In Spring of 2017, the bar Eastside Luv was transformed into a theatre. Inside the tiny Boyle Heights venue young crowds danced to 1980s pop, drank sangria, and gossiped in English and Spanish. It was quintessentially Los Angeles. It was Chisme y Queso.
An event series hosted by Center Theatre Group in partnership with Eastside Luv, Chisme y Queso invited patrons and artists to gather and anonymously share their own chisme—gossip—and have it performed onstage (atop the bar) by local actors. Alongside the improvised chisme, actors performed skits by up-and-coming writers from around Los Angeles.
Chisme y Queso—which is one part of a two-year community initiative in Boyle Heights funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation—was so successful in its first season, that Center Theatre Group is already planning a second season, which is set to begin this fall. The intention of Chisme y Queso was to allow Center Theatre Group to meet new people in our surrounding communities, to connect with our neighbors in a nontraditional setting, and to support emerging artists. But the program has hit an unexpected nerve with its audience.
The hybrid of comedy and theatre is new to the venue and yet people keep coming back to see that, said Center Theatre Group Community Partnerships Director Jesus Reyes.
There is a communal and cultural need for laughter, for theatre that tells bitingly honest stories, whether they are taken from our own lives or ripped from the headlines.
The value of the stories told at Chisme y Queso caused Reyes and Community Partnerships Associate—and Chisme y Queso director—Alejandra Cisneros, to invest more time in the development of the skits performed onstage. As a result, local playwrights will now work in a writers room with Center Theatre Group Resident Artist Naomi Iizuka and Literary Manager Joy Meads. This will increase the development time of each skit and the attention paid to each writer.
The writers room allows the playwrights to work more closely with each other and with the actors during the creative process. It’s been an amazing experience for all of us to see how vivid and alive the writing can be, said Iizuka.
Supporting the dramaturgical and play development components of the program has become a priority for Reyes, Cisneros, Iizuka, and Meads.
We didn’t realize we were essentially creating a playwriting incubator," said Reyes. "We are investing in playwrights at the inception of their careers. This investment ties into Center Theatre Group’s mission of cultivating new artists, and L.A.-specific artistic voices. It means that even though this program is location-specific, the impact will reach throughout our company and the city.
This is exactly why the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is supporting the program.
Our Building Demand for the Arts grants fund the placement of artists at the center of institutional efforts to build meaningful, long-lasting relationships with communities, said Program Director for the Arts Maurine Knighton.
At their best, these projects help artists and communities co-create cultural programs that reflect authentic relationships and mutual concern. Chisme y Queso does just that, weaving together playwriting, performance, and music into a rich tapestry that reflects the interests of local residents.
The relationship between community and artists is what makes Chisme a totally unique theatrical experience. The event begins with Community Liaison and emcee Alexis de la Rocha inviting the audience to write down their own chisme on coasters. Throughout the evening, chisme is chosen out of a jar, and the actors must transform the stories into performance, using the few props they have on hand. The writers’ short skits are interspersed among the improvised chisme. It’s a whirlwind performance as the actors shift in and out of a myriad of characters, from jilted girlfriends to arthritic old men. At the end of the evening, the writer of the best chisme is awarded tickets to a Center Theatre Group show and a large block of queso fresco—fresh Mexican cheese.
If there’s an overarching message we hope audiences take away, it’s that
storytelling isn’t just what’s on a stage, said Cisneros.
When you tell stories of your day, when you tell stories of your week, that is performance.
This project was made possible by a Building Demand for the Arts Implementation grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.