Walk into the 24th St Theatre

There is a question that is seldom addressed – what does success look like if your passion is theatre and that is where you want to live?  Well, let’s take a little tour.  Just off of Hoover on 24th Street in Los Angeles, sits a theatre.  The one on the north side of the street.  Only the name of the theatre over the top of the front door tells you that it’s a theatre.  The large green shutter doors on the front are reminiscent of an old firehouse or a warehouse, or maybe an automobile service facility, but the sign over the door clearly says 24th STreet Theatre.

Jack Black Debbie Devine & Jay McAdams

Any day of the week after 11 o’clock, those green doors are open.  Step inside and you will always find a cup of coffee or some cold water, and a friendly face to greet you.  Need to talk, can do.  Debbie, or Jay, or one of the members of staff will be happy to break into their day to sit and chat.

In 1996, when Debbie Devine and Jay McAdams began building out the theatre, Victor, an eleven year old local boy, stuck his head in the door.

“What’s this place going to be?”

“A theatre.”

“You mean with girls?”

“No, plays.”

“What’s a play?”

“Actors on a stage telling stories and…”

“There’s going to be a different show every day?”

“No, one show at a time…”

Thus, the course of life is often altered.  For ten years prior to that moment, Debbie and Jay had been producing family-oriented theatre under the watchful eye of Ron Sossi at the Odyssey Theatre.  Under the banner Glorious Theatre, named after Debbie’s mom, Gloria, they had worked to bring theatre to audiences of all ages, plays like Frankenstein, and period pieces – all high-production value works, but the time had come for them to strike out on their own.

So at the encouragement of Bob Scales, who was then the Dean of USC’s School of Theatre, along with the partnerships of Jon White-Spunner and Stephanie Shroyer, who had been managing director and artistic director respectively at Pacific Resident Theatre, a site was chosen.  The location was a function of cost and proximity to USC, which is just a few blocks down on Hoover.

The change in location was big.  Jay goes on saying, “We went from the upscale Westside to the impoverished inner city. We were going to call the theatre, Hoover Exit, so that our Westside audiences would know where to get off of the freeway. It was a scary part of town 20 years ago, but the neighborhood is not dangerous today. There is some gentrification and there is the proximity to a world-class university.  Still the neighborhood is heavily populated with members of various Latino cultures, especially Central Americans.

Debbie, who has been the Director of the Colburn School Drama Department for over 30 years, is also an accomplished and award-winning director and arts educator.  Her life has been spent teaching acting not just to actors, but those that can utilize the craft in other worlds.The combined skills and experiences of Jay and Debbie had hardly prepared them for the task that they found before them.  And yet Victor, the 11-year-old, set wheels into motion.  Relevance to the community, how do we deliver the impact that theatre is capable of giving to an audience that is unaware that theatre exists?

The answer lay in how much these two accomplished artists were willing to not just engage, but to be a part of the community in which they had set up house.  First immersion into the community, get to know your neighbors, figure out how to be a part of a tribe.  It’s not about bringing something to the community, it’s being a part of the community.  Respect that location will inform and impact the programing offered.   Latino theatre artists were consulted and offered insight into traditional storytelling and how that functions in the community.

Then it became about the integration of what the community wanted and needed, and the skills and creativity that Jay and Debbie had to offer.  Just producing plays was not the answer.  Expanding opportunities of communication looked to be the more engaging path.  The background in education certainly informed some of the next steps, but in time, aside from producing plays, various programs were established.

An after-school program was established where 25 children were exposed to theatre, music and dance once a week.  Now there are 100 children who go through that program at the theatre, 4 days a week for an entire school year.  It’s called After Cool.  Expanding that engagement, there are now 25 high school kids that act as mentors to the younger kids, and from the USC work study program, there are theatre students that help in guiding the teens.  There is a continuum of opportunity to see what life is like in the arts.  Not just the how-to-be-creative parts of life, but the practical demonstrations of what needs to be done, from concept to development to sweeping stages to…

Then there is engagement with public education.  24th STreet Theatre, under the auspices of its Enter STage Right program, is now one of the largest art providers to the LAUSD.  Up to 10,000 students per year see a production that is tailored to meet the needs of student audiences.  The theatre has a $50,000 annual budget line-item for bussing the kids to the theatre.  “If you take a show to the school, it’s part of school, but if you bring the kids to the theatre, it becomes a memorable event.”, Debbie points out. Fully realized and well produced theatre exposes kids to opportunities they never dreamed of.

