24th Street Theatre Answers the Question: What is Theatre?

It all started with a simple question from an inquisitive young boy strolling past the open doors of a converted 1928 carriage house on the corner of 24th STreet and Hoover, just as Jay McAdams and his wife Debbie Devine were on a ladder hanging their light grid in their recent new home.

“What is theatre?”

Since Aristotle’s “Poetics,” dramaturges, critics, artists and audiences alike have attempted to answer this question, but for this little boy standing in the shadows of the great stable doors, painted in 24th STreet Theatre’s iconic green, the question was not merely intellectual.

He did not know what theatre is…at all. It was a foreign concept. Imagine being 8 or 9 and not having any idea of what a live performance must be. This brave young man peppered McAdams and Devine with a battery of questions as he tried to make sense of who and what they were in his neighborhood, as well as what relevance theatre had to his way of life, which did not include the arts.

McAdams freely admits his goal as Executive Director of 24th STreet Theatre did not initially prioritize outreach within his community. His wife, Devine, a teacher who discovered comedic actor Jack Black in his youth, understood the importance of being involved in the neighborhood and residents, but McAdams at the time was focused on just starting a successful theatre.

But the question sparked a realization in McAdams as he climbed off the ladder. “We can make a difference here,” McAdams says this as he works alongside volunteers for their annual Dia de los Muertos event. He knows everyone by name and their back story. He gestures to one enthusiastically polite man who insists on shaking my hand even when he doesn’t know my name or who I am. “He’s homeless,” McAdams states with empathy but also with candor. I turn and look at the man who seems anything than what I picture as “homeless.” The man is eager to help, he’s friendly and well-groomed. I don’t ask why but later when I continue speaking with McAdams in the theatre, the man comes in and sits a ways from us. He is reading a book quietly. I glance over at him occasionally until McAdams turns and smiles.

“We let him stay here as long as we’re here. He reads. It gives him a place off the streets.”

McAdams and I continue to discuss what theatre is in L.A. What does any of it mean? What is a theatre company’s responsibility, if at all, to its community? These opines are far more philosophical and perhaps, even more ambiguous than the simplest inquiry by a young boy who in many ways inspired what 24th STreet Theatre is today. It is about theatre in its community.

Community + Theatre = Unprofessional. However, for 24th STreet Theatre, community means something quite different than what we think of as “Community Theatre.” Anyone who has seen a 24th STreet Theatre production knows the quality, aesthetic, nuance, artistry and professionalism in every one of their main stage plays such as the beloved “Walking the Tightrope” now on tour across the country after its smash hit run in Los Angeles last year.

So what then does community mean, let alone outreach? I go back to the question that started it all: What is theatre? It is people. It is story. It is live. That’s it. Everything else is academic. Every theatre company has their niche in our sprawling, diverse city. 24th STreet Theatre is known for its local outreach. McAdams and Devine and their devoted team from their Communications Director Cindy Marie Jenkins to Jennie McInnis, their Executive Assistant to the Director of Latino Theatre Jesus Castanos-Chima and Allegra Padilla, the Community Engager—all titles that speak to 24th STreet Theatre’s mission and sensibility as a company. The staff and the theatre itself, whose doors are kept open when someone is present, (usually from 11a.m. to 6 p.m.), encourage and invite anyone to come inside. No one is ever turned away. That’s the rule.

It’s hard enough to run a successful theatre company anywhere, let alone in L.A. McAdams and Devine have not only been able to steer through the choppiest of waters economically, but they have been able to live up to their ambitions, loftier than most, to be an integral part of their neighborhood through outreach and accessibility—which is the key word in all of this. Throwing their doors open for young boys to inquire as to what is they are doing has allowed others of a similar mindset of all ages to wander into their theatre and become involved. Something as simple as being open to whomever, whether homeless, curious or just passing on by the main thoroughfare and taking a moment’s interest has elicited a devotion now entering a second generation among families who actively participate in a variety of programs designed to integrate arts with education.

These programs include the popular Enter Stage Right! Led by Devine, the interactive classes featuring Jack Black in videos has become one of the largest Arts Education resources in L.A. Field trips provide students from all areas of the city to come in and experience a creatively immersive teaching environment firsthand. The After ‘Cool Theatre Program gives children the opportunity to learn and explore the arts three times a week after school—a need sorely filled after public school arts budgets have been greatly reduced in the last few years.

Another way 24th STreet Theatre uses outreach within its community is through its Teatro del Pueblo (Theatre of the Neighborhood) productions and classes featuring local residents in Spanish-speaking and themed plays. Many of the actors are parents who after seeing their children learn and enjoy the arts programs, soon became actively involved themselves. The upcoming world premiere “La Vispera” (The Eve) stars University Park immigrants who shared their stories in workshops until it was developed into a holiday play by Victor Vazquez. Performances run Saturdays and Sundays on Dec 6, 7, 13 & 14 at 3 p.m.

What is theatre? For 24th STreet Theatre, it is about community. Without fostering appreciation for the arts, there is no audience, whether now or future generations. McAdams and Devine are unsung heroes both in theatre and in Los Angeles. Their doors are open throughout the day and they are always ready to answer any question by inviting anyone to come inside and discover theatre for themselves.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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