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Gossip, Cheese, and Theatre in Boyle Heights

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Actors Eddie Vona and Olivia Delgado.

Photo by Cristi Burgos/CBGRAPHY.
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The crowd enjoying some good chisme at Eastside Luv.

Photo by Cristi Burgos/CBGRAPHY.

Across the street from Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, tucked tightly onto a corner, is a very small bar. And although it’s early on a Sunday evening, inside the very small bar is a very big party.

The young, diverse crowd is dancing to 1980s pop, drinking sangria, and gossiping in English and Spanish. It is quintessentially Los Angeles.

This is the setting of Chisme y Queso, an event series hosted by Center Theatre Group in partnership with Boyle Heights bar Eastside Luv. On six Sundays this spring, patrons and artists gathered to share anonymously their own chisme—gossip—and have it performed onstage (atop the bar) by local actors. Alongside the improvised chisme, the 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—allows Center Theatre Group to experiment with our programming, invest in the future of young Los Angeles actors, writers, and directors, and connect our neighbors with us and with theatre in a nontraditional setting.

We are so used to our spaces being our three theatres, but community programs allow us to create new spaces in Boyle Heights, like The Shop, our costume and props shop, the libraries, where we present monthly play readings, and now Eastside Luv, said Center Theatre Group Community Partnerships Director Jesus Reyes. Chisme y Queso is a natural extension of the community programs and partnerships we’ve been building in Boyle Heights over the past four years. Plus, added Reyes, This program also expands our reach in terms of the kinds of artists we work with and where those artists are in their careers.

Center Theatre Group Community Partnerships Associate Alejandra Cisneros, who is directing all of the Chisme y Queso pieces, is one of those artists. I think a lot of young directors, because there’s a lack of space within L.A., need to bring life and work to other spaces, she said. Doing more site-specific work, marrying the arts with community engagement, and finding your tribe is one of the only ways that, as a young artist, you can move forward in your career.

The participating writers, who are being mentored by Center Theatre Group Resident Artist Naomi Iizuka, agreed that Chisme y Queso is moving both their careers and craft forward. It forces me to think on my feet and write as truthfully as possible, because the audience really responds when they see a piece onstage that could come out of their own experiences, said writer Diana Burbano.

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 MC 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 myriad characters, from jilted girlfriends to arthritic old men. The audience is unbridled in their laughter and enjoyment, as their stories are performed with not only a sense of humor, but with honesty and sensitivity. At the end of the evening, the writer of the best chisme is awarded a bottle of wine, 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.

But at the heart of Chisme y Queso—right alongside Center Theatre Group’s desire to engage with community, nurture young artists, and bring theatre into people’s everyday lives—is joy. There’s just something about shared laughter, said Cisneros.

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