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Designing an Experience for Parents

The Boyle Heights Chronicles


A costume design for theatre workshop in Boyle Heights.

Photo by cbgraphy

Every time I meet a parent, without fail, I’m asked about programs for their children. It’s wonderful that parents and caretakers want their children to have access to more resources, but I remind them that many of our programs are for adults. Parents and caretakers work hard and deserve their own time to be creative, to socialize, to learn a new skill, or reignite a latent passion. Once they hear my spiel, they get it, and often are willing to participate.

Last year, we offered Community Sewing Circles, basic costume design classes led by teaching artist Manuel Prieto. They were so popular that we decided to expand them into the Designing Costumes for the Theatre series, workshops designed to introduce participants to the process professional costume designers go through to realize a design from the page to the stage. This time, we offered the series at parent centers at Boyle Heights schools and added an assistant teaching artist, Victoria Orantes.

Manuel, Victoria, and I had an amazing time with the parents. The workshops felt like being with family and sharing our passion for theatre and self-expression. Just like any family, every parent center group had the joker, the quiet one, the talkative one, the bossy one, and the nice one. The day we introduced measuring was a laugh fest, with parents joking about having one too many pieces of sweet bread or giggling while measuring the inner pant leg. There were moments of discovery, like when the teaching artists and I assumed that all the parents knew how to hand sew. Instead, we were led into their lives and heard their stories. One parent was the daughter of a seamstress. She had wanted nothing to do with sewing, but as she stitched away in class, she was reminded of her hard-working mother, and accepted the gift of sewing she had bestowed on her. And then there were the parents who were seriously talented—who flourished and made us all wonder, what if?

I also developed relationships with the dedicated coordinator at each parent center. The coordinator served as my liaison to the school and parents as well as the organizer and recruiter for the workshops. Keeping the coordinator excited ultimately was as important as keeping the parents excited, a lesson I learned when I had to make the hard decision to let one parent center go after too many sessions had to be canceled at the last minute. In order for any community program to be successful, it must be supported by the participants and the key coordinator. I must be willing to tweak a program or cancel it if the community is not ready to embrace it. Making hard decisions is part of the long-term investment we all make when developing relationships with community members. They do not indicate that the program is irrelevant, but rather that it is not the right time. Which means I have to continue to work to find the right partnerships.

But the parents at the four centers that stuck with us through the end of the Designing Costumes for the Theatre series took a ton of learning away from—about the work of costume design, how to use the professional design process at home, and what Center Theatre Group has to offer. They were challenged to participate in something new and foreign, and to experience theatre as something visible and accessible. And while the workshops were designed for the parents rather than the children, they ultimately benefit everyone. When their children interact with art, and perhaps even when some of them decide to make a career out of it, the parents will be able to share their knowledge of this art form, too. In addition to learning a variety of skills, they all came away from the series with costume designs they had researched, imagined, and drawn from Grey Gardens—The Musical.

I now have parents ask me if Center Theatre Group is coming back, when we are coming back, and what else will they learn. I know that each small interaction the parents have with theatre will pay off in the future. I know that they’ll remember fondly, as I will, the day they cut up magazines to create their first collage, the first costume they designed for a musical, and the lessons they learned about buying fabrics.

I can’t wait to be with them for the first time they step into Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre on July 8, 2016, to see Grey Gardens—the very same show they designed for.

Fun Facts

  • 77 parents/guardians participated in the series
  • 6 parent center coordinators organized the sessions
  • 4 parent centers participated, all within a 2-mile radius
  • Parent centers were located at a primary school, an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school
  • The series consisted of 8 sessions per center for a total of 32 sessions
  • Topics covered in each session included costume terminology, research, measuring, hand sewing, fabric selection, sketching, color theory, collage, script analysis, rendering
  • Participants were invited to a private reading of excerpts from Grey Gardens at The Shop
  • Free giveaways included totes, pencils, sewing kits, and sketch books
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