinky microwave!).


When is there Room in the Inn?: The inside of The Shop feels like a place where cool, creative things happen because, cool, creative things do happen there…all the time…because of course, it is regularly full of artists and artisans, designers, and in-process projects for productions at our very busy three theatres. Alas, one of our greatest challenges will certainly be managing use of the space and realistic scheduling of The Shop project activities in alignment with the shop production activities. (Note to self 3: Get large wall calendar. Consider range of workshop opportunities – small group work versus large community events and ways to use the variety of spaces, programming around busy periods. Explore the concept that “The Shop” is a concept not a place. Why can’t we start with workshops elsewhere in the community, working with partners, as well as hosting activities at our space?)

I am delighted that we have hired Jesus Reyes as CTG’s new Program Manager for Community Partnerships, including this one! The founder and Creative Artistic Director of East LA Rep, Jesus is a BH native and is actually returning to CTG: He was here from 2007-2009 when he conducted an observational fellowship under CTG’s Associate Producer and Director of New Play Production Diane Rodriguez sponsored by TCG’s New Generation Program.

We have a cross-departmental project team that includes members from CTG’s Production, Education, New Play Production, Development and Literary teams. Our first project team meeting was a 2-hour retreat. We “pop corned” our impressions of Boyle Heights, developed core values for the project, and discussed ideas about what it means to be a good neighbor. We brainstormed over 60 ideas for activities. (We will only pilot 10.)

A big discovery and desire is that we need/want to learn about the community even though we’ve been conducting business there for nearly a decade. We start each of our biweekly project meetings with a “getting smarter” segment when team members can share things we have discovered about the neighborhood. CTG’s Literary Associate and Artistic Engagement Strategist Joy Meads put it this way “I plan to be a little eclectic — sharing things I come across in my research that feel evocative and add depth, variety, or texture to my understanding of the neighborhood, contemporary and historic. Over time, I’m hoping all these little experiences of Boyle Heights will form a collage, giving us what I hope will be a dynamic and visceral understanding of some of the textures & and richness of the neighborhood.” For our first meeting, she found this photo essay by Rafael Cardenas about John Carlos de Luna: a Boyle Heights Artist who left an executive position in the banking industry to focus on his art. He also moonlights as the doorman at a place we’ve heard a lot about—the Eastside Luv Bar.

So now we have talked to ourselves but next we must talk with and listen to the community. In the coming weeks we will embark on learning directly from Boyle Heights residents what they need, want and have to offer as we build this new relationship. I am curious, eager and anxious all at the same time.

Please share your ideas, questions, comments – we are actively learning all we can about this kind of work and this community. Thanks!

Leslie_JohnsonLeslie K. Johnson, Director of Education & Community Partnerships, Center Theatre Group:
Providing strategic, creative and visionary leadership in the development, operation and evaluation CTG’s education and engagement programs, Leslie previously served as director of school programs for the Music Center, the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County. Johnson is board president for 24th Street Theatre and is a past board chair for the California Alliance for Arts Education– the local affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center’s National Alliance for Arts Education and co-chaired the KCAAEN national advocacy committee. Leslie regularly contributes her expertise to the field, including recent work on the National Corporate Theatre Fund’s Impact Creativity Task Force.

The intent of the MetLife/TCG A-HA! Program is to enable theatres to dare to try new approaches to problem-solving artistic, managerial, production and/or technological challenges–to try things the organization doesn’t and couldn’t normally do. To learn more about the program, click here.

  • Liz

    I love the creativity of using the Shop space to benefit the surrounding community. Boyle Heights is a neighborhood that needs all the support that it can get. It will be interesting to see how this concept comes into fruition and whether or not this will be a model that can be used for other communities.

  • Eric

    I love the idea of institutions like Center Theatre Group meeting community members where they are. In a city like L.A., there are so many barriers to participating in the arts — cost and distance chief among them. Programs like this can minimize those barriers and encourage more people to discover the transformative power of the arts. I look forward to hearing more about this exciting program as it develops.

  • Marcia Polas

    Your ideas are great, but look into some simple community involvement and inclusion too (which will also allow you to learn about the community). Wonderbound (in Denver) is located in a similar area. They throw the doors open and invite the community in to watch artists rehearse. Is there space for a couch in the corner and the openness to invite the community in to watch you create on a daily basis and inspire their own artistry?

  • Camille Schenkkan

    This is such an exciting opportunity for CTG to connect more deeply to one of the many communities in which we work. I can’t wait to take a workshop at The Shop!

  • Elizabeth Leonard

    I’m so excited to get this project rolling and really get in touch with the neighborhood!

  • Patricia Garza

    I think Marcia has a very interesting point here! Something for us to think about in the future for sure because all of all the creative activity already happening there.

    I am most excited to jump in and really do participatory arts engagement. Plus I am a personal fan of BH having grew up along Beverly Blvd! I love Eastside Luv and cannot wait to find all the unique partners that CTG can be in collaboration with for this project.

    Super excited to have Jesus here-the work East LA Rep is doing really mirrors The Shop’s spirit and he is a great leader for this.