ICE, which ran for several months last year, is returning this fall as part of the educational outreach.  And while the overt story is about an ice cream vendor and is focused around their onstage ice cream truck, the heart of the material is about the struggle of immigrants and the impact of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In the day-to-day life at the theatre, there is also the community awareness.  On a grand scale, 24th STreet Theatre now produces one of the largest Dia de los Muertos events (Day of the Dead) festival in Los Angeles. This year Hoover Street is being closed to facilitate the celebration.

Bill, a local septuagenarian, was having problems with the latest heat wave. Action was required.  Why is this a problem to the theatre? Because the doors are open to the problems of the community.  The solution was for Jay to take a fan over to Bill’s place.

The mailman comes by, he’s greeted with an offer for a glass of water.  He now comes to see the shows. When he does, he is introduced in the curtain speech, since he is a part of the tribe.  If you come to the door and say you live in the community, your ticket price is $2.40.  If you can’t pay that, you’ll still get in.

When a woman from Central America showed up at the door with her kids, she was looking for a church, she was in desperate need but every church she had gone to was closed.  The Cathedral downtown was closed for lunch, no one there to even answer the phone. Jay and Debbie welcomed her in and started to help her find a church.  It is in the mission for the 24th STreet Theatre to be a part of the community, a service to the community, not just an entity within.

Theatrically, the productions are world renowned.  The award-winning Walking the Tightrope engaged audiences of all ages on the subject of death.  There was Hansel & Gretel Bluegrass with Bradley Whitford, El Ogrito, , Man Covets Bird, all works that reach audiences of all ages.  24th STreet Theatre is a leading producer of TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) throughout the country, and in recognition of that were awarded the Theatre Communications Group Peter Zeisler Award for Outstanding Achievement in the American Theatre.  Some of these productions have toured both nationally and internationally.

And there’s still the day-to-day activity that engages the entire theatre.  Students going into Jay’s office for mock job interviews, curriculum and scheduling, productions, rehearsals, never enough time. Neither Jay nor Debbie are anywhere near done. They have built an institution that is well beyond the sum of their parts.  The next question is, where is it all going?  The programing and the services impact thousands, the work is never done.

Building a successful theatre is far more than programing and producing.  An essential element to any institution is building sustainability.  That requires many things.  A good Board of Directors, a paid staff that helps sustain and build institutional memory. A mission that lives to serve the community not just the artists.

24th STreet Theatre has a strong Board of Directors.  They have a paid staff, good salaries, benefits, motivation for long term employees.  A commitment to a community and a training process that assures quality of production and challenge to build more.

When asked what would be on your wish list, if a magic wand were waved what would you want?  In unison, Jay and Debbie responded, a managing director.  Someone to care for the business as much as they care about their mission.  There is an answer with vision.  Understanding that sustainability is about good business practice, efficiency, productivity and honoring commitments.

Some years ago, Debbie was teaching at a school for students at risk. “if they liked you, the greeting was good morning you f**king b**ch!  I was teaching a class, where one of the students wouldn’t step into the room. He kept showing up, but stood in the door and watched. In the second week, he came into the room. By the end of the second week he was engaged.”  That was how Debbie began her association with Jack Black.

Jack now sponsors the Jack Black Producers Circle and is an integral part of the 24th STreet theatre family.  Missions produce results.  Even Victor, the young boy who helped inspire what is now their life mission stays in touch.

Visit the theatre at 1117 West 24th Street in Los Angeles or their website at 24thstreet.org  or take in one of their shows.  Spend a few minutes and you’ll be back for more, and you’ll want to become a part of this incredibly exciting successful tribe.  FL

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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