I’ve come to know that community encompasses more than just a group of people from a specific neighborhood, ethnicity, or age, and so, I’ve developed three “lenses” that I look through as I design community programs: community, Center Theatre Group, and artists. Each lens allows me to see who and what is represented or what spaces are available, and where the intersections and opportunities for artistic and/or community programming exist. My being in a community and taking up space there only makes sense if I look through these multiple lenses and think carefully about my responsibility to everyone involved.
The community lens is comprised of a specific target—in my case, Boyle Heights. The community lens might be a region, a neighborhood, or a group. It’s important to note that within each community lens there exists sub-communities (in my case, that’s sometimes parents, sometimes residents of a housing project, sometimes a particular part of Boyle Heights), and this lens can vary in size depending on the program in question.
As I start planning a program and looking through the community lens, I ask myself many questions. The questions will initially be broad, like: what is the history of Boyle Heights? Then begin to narrow: who is producing theatre in Boyle Heights? I start a list of questions and answers, and I drive around Boyle Heights and meet the people who appear in my answers. I also print out a map that will help me visualize the area and see it from a different perspective.
My community lens includes three public libraries, two hospitals, three high schools, three housing projects, four major freeways, a synagogue, and three parks. It encompasses Boyle Heights’ rich history of music, an active arts corridor, gentrification, and a light rail system. It sees three independent print publications, an iconic visual arts institution (Self Help Graphics), and several service organizations for all ages. I take in as much of this information as I can, and let it guide my programming. Thanks to the community lens, I’ve developed partnerships with the Los Angeles Public Library branches in Boyle Heights and a local hospital for our Costume Displays; with about eight local arts groups with whom we co-present our Library Play Readings; and with four parent centers at local schools for our recently concluded workshop series, Designing Costumes for the Theatre. This lens helps me be deliberate while experimenting, and access different regions within Boyle Heights.
Center Theatre Group
For any program or project to be successful and to take root, the team that supports it must be diverse. This year, staff members based at The Shop, our prop and costume shop in Boyle Heights, have taken a larger role in developing and leading workshops. Our Boyle Heights programming team is also comprised of staff members who work in our main administrative offices at the Music Center Annex, including, Marketing, Press and Communications, Artistic, Development, Production, and Education and Community Partnerships. The team also includes the community liaison, an intern, and on occasion, an apprentice. Including a range of people helps bridge departments, allowing each member to promote the project with their colleagues.
I also widen this lens to include staff who are not on my team or the Boyle Heights Team, members of our Board of Directors, students my department (Education & Community Partnerships) serves, and others. As I plan a program, I ask myself: who associated with the organization should be part of this project, what are they expert at, how can I engage them in an organic and fun way, what are some opportunities for them to share their expertise, and how can I get them excited about the project?
The Center Theatre Group lens allows me to seek out people who may not be tapped to be a part of a project outside of their department but who have skills, talents, or a passion to share with us. As staff members lead a workshop, assist an artist, volunteer, or participate, they begin to find an outlet for themselves while becoming more engaged with the project, the organization, and the community.
The artists lens is crucial to my entire process and the sustainability of this community work. I seek out as many artists working and living in Boyle Heights and creating as wide a variety of art as possible to be our collaborators. And I look for intersections between artists/community and artists/Center Theatre Group. Which artists will be a perfect fit with community members? Do the artists have both ability and an aspiration to share their talent with others?
This lens is exciting because it provides an opportunity for Center Theatre Group to work with new, local artists and build relationships between artists and community members. It’s been particularly exciting to connect not only with theatre artists like costume designer Manuel Prieto, who is also executive director of East L.A.-based LAMusArt, and led our sewing circles and Designing Costumes for the Theatre workshops, but with other kinds of artists, too. Recently, we invited print maker Dewey Tafoya to lead a stenciling workshop in which community members covered an exterior wall of The Shop with “tags” of their own design. And we’ve turned the interior walls of The Shop into a rotating exhibition of local artwork, including the photographs of Rafael Cardenas and the paintings of Diana Cabral. We’ve also hosted poet Vickie Vertiz, who has led bilingual writing workshops for the community.
Each lens helps me see a different aspect of the community we serve. At times, when I pull one lens over another (and sometimes another one over that), intersections and possibilities become clear, and I can begin to design a program that will be useful, educational, engaging, interesting, and fun for everyone involved.