The Pasadena Playhouse’s Bold Vision: Community Organizers in the Artistic Department

by Nijeul Xaviere Porter

in National Conference

Post image for The Pasadena Playhouse’s Bold Vision: Community Organizers in the Artistic Department

(Pictured, from left: Nijeul X. Porter, Victor Vazquez, Sheldon Epps, Alison De La Cruz, Peter J. Harris, Seema Sueko. Photo by Kareem Cervantes. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

On May 3, 2014, I walked into the conference room of The Pasadena Playhouse as one of four Community Organizers hired by the Artistic Department to use the Consensus Organizing for Theatre methodology to support The Pasadena Playhouse’s goal of diversifying the landscape of and increasing demand for American theatre.

The brainchild of The Pasadena Playhouse’s newly appointed Associate Artistic Director, Seema Sueko, Consensus Organizing for Theatre is a bold move, supported whole-heartedly by the visionary Artistic Director Sheldon Epps and impactful Executive Director Elizabeth Doran, to place Community Organizers as central and critical to the artistic process.

As I walked into that room for our orientation, eagerly anticipating meeting the other Organizers, I reflected back on an experience I had as a high school thespian. Annually, we hosted a one-act play competition for middle school students from all over the district. It was a great opportunity to see young people immersed in the art form of theatre-making at a young age in very creative and innovative ways.  However, there was one particular school that never had the opportunity to fully participate (due to budget and resource restrictions), but year after year the school would come to the competition to support their junior high colleagues from other schools. With this in mind, my classmates and I knew how powerful theatre had been for us and we wanted to do something about it for them. With support from our mentors, we created a theatre workshop with those students and led them through the process of creating theatre, while sharing advice on transitioning to high school. From that, an ongoing relationship ensued.

There was a need from those students to participate holistically in creating theatre and there was a want from me and my classmates to share the love we had for the art form. In the methodology of Consensus Organizing, two or more parties identify their self-interests, wants and needs; then together, supplement one another in order to find common ground and a genuine relationship.

That is the core of the Consensus Organizing work we’ll be doing at The Pasadena Playhouse —serve the self interests of their mission while serving and supporting the self interests of others in order to diversify and build our audiences, using a professionally produced theatrical work of art as the starting place.

The four Community Organizers are Alison De La Cruz (who will be organizing Stop Kiss and Pygmalion), Peter Harris (who will organize Kiss Me Kate), Victor Vazquez (who will organize Two for the Seesaw), and myself (who will organize the Lythgoe Family Panto Production of Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight and will also document and track the work as part of my thesis at CalArts).  We all ride the intersection of artistry and community. We are theater artists, poets, writers, producers, and organizers.

Together, we will spend The Pasadena Playhouse’s 2014-2015 artistic season meeting, researching, asking questions, building relationships, and building mutually-beneficial content with a diversity of communities in order to identify ways to expand the reach of our artistic work on stage and invest equally in the artistry on stage and the communities that are reflective of the world in which we live.

I have been assigned to the Lythgoe Family Panto Production of Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight. With some initial thinking under the foundations of Consensus Organizing, it is my goal to organize the non-traditional family. Consider this: Sleeping Beauty is a very traditional fairytale told in a very traditional way—so what happens if the traditional narrative is transformed for the untraditional family? What if Sleeping Beauty had a disability? Or identified as transgender? Or stuttered? What does the shift in those identity dynamics do for the young person in the audience who comes from the ‘untraditional’ family or background? It is my hope to galvanize foster families, families with children with disabilities, families of same gender parents, bi-racial families, and families that don’t have the cookie cutter life of our traditional Sleeping Beauty fairytale. Through one-on-one intentional conversations, I hope to identify the needs and wants of these communities; and then, as a theatre company supplement that with our need to diversify our audiences at The Playhouse.

To my knowledge, no LORT theater has ever hired Community Organizers in their Artistic Department, and I am honored and excited to be part of this pilot program. We don’t go into this program naively. We know there will be many discoveries along the way — discoveries both from a programming point-of-view and also an organizational one. How do the traditional LORT structure and the traditional organizing structures create a new structure together? This requires a shift of thinking around community and its relationship to the work of the theatre. I proclaim myself as a future arts leader in American theatre and am excited that this model can be the catapult for organizations to truly change the conversation, no longer separating community from the art we make, but instead intentionally build synergy between art and community in order to serve the self-interests of the theater, serve the self-interests of the communities, and deliberately increase demand for theater.


