Could a Costume Shop Be Reimagined as a Neighborhood Creative Center?

By opening the doors of their costume and prop shop to the local community, Center Theatre Group developed new partnerships and explored new ways to connect the craft of theatre with daily lives.

How did we partner with Boyle Heights community residents and organizations?

In fall of 2013, Center Theatre Group embarked on a new initiative: to pilot a series of workshops and events at its costume and prop shop and the surrounding Boyle Heights community that provide opportunities for residents to express their creativity, build community, and connect the craft of theatre with their daily lives.

Through this initiative, CTG works with local libraries, arts organizations, and community organizations to offer free play readings, sewing circles, costume displays, and art-making and writing workshops at partner sites and “The Shop.” In its first year, the initiative served approximately 1,000 Boyle Heights residents.

How can a regional theater be a good neighbor?

The beginning of this work came about over lunch one day, when CTG Director of Education and Community Partnerships Leslie Johnson and Production Department Operations Director Dawn Holiski discovered a new programmatic opportunity in the intersection of an untapped resource, an external challenge, and a core institutional goal.

The untapped resource was CTG’s 9,945-square-foot costume and prop shop, known as “The Shop,” where large workrooms sat mostly unused on weekends and evenings, and the staff longed to feel more connected to the surrounding community. Since opening in 2005, The Shop had developed a strong operational infrastructure that more than adequately served its function for CTG, and the timing was right to test how The Shop could now serve a meaningful function for the surrounding community.

“Connecting to community in these intimate settings, bringing theatre to the people, letting them hear their own authors – could it be that a regional theatre is actually showing an interest in its region?” – Luis Alfaro, Participating Playwright

The Shop is located less than four miles from CTG’s two largest theatres, and is seated in the historically arts-rich and primarily Latino community of Boyle Heights. From the start, CTG saw that by activating The Shop as a space for developing new community partnerships, it could support one of the institution’s core goals: to both broaden and deepen its impact. This project was an exciting way to connect with a community that is so geographically close to CTG, but not fully represented in the audience demographic of our three main theatres.

CTG was also aware of shifting patterns in arts participation and audience opportunities across the country, and utilizing The Shop as a neighborhood hub allowed CTG to test new models of participatory arts engagement and learn about what was resonant with the surrounding community.

As Leslie and Dawn gathered a diverse cross-departmental planning team, two driving questions for the initiative emerged: How do we make theatre integral to people’s daily lives? And, what does mean to be a good neighbor?

Shifting our definitions of success and embracing new relationships

The resulting programming required a variety of shifts in CTG’s organizational assumptions. CTG has been a field leader for decades, but working with Boyle Heights community members necessitated letting them lead us into new territory.

The staff turned outward, looking for expertise and drivers within the Boyle Heights community. Without the drivers, the initiative would have been a bust; instead, it was a boom. As a theatre with one of the largest audience bases in the country, CTG also developed new metrics of success as we learned how to make meaningful and lasting connections with a new community, one person at a time.

As a result of these shifts, in just one year, CTG’s work in Boyle Heights has expanded how we define our mission to bring theatre to the diverse audiences of Los Angeles, and enabled us to newly realize what it means to be “LA’s Theatre Company.”

“Nunca había presenciado algo a si. Que bueno! Seria bonito que vinieran mas seguido, tenerlos en nuestra comunidad, porque no tenemos oportunidad de ver estos eventos. Es bonito porque en nuestra comunidad de el este de Los Ángeles, lo que es aquí de Boyle Heights no nos hacen mucho a si. Entonces que bueno, gracias a ustedes por venir. Es bonito, por ejemplo yo ya los mire, yo voy a decirle a mis vecinos.”

I’ve never been witness to something like this. How great! It would be beautiful if you would continue to come, to have you all in our community, because we do not have the opportunities to attend such events. It’s beautiful because in our community of East Los Angeles, specifically here in Boyle Heights there is so little offered. So, thank you all for coming. It’s beautiful, because, for instance, I have attended and I’m going to tell my neighbors. – Alicia Almazan, Library Patron

Learn more in posts from The Grid, CTG’s blog:

Seed funding for this project was provided by the A-ha! Program: Think It, Do It, funded by the MetLife Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for professional not-for-profit American Theatre.

Jean Kling is the Director of Institutional Support at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, where she has spearheaded several major grants for innovative new program initiatives.