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Working in Community

What Center Theatre Group, Pasadena Playhouse, and South Coast Repertory Learned from Projects Funded by Irvine Foundation Exploring Engagement Grants


(L-R) Gerlie Collado, Project Manager & Community Organizer, Pasadena Playhouse. Danny Feldman, Artistic Director, Pasadena Playhouse. Diane Ragsdale, Facilitator.

From 2012–2016, three of Southern California’s leading regional theatres programmed ambitious initiatives to engage local communities—primarily Latinx—they felt were underrepresented as patrons at their theatres. With funding from the James Irvine Foundation’s Exploring Engagement fund, all three companies experimented with partnerships between professional artists and community members, innovative methods of engagement, and forming new relationships with other local nonprofits.

After the projects concluded, staff members from Center Theatre Group, Pasadena Playhouse, and South Coast Repertory gathered at a one-day retreat to share their experiences and try to find common threads and themes that they—and other theatres around the country attempting similar work—might learn from in the future. Theatre scholar and arts consultant Diane Ragsdale facilitated the convening and provided a broader national and international context for the discussion.

All three theatres began their programming with preconceived notions about the communities they were trying to serve; the communities then turned these notions on their heads in many ways.

Center Theatre Group
Community as Creators

Through the Looking Glass
Center Theatre Group's 'Through the Looking Glass.' Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.

Introduction to the Project

Center Theatre Group’s Community as Creators program consisted of two projects designed to engage Latinx and African-American communities in creating theatre. In Boyle Heights, they partnered with Chicano theatre company El Teatro Campesino on Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven, an original, open-to-the-public performance created and performed with community members and the culmination of months of creative workshops and rehearsals. And in Leimert Park and Montebello, they partnered with artists Jerry Quickley and reg e gaines on Through the Looking Glass, a series of writing workshops that culminated in readings of original work that asked members of two different communities to imagine the lives of each other.

Perceptions and Misperceptions

Center Theatre Group discovered that Montebello, which was perceived as majority Latinx, also has well-represented Armenian, white, and Asian populations; all of these groups were eager to participate in Through the Looking Glass, which shifted the focus of that project.

Pasadena Playhouse
Mi Historia, Mi Manera

Mi Historia, Mi Manera
Pasadena Playhouse's 'Mi Historia, Mi Manera.' Photo by M. Kobe Photography.

Introduction to the Project

Pasadena Playhouse’s Mi Historia, Mi Manera program set out to increase arts participation of Latinxs in the San Gabriel Valley by using a unique model called Consensus Organizing for Theatre, a process where a theatre builds stake in multiple pockets of the community while those from the community also build a stake in the theatre. Thanks to the input of community members at town hall meetings, the project evolved—honing in on the small city of La Puente and on three Neighborhood Associations in the city of Pasadena—and changed from a playwriting contest into a series of improvisational and other workshops, devised performances, and staged, open-to-the-public readings.

Perceptions and Misperceptions

After hosting a number of town hall meetings, and regular contact with various community leaders, Pasadena Playhouse made three important discoveries which refined the direction of the project: 1) Latinxs in the cities of La Puente and Pasadena had specific needs that could be met by the project; 2) the original project name, Mi Historia, Mi Moda did not resonate with its target population; and 3) the playwriting contest it had originally planned was not what community members wanted or needed. By actively listening and inviting Latinxs in La Puente and Pasadena to participate in creative activities, the Playhouse cultivated strong ownership in its programs and services among its target population.

South Coast Repertory

Through the Looking Glass
South Coast Repertory's 'Dialogue/Dialogos.''Through the Looking Glass.' Photo by David Lopez.

Introduction to the Project

South Coast Repertory’s Dialogue/Diálogos was a two-year bilingual community-based theatre initiative with Santa Ana’s Latinx community. Diálogos had three phases: story-gathering days, play-making workshops, and play development. The project captured the stories and memories of nearly 1,000 of the city’s Latinx residents, which created the core of a new bilingual play, The Long Road Today/El Largo Camino de Hoy, written by José Cruz González. The project culminated in free public performances in Santa Ana with a cast and crew of nearly 100 community members.

Perceptions and Misperceptions

South Coast Repertory began with the goal of upending stereotypes about Orange County as a place lacking in diversity (both racial and socioeconomic). They found that expanding their footprint in the community required more outside voices and participants than expected—10 teaching artists instead of three or four as planned, a key community partner, and a consulting theatre company specializing in community partnerships.


All three theatres agreed that the biggest challenges of the projects were time and resources, as well as integrating this mission-based work into the larger culture and ethos of the organization. Staff members across the companies—while simultaneously working on mainstage shows—had to carve out time and resources to support these additional projects. A typical play may be in development for years before it is mounted, then go onto a season schedule, then get a marketing plan, then go into rehearsal, and finally go into a tech process before at last reaching an audience. These projects were all two years from conception to completion—and changed a great deal in that time—which involved extremely truncated schedules for everyone involved. The budgets for the projects were generous enough that everyone could dream big, but ultimately there were still places where resources were unexpectedly required, or were stretched thin, requiring improvisation and scaling back.

It was also important to have organizational buy-in on these projects’ importance—an agreement from staff members that this work had value, even if it was not necessarily developing new ticket buyers or paving the way for a mainstage production.

What Happens Next?

The Exploring Engagement grants were by nature experimental—designed to explore new models for engagement with community. That gave all three theatres opportunities and resources to step outside their comfort zones. But in the end, that also meant that none of the companies had a clear path forward in their communities.

Everyone expressed a desire to continue this work. One idea was to try to do similar work on a smaller scale and with a more sustainable budget that can be renewed yearly. Another was to focus even more deeply on serving one community.

The organizations also agreed that staff continuity and diversity is key to succeeding; when staff changes over, priorities inevitably change and relationships cannot be sustained. Further, having staff and partners that reflect community keeps the community at the table at all times.

For Center Theatre Group, next steps meant maintaining relationships with the community members who participated in Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven and Through the Looking-Glass—inviting them to shows, workshops, and readings.

Pasadena Playhouse moved forward on two main fronts. The first was Josefina Lopez’s Real Women Have Curves in its 2016-2017 season, and working with the Latinx community to support and take ownership of the play, as well as subsequent programs and community engagement activities at the Playhouse and in surrounding neighborhoods. The Playhouse continues to maintain relationships with Mi Historia, Mi Manera participants. The second was using the lessons from Mi Historia, Mi Manera to create a new initiative to expand the Playhouse’s audiences by focusing on Asian-Americans in the San Gabriel Valley.

At South Coast Repertory, community engagement remained part of the fabric of the organization thanks to the literary and marketing teams. They worked to continue to embrace the idea of “turning outward” toward the community.

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