Nijeul P8-1.aNijeul Xaviere Porter is a Community Organizer in the Artistic Department at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA. He is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Producing/Arts Management at the California Institute of the Arts culminating his final year in a Thesis Project around Consensus Organizing for Theatre.  With an ultimate goal of producing and managing theatre production and arts programming for young people, Nijeul is always excited about opportunities to facilitate the intersections of art and community engagement. Past projects include Los Angeles August Wilson Monologue Competition at Center Theatre Group (Associate Producer), When Spring Comes to Hills & Dales—a production sponsored in part by the Korea Foundation (Producer), A Different Tree Short Film—HBO American Black Film Festival Award (Public Relations Manager), and the college premiere of We Are Proud to Present…by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Producer). He is a 2012 fellow with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Multicultural Fellowship Program and was named one of fifteen recipients of the Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award, providing resources for artistically driven post-graduate studies of up to $50K per year. Nijeul is a 2011 cum laude graduate of Howard University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre and Arts Administration. www.nijeul-porter.com

  • Chas Belov

    So glad to see We Are Proud to Present (which I saw at the Bay Area Play Festival) getting multiple productions.

  • Pat Loeb

    LOVE THIS! what a wonderful way to open our amazing craft to a wider and wider circle of new converts! And the thought of a disabled actor as Sleeping Beauty is briiiant!

  • Sara Guerrero

    Congratulations to you all. I’m excited to see more work like this is being done in our community. It’s exciting to be a part of and to see South Coast Repertory (Dialogue/ Dialogos) , CTG (The Shop) and now the Pasadena Playhouse all doing work that engages with our surrounding communities. Bravo! May it never end and continue to live and thrive!

  • Michael Rohd

    Very exciting.

    This line-

    “Through one-on-one intentional conversations, I hope to identify the needs and wants of these communities; and then, as a theatre company supplement that with our need to diversify our audiences at The Playhouse.”

    - very related to the work we do at the Center for Performance and Civic Practice around the nation, and to the Civic Practice work that Sojourn Theatre has done for years.
    Can you give me a sense, or just keep us posted perhaps, of what that statement means to you all beyond giving the communities you describe access to the show itself. Does it mean workshops? Original practice and process that helps communities/partner organizations build capacity through the arts to address these needs with your artistic assets? Does it mean bringing Playhouse artists and organizers to their table as facilitators of change in service to those needs and deploying arts tools in whatever ways necessary, regardless of connection to mainstage programming…? Curious, and glad to know the work is happening there!

  • Kevin M

    I worked with the Playhouse a few months ago doing this work, but I dont see any information on the young guy I was working with. Has he been promoted or is this work a change from what they were doing earlier?

  • Seema Sueko

    Hi Michael,

    Great questions… it can mean a number of things, depending on the self-interest of the partner and how that collides with the self-interest of the artistic project.

    It’s a process I developed at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego. You can find a little blurb on a workshop I taught there last year: http://moolelo.net/2013/04/13/consensus-organizing-for-theater-workshop/

    For us, it all starts with the theater piece. So, for example, when we produced the play NIGHT SKY, which deals with aphasia, we developed a mutually-beneficial partnership with the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation. They helped us artistically, teaching us about aphasia by giving us access to their clients, who also joined us in the rehearsal room as experts and community dramaturgs. In addition, we helped each other with our education programs. they had an interest in doing brain injury prevention workshops in the schools – we do student matinees with pre- and post-show workshops – and so it made sense for us to spend time working together to develop the curriculum for these workshops. They brought in other partners for this: a major hospital and Disability Awareness Network. The resulting post-show workshop involved a science component led by someone from the hospital, a theater component led by an actor from the show, and a real-life component led by a brain-injury survivor. Further, through our 18 months of meeting together, we discovered that SDBIF and Mo`olelo shared a donor, who gave at the $1,000-level to each organization. We asked that donor to donate $5,000 to SDBIF and they would use half that money to buy tickets for 200 brain injury survivors and their caregivers to see NIGHT SKY. Further, one of the SDBIF Board members loved the project, he donated $20,000 to the production (this happened during the course of our meetings, getting to know each other, etc… a surprise to us), and finally, that person joined the Mo`olelo Board a couple years later. So that’s one example of a Consensus Organizing for Theatre process that served multiple interests of SDBIF and Mo`olelo. And the relationship between SDBIF and Mo`olelo continues to this day.

