I had arrived early at the theater for my meeting with executive director Jay McAdams. However, instead of finding a deserted lobby, which is what I had expected, I found myself in the midst of a lobby abuzz with energy. There were tables lined up, each with a chess board, and every seat was filled as well as a good number of kids without seats. These were not strictly your stereotypical theater kids either. It was as if somebody had walked through the neighborhood and rounded up every kid, and a few adults for good measure, and ushered them into the lobby. At some tables students played students, and at others adults instructed students on the fine art of strategy. There were snacks and kids milling about, but none of them with that bored look of anticipation waiting for something better to come along. They were energized with a purpose that only adolescents can truly comprehend. On the wall there was a large sheet of paper loudly announcing what colleges each of the high school seniors had been accepted into. With no small amount of pride, I watched as one student added on the name of another school. I quickly realized that I had not stepped into a theater lobby, nor had I stepped into an after-school program. I had stepped into a second home. These kids were at home in a theater lobby.
Eventually McAdams walked over to shake my hand and introduce himself. He sheepishly, but proudly, explained to me that the area schools let out early on Wednesdays, so a community member suggested doing a chess club. Despite a fear that no one would be interested, the theater opened its doors and resources to the community and like Costner’s “Field of Dreams,” they came. There was a need and it was filled. I had also noticed that there was a subtle Hispanic flair to the decor, including a series of pictures chronicling the theater’s 15th year, which they had labeled as their quinceañera. I asked if this had always been the plan or if it had come about through interactions with the local community. Without hesitation McAdams explained that it came about exclusively because of the community.
Over the years 24th Street had produced numerous free community and cultural events, many of them, like their Dia de los Muertos celebrations, were geared toward the largely Hispanic population that live around the theater. These events quickly became popular and the 24th Street Theatre gained the reputation in the neighborhood as a place where people could congregate and feel at home. 24th Street’s After ‘Cool program was well attended and provided opportunities for high school seniors to go on field trips into parts of LA that they wouldn’t normally visit and see colleges so that the culture shock of stepping foot on a college campus for the first time would be lessened. These students became role models for the younger students and left big shoes to fill when they began their collegiate studies.
However, while their neighbors would flock to their community events and send their kids to After ‘Cool, they never showed up for the theater productions. That’s when it occurred to 24th Street, that plays written by dead northern Europeans didn’t exactly have a big draw to a Hispanic community. Therefore, to achieve their vision of combining theater and community so that a member from the Board of Directors could enjoy a glass of wine while discussing the evening performance with the guy that lives down the street, they needed to diversify their offerings.
Like the little boy, they approached this new venture into Hispanic theater and art with open eyes and inquisitive minds. However, having no previous experience to gauge their work against, they had no idea if the work they were doing was any good. So they brought in an expert. Jesus Castaños-Chima, a theatre artist from Mexico, became 24th Street Theatre’s Director of Latino Theatre Programs. Through this collaboration the theater’s Latino work improved and so did the diversification of their audiences. In 2011 “La Razon Blindada,” a production performed entirely in Spanish with English supertitles, became the first Spanish-language play to win LA Weekly’s Production of the Year Award. With more interest being shown for their work, 24th Street began a series of International collaborations with the US Embassy in El Salvador and the Mexican government as well theaters in Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador and elsewhere. They use these trips as a microcosm of the big picture of their work that they carry out in Los Angeles. While abroad they not only bring a production, but workshops for teachers, their students and ways that the organizations can reach out into the neighborhoods to make a difference.
There it is again, make a difference. McAdams describes their organization as being composed of three buckets – professional theater, arts education and community outreach. However, from an outsider’s perspective it’s one bucket. A bucket full of the love for theater and the good that theater can do for an individual, a community and the world at large. 24th Street Theater isn’t about art for art’s sake. They’re about art that can change and shape the world around them for the better. At the corner of 24th Street and Hoover you will find the model of a new kind of theater company. One that opens its arms to all those around it and asks, “What can we do for you?” And it all started with the choice of climbing down off of ladders to answer the questions of a little boy.
24th Street Theatre
1117 W 24th St, Los Angeles, CA 90007