LA's Center Theatre Group is on a roll. It received a $600,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to support its new community-based arts engagement programs, which comes on the heels of recent $1 million dollar audience programming grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Clearly, Center Theatre understands what funders are looking for. So how is the group doing it?
The Center Theatre Group is a non-profit, LA-based arts organization and one of the largest theatre companies in the nation, putting on shows at three local venues. The group has a combined subscription audience of 55,000-plus and a total audience exceeding 750,000 a year. Clearly, it doesn't hurt the theater to be located in the heart of Los Angeles. That said, location doesn't guarantee the impressive amounts of funding the theatre has recently received. Take the aforementioned Mellon Foundation gift, for example. It helped to fund the programming side of the house by funding traditional pieces from "Porgy and Bess" to more experimental projects like "non-text based work" with a "non-linear narrative."
And here is where the worlds of programming and audience engagement intersect, whereby compelling programming engages the audience and vice versa. Enter the Irvine Foundation, with grants primarily focused on engaging specific demogrweaphics like the African-American and Latino residents of Leimert Park, Montebello, and Boyle Heights. So what does this "engagement" look like?
First, the group partners with experienced producers, playwrights, and poets attuned to the interests of these respective communities. Performance artist Jerry Quickley, for example, will work with residents of Leimert Park and Montebello on a weekly basis to discuss cultural stereotypes and to write each other's autobiographies. Based on this work, Quickley will co-write a play in which community participants perform, both in their communities and at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. (Getting community residents "involved" is one thing; Quickley's project goes a step further by getting them to actually perform in front of an audience.)
Second, the group rolls out programs that embrace unconventional mediums like puppetry. And third, the material itself speaks to the audience's history and heritage; one planned piece, to be produced by local director Kinan Valdez, will employ aforementioned puppetry to explore the Mayan creation story.
With huge grants from Mellon and the Irvine Foundation, it's been a pretty successful year so far for the Center Theatre Group. One can only imagine what's next.
For more analysis on how foundations awards theater funding, check out IP's take here.