“Where do cultural leaders come from?” asked Center Theatre Group Director of Social Strategy, Innovation and Impact Leslie K. Johnson. “They’re not just born; they’re made.” Yet training for young people in the arts—especially at the high school and college undergraduate level—typically focuses on transforming them into artists, not arts leaders. We’re working to fill that gap with two programs that create a pipeline of young Los Angeles arts leaders: the Center Theatre Group Student Ambassadors and our Internship Program.
“We’re asking students to think about how to be advocates for arts and culture in our communities, and how to bring creative leadership into careers outside of the arts,” said Johnson. “Both programs help enable the participants to focus on developing their leadership styles. Both programs ask the participants to create ideas and solve problems in teams.”
The Student Ambassadors are Los Angeles County high school students who commit to spending seven months at Center Theatre Group participating in regular meetings and other events while honing their leadership skills and completing a major project with a small group. Past projects have included planning peer pre-show events, creating teen theatre workshop series, proposing a Los Angeles teen theatre awards program, and advocating for more arts in Southern California schools.
Lily Larsen, a 2015/2016 participant in the program, is in the process of creating an arts activism elective or club at her school. “I want to use the arts and the tools I learned to help empower others less fortunate,” she said. “Everyone at Center Theatre Group inspired me to share my knowledge and experience of being a Student Ambassador with others.”
Another 2015/2016 participant, Kamyra Williams, added that being a Student Ambassador taught her “how to be a leader and a listener.” She’s looking forward to utilizing her leadership skills in college, and already “has incorporated the arts leadership role in a fashion program at my school.”
Johnson explained that being an Ambassador “gives many high school students perhaps their first opportunity to really stretch their wings as leaders and as collaborators, and see what working in the professional world is about.”
Both the Ambassador and Internship Programs, said Johnson, “help to bridge school interests, talents, and careers.” For interns, that means “we’re meeting young adults who are getting ready to step off into lives beyond school and giving them a chance to practice that alongside professionals.” Interns get hands-on experience and instruction—mentored by Center Theatre Group staff—while also participating in weekly professional development sessions focusing on building skills and knowledge in areas like interviewing and résumé writing, careers in Los Angeles theatre, and workplace diversity.
As a junior at USC in 2013, Savannah Barker “looked into every major theatre company in Los Angeles and their respective internship opportunities. Center Theatre Group’s stood out as one that would give me a well-rounded experience and a comprehensive understanding of arts management,” she explained. Today, she is a junior publicist at Center Theatre Group, having landed a job on staff just after graduation. A number of current staff members are former interns, but they are also scattered throughout arts organizations around Los Angeles and the country.
Manuel Prieto is currently executive director of the East Los Angeles-based Los Angeles Music and Art School as well as a designer who also works as a Center Theatre Group Teaching Artist. “My internship developed the skills that were not developed in the classroom: budgets, writing grant language, lesson plans,” he said. “It activated the notion of being an artist, administrator, and also educator.”
The Internship Program also changes the way Center Theatre Group’s staff members see the next generation of arts leaders. “We tell our staff mentors that they are selecting the future colleagues they want to work with,” said Johnson. “At the same time, we’re creating opportunities for them to meet young people who may not be coming through the traditional pathways of arts management. This is helpful to us as we look to diversify our workforce—and it allows us to get to know amazing people who bring unique and different perspectives that help expand the way we’re doing our work. It’s an authentic form of relationship-building.”