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Sewing Buttons, Telling Stories, Finding Careers


A costume design for theatre workshop in Boyle Heights.

Photo by cbgraphy.

Learning how to sew a button, hem a pair of pants, and choose the right fabric for a shirt are hugely useful life skills. But in the theatre, they’re storytelling tools. And for people with a visual arts background or basic sewing skills, they can also serve as a gateway to a career in costume design and creation. This past fall, Center Theatre Group, five local parent resource centers, and the Friars Charitable Foundation teamed up to create that gateway—and explore the art of designing costumes—with Boyle Heights community members as part of The Shop program, which provides Angelenos with opportunities to make theatre a part of everyday life.

Over eight weekly sessions at each resource center, teaching artist Manuel Prieto took parents and caregivers through the costume design process from page to stage, using Grey Gardens – the Musical as the source material. Participants read the script and did background research, sketched designs and reviewed textile swatches, and ultimately put everything together into fully imagined renderings of the production’s costumes. The renderings will be displayed at the Ahmanson Theatre in summer 2016, to coincide with the Center Theatre Group production of Grey Gardens. Participants will attend the show and get a chance to see how their work measures up to the professionals’.

“They walked away from the workshops knowing the costume design process and also the skills they need to accomplish that process,” said Prieto. They also “learned skills that have a root in theatre and an application in everyday life,” such as the fact that if you’re shopping for a textile that won’t wrinkle, you want to buy a synthetic blend rather than cotton. At the same time, participants emerged with “some more curiosity about theatre as a multi-faceted art form that combines storytelling, actor, and character work—and how the whole system comes together.”

In addition to bilingual hands-on instruction, participants also got the opportunity to attend panels featuring a mix of artisans, artists, and designers as well as educators and employers discussing how to get into the costume business. “We tried to highlight the whole realm of jobs in theatre that you can be a part of,” said Prieto.

This blend of art and practical skills, career education and creative inspiration grew out of sewing circles Center Theatre Group held at Boyle Heights libraries and the parents’ group at Carmen Lomas Garza Primary Center in fall 2014. Jesus Reyes, the program manager for Center Theatre Group’s community partnerships, explained that participants in the sewing circles came away wanting to create bigger projects and with lots of questions about jobs and education. Working with parent resource centers was a natural fit for the next, expanded iteration of the program. “Parent resource centers already bring in visiting experts on a lot of different subjects,” said Reyes. “And they have a base of people interested in learning.”

Expanding the scope of theatre education to people of all ages and skill levels is a core part of the mission of Center Theatre Group’s education and community programming. “Theatre and the arts are powerful tools to help us communicate within and between generations, and for each of us to discover more about ourselves and our world. We are excited to give folks a chance to explore their own creativity, exercising our imaginations and building community together,” said Center Theatre Group Director of Education and Community Partnerships Leslie K. Johnson.

Friars Charitable Foundation has also recognized the importance of programs like these, and sponsored the costume design workshops. “Everyone on our Board values theatre as an important education tool and we are excited to support innovative programming like this that brings community members together,” said President Marilyn Stambler.

Center Theatre Group is deeply grateful to the Friars Charitable Foundation for its support of this new programming. The Friars Charitable Foundation was established in 1956. The founders included community minded entertainers and leaders from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Today, the Foundation supports charitable efforts that are dedicated to the arts, education, or human services, benefiting the greater Los Angeles community, particularly where its funding can have a significant impact on programs and their participants.

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