(All pictures by Center Theatre Group.)
We knew early on that the pilot phase of The Shop initiative would be exciting and full of challenges, but we couldn’t have predicted all the little surprises. But, we sure were happy to embrace them.
Working with community is very easy; getting to know our neighbors is very easy – it’s about direct dialogue and an open channel of communication. Working with community is about letting down your guard and allowing community to sometimes take the lead. Center Theatre Group has been a leader for decades, but working with community was about letting ourselves be led into new territory. Once we allowed the unknown and change to be part of the equation, all the prep work and research we did would be enough to support any new direction we had to take.
The wonders of Boyle Heights opened up to us when the senior librarians of four Los Angeles City Branch libraries allowed us into their homes and The Shop initiative went from an idea to reality. The libraries are home to community members seeking services, a place to meet, and, on occasion, a place to stay warm and keep busy. As phase one of The Shop initiative commenced, we held our breath and crossed our fingers to see if anyone would show up to our Literary Tour. Thankfully, library patrons accepted us, attended the readings, got to know us and for two months we established our presence at each library. Our Costume Tour followed and the magic of seeing beautiful costumes and props on display in their home, in their library, encouraged patrons who may not have connected with the readings to also find a way to connect with Center Theatre Group.
Three senior librarians and their staff supported us, this was a wonderful surprise. Library patrons and new visitors to the library embraced the tours, this was a surprise. The brilliant playwright, Luis Alfaro, wrote a moving piece about listening to his play at Malabar library on his Facebook page; this was a huge surprise. We had set clear goals, but we were modest and we didn’t anticipate the generosity of community members or that of our community of artists.
Phase two kicked off with a community gathering at The Shop followed by six workshops. Our intent was to get to know our neighbors and invite them into our home. Our community liaison, Estela Garcia, worked tirelessly to spread the word about our events and workshops. She went door-to-door, business-to-business, tabled at community events, put balloons up and talked to anyone that would listen about the free theatre-related workshops happening in Boyle Heights. It was important that we find key community players, stakeholders, the drivers that commit to a cause and support it whole-heartedly. We found our drivers in the libraries, at a farmers market, and literally as members of the community drove by The Shop. Without the drivers, the initiative would have been a bust; instead, it was a boom.
Six months worth of work came to a rousing conclusion with the Community BBQ at The Shop. And just as we readied for the culminating event, there were still surprises in store. The Community BBQ was our way of throwing a good old fashioned block party, but in the alley between the costume shop and prop warehouse. It was our way of thanking our neighbors and welcoming new ones. We had more art-making activities, we had more live music, we had more costumes and props set out, we had more souvenirs, we had more food and we had more people than we expected. Our goal was 200 people and over 270 attended. We had people from the libraries, from the immediate neighborhood, from the workshops, and we had Center Theatre Group board and staff members, their friends and their families. To see the Center Theatre Group staff enjoy one another’s company outside of the workspace was fantastic. To see this eclectic mix of everyone on the CTG family, a reflection of Los Angeles itself, enjoy a Center Theatre Group event together was inspiring.
Center Theatre Group as an organization took a very important, maybe a historic step forward, when it embraced the idea of working with community and allowing the organization to be led. Center Theatre Group took a step towards bilingual programming, community building, and more cross-department collaboration. Theatre Communications Group supported the vision of The Shop through the pilot phase and set Center Theatre Group on a new course, giving it wind and gathering speed as we maintain the momentum and discover new surprises.
Jesus A. Reyes, Program Manager, Community Partnerships: Jesus oversees The Shop project, Community Tix, and Project D.A.T.E. He studied theatre at San Jose State University and was a Los Angeles County Arts Commissioner from 2009-2014, representing the First District. Jesus is the co-founder of East LA Rep and a member of the Latino Theatre Alliance/LA. He has been a recipient of a TCG Future Leaders fellowship and a British Council Cultural Leadership International grant. Jesus is a resident of Boyle Heights and is fortunate to have amazing friends and a wonderful family that put up with all his theatre duties.
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.