Center Theatre Group has a great reputation and is a brand recognized by the theatre community and by many Angelenos, but for most people in Boyle Heights, it’s just three words they haven’t heard of before. An important part of my job as Community Liaison for Center Theatre Group is to provide a face for the organization and to create a personal experience when people first encounter us.
My journey with community members usually begins with meeting them face-to-face, often when I’m tabling at key community events or attending community meetings to spread the word about our programs. Next, I communicate with them via email or phone calls, confirming attendance at events and dispensing important information. Then, I greet them at our events and often provide translating support, so a familiar face and voice is guiding them through a new process. And finally, if we’re lucky, I’ll be the person greeting them at the Ahmanson Theatre for their first theatre experience. We build up to that moment by creating trust and ease and evoking curiosity for theatre both as audience members and behind the scenes at monthly play readings at Boyle Heights libraries and at free workshops at The Shop, Center Theatre Group’s costume and prop shop and warehouse.
The other important part of my job is that when I go into the Center Theatre Group offices, I become the voice of the community at the organization. I help strategize the best ways to communicate with community members and market our programs throughout Boyle Heights. One of the things we had to adjust early on, for example, was the focus of our marketing flyers. Flyers usually have the Center Theatre Group logo displayed prominently, taking up a lot space to help raise awareness of the organization. But, when creating flyers for our Boyle Heights programs, we instead emphasize “free,” “theatre,” and “food.” Community wants to know the “what” before the “who” in order to plan around their busy lives.
I grew up in a neighborhood with similar demographics to Boyle Heights, which keeps me in tune with community needs on a personal level. Professionally, I started this type of work at a small theatre organization looking to attract members of their immediate community for a specific production. I was hired to do marketing, and I implemented a grassroots campaign similar to the work I do at Center Theatre Group. Later, I worked on South Coast Repertory’s community-based program where I witnessed the successes and challenges of launching a grassroots marketing campaign at a large theatre institution.
Working with a small or large organization has its challenges. Working with Center Theatre Group—which has a large workforce and is responsible for three theatres plus many other projects—is like operating a slow-moving machine; everything takes time and goes through multiple approval phases. Copy is written, copy is translated into Spanish, photos are taken, and the graphics department designs collateral. I have to prepare with a long lead time and be patient. In a smaller organization, there aren’t always the resources for a dedicated community liaison, so it might be the marketing director who does this job or a community volunteer. The scale and scope of each project may be different, but engaging the community is still the goal, and the community liaison can help spread the word and maintain momentum for an organization and project of any size.
For theatres or other arts organizations considering adding a community liaison to their team, here are my criteria for the ideal community liaison:
- Speaks the language of the community. We’re defining language broadly to include colloquial language.
- Has administrative experience and is able to create an effective marketing plan and help craft and evaluate surveys to help strategize outreach efforts.
- Marketing to a demographic you can relate to is key. It is best if the community liaison is recruited from within the community.
- The community liaison is the voice/advocate of the community at the organization and the voice and face of the organization in the community. They need to listen carefully and have strong communication skills to speak to both parties and accurately represent them in the room.
- Possesses street smarts. The bulk of the work will be in the communities, and at times involves going door-to-door. The community liaison has to navigate a community’s shifting landscape including politics, gentrification, personal agendas, community needs, and neighborhood hot zones.
- Sometimes engagement strategies have to shift on the spot, and the community liaison must have the flexibility to adapt and re-strategize.