Introducing Consensus Organizing for Theater

by Seema Sueko

in Audience (R)Evolution

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(Seema Sueko, Associate Artistic Director, The Pasadena Playhouse. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)

The goal of The Pasadena Playhouse’s TCG Audience (R)Evolution grant is to re-imagine our Theatrical Diversity Project and build a new model of artistic co-creation between our institution and Latina/o artists and communities of the San GabrielValley.

The process we are using to achieve our goals is “Consensus Organizing for Theater,” a method I developed while at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company–a community-focused, socially-conscious, Equity theater company in San Diego–and which I later scaled up and tested while on the TCG Leadership U[niversity] grant at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

Consensus Organizing for Theater: a working definition
Consensus Organizing (CO) for Theater is a process through which a theater builds stake in multiple pockets of the community; and those communities build stake in the theater by surfacing where the needs and agendas of both intersect. As a result, CO builds and diversifies audiences, lends authenticity to the artistic and education work, and supports fundraising and board development goals.

Roots in Social Work and Community Organizing
The model of Consensus Organizing was developed by Michael Eichler in the 1980s. Mike was a community organizer who had been working in Pennsylvania to battle “blockbusting,” the collapse of the steel industry, and create positive change on behalf of communities of need. Mike had originally come from the Saul Alinsky school of community organizing, which used “conflict organizing” as its method. Mike recognized, however, that conflict organizing, which rallied communities against a specific target, was successful at achieving short-term goals, but not at creating long-term change. Thus he developed a new model, Consensus Organizing, which deliberately surfaced the self-interests of communities of need and communities of power, identified where those self-interests intersected, and organized there.

Applying CO to our Audience (R)Evolution project
Step 1: Research – We are in the process of creating a CO Spreadsheet of organizations, leaders, associations, informal/ad-hoc groups, PTAs, community centers, influencers, etc. that serve the Latina/o communities of the San Gabriel Valley.

Step 2: Inquire & Learn – Next we seek meetings with everyone on the CO list, share our needs and goals, learn what their needs and goals are, and explore if our needs and goals intersect.

Step 3: If we discover we have mutual self-interests, we organize, partner, and co-create arts-based activities that serve these mutual self-interests.

Philosophical Underpinnings of CO for Theater
We (the theater) are not the experts – We might be experts at putting on a play, but we are not the experts of what the community needs.

Put ourselves in audience – Throughout the CO process, we find opportunities to sit in audience of the community organizations. Just as we are asking them to be in our audience, we believe the relationships needs to go both ways in order for this to be a lasting one.

We are clear about our agenda – We share with our potential community partners what our true agenda is: to transform The Pasadena Playhouse by authentically engaging with the Latina/o communities of the San GabrielValley.

The representative from the theater must have some authority – The organizers who meet community members must have artistic power, or direct access to the artistic power at The Playhouse. Sending an individual to meet with community who does not have authority or decision-making power creates an obstacle to developing a truly symbiotic relationship.

Adapting / Morphing / Re-shaping the Model
We anticipate that as we apply CO for Theater to The Pasadena Playhouse’s Audience (R)Evolution project, we’ll learn new things that will re-shape the CO process. We look forward to tracking these new inspirations and sharing them through this blog.

SEEMA SUEKO serves as associate artistic director of The Pasadena Playhouse. For the past nine years, she served as the executive artistic director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego. In addition to directing at Mo`olelo, Seema developed Mo`olelo’s greening initiative, consensus organizing methodologies, and led the company to its selection as the Inaugural Resident Theatre Company at La Jolla Playhouse and awards from the American Theatre Wing, National Endowment for the Arts, Actors’ Equity Association, NAACP San Diego Branch, among others. Other directing and acting credits include The Old Globe, Yale Rep, 5th AvenueTheatre, Indiana Rep, San Diego Rep, Native Voices. She was the recipient of the inaugural TCG/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation “Leadership U[niversity]” grant, which took her to Arena Stage in 2013 as a Visiting Artistic Associate in mentorship with Molly Smith.


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.