    Another example – At The Pasadena Playhouse we’re currently producing STONEFACE by Vanessa Claire Stewart, an LA-based, female playwright… and the only female playwright on our season this year. I, personally, as a new associate artistic director at The Playhouse have a self-interest in producing more plays by women writers. I heard about an organization called LA FPI, Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative. I reached out to them and asked them what they’re about… what are their self interests. They said they want to celebrate when a female playwright is produced at a LORT, but they have a hard time organizing groups to attend plays. They said they want to demonstrate that producing women is good business… but again, they have a hard time organizing their membership to go out to attend a show together. So I inquired when they were successful at gathering and organizing. They shared they attract lots of people when they do their Micro-Reads, one-page scripts written by the LA FPI members read aloud by actors. We recognized that we had mutual self-interests, so I suggested we try to organize 50 LA FPI members to attend STONEFACE at an agreed-upon price point to celebrate the local female playwright being produced at The Playhouse, and after the performance, the group would all go to our smaller black-box theater for networking and late-night Micro-reads read by the cast of STONEFACE. We guaranteed that the first 15 LA FPI members to buy their ticket would receive a Micro-Read…. the idea found traction… as of today, we have 71 LA FPI tickets sold, and we’re 9 days away from the performance/Micro-read night. So that’s another example of finding mutual self-interest and organizing around that.

    At Mo`olelo, we used Consensus Organizing for Theatre to work with a diversity of communities and organizations. You can find a list here: http://moolelo.net/about-us/community-partnerships/

    So at The Pasadena Playhouse, we are essentially scaling up and customizing the Consensus Organizing for Theatre process.

    So sorry for the long-winded reply…. I find that we can’t short-cut describing the CO process because it’s a labor-intensive and time-intensive process and the success is birthed from the detailed work.

    Let’s chat more at the TCG conference!

  • Michael Rohd

    I really appreciate the reply.

    It seems like most of the efforts revolve around the shows you are doing/will do, and making opportunities for people to see the work, and deepen the conversations around the work.

    I am interested if, beyond the one example where you spoke about co-design of school workshop curriculums, you can imagine partnerships based in mutual needs that lead to practices not centered on the plays you produce or on the producing of plays in general, but rather on other collaborative process that serve the needs you discover?

    here is some of what i mean, at this link-

    http://www.howlround.com/the-new-work-of-building-civic-practice

    i won’t be at TCG, but would love a chance to connect sometime about your work there. Alison is a pal and colleague i respect tremendously, so i can’t wait to see the directions you all head in…

  • Seema Sueko

    Yes, absolutely, if there are mutual self-interests. (As theaters, we have self-interests outside of our productions, too).

    This might be an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwYcaODAzHw&index=4&list=PLUIWb2-6FWkYi6dDhA8oIb-qp31v5DEFh

    The critical part for Consensus Organizing, which is the methodology from which this springs, is mutual-self interest. http://www.sagepub.com/booksProdDesc.nav?level1=M00&currTree=Subjects&prodId=Book228428

    My guru: http://consensus.sdsu.edu/new-site/history/
    Let’s schedule a time to chat. Email me at ssueko@pasadenaplayhouse.org

  • Patricia Garza

    I am so very excited about this project and proud to see so many familiar faces working on it! Can’t wait to hear your journey!

  • Patricia Garza

    Thanks for the Shop shoutout Sara! For anybody interested in that project you can read more about it on The Grid: http://thegrid.centertheatregroup.org/index.php/articles/comments/a-community-of-storytellers-the-shop-chronicles

  • Carmen Morgan

    Wow! This is too good to be true! Right here in my own community of Pasadena? Thank you Nijeul for this great piece! I can’t wait to hear more about this exciting work. Kudos to Sheldon Epps, the visionary leader of the Pasadena Playhouse, and to your whole fabulous team! Activist theater is thriving, alive, and well! The Playhouse is on fire! (This is a national model. Are there any plans to take this to other theaters?)