The People in Your Neighborhood
Cindy Marie Jenkins blogs on how artists, arts organizations and neighborhood councils are working together to impact communities.
I only became aware of neighborhood councils when my friend Enci introduced me to East Hollywood’s incredibly active one. In 2009, East Hollywood Board-member Jennifer Moran saw Enci in a play I adapted from a series of interviews regarding Chornobyl. She was intrigued because these stories bypassed the government (Soviet) propaganda and told difficult stories from the citizen’s perspectives: all sides, all ages, all who would talk. Jennifer requested the same sort of project for East Hollywood on behalf of their neighborhood council. The idea intrigued me and we set to work.
- This work is not marketing, not PR, but Outreach: simply trying to find and interest people.
- Arts and local government face many of the same obstacles to success.
- A huge gap exists between the people both say they serve and those they actually reach (of course there are notable exceptions to this statement, such as Cornerstone.)
- We can both learn from each other.
- When working with a neighborhood council, be prepared to eloquently argue the power and impact of art. Lisa Cerda from Tarzana NC suggests you ask and answer these questions before contacting a NC: “What does the arts do for the community? How are they meeting needs? Do they actively seek support from neighborhood councils? How likely are they to receive financial help in a time where funding is slashed, and needs are high. Do you chose to help food banks, schools, community beautification, or something that on the surface appears to be superfluous?”
- Understand that at least half the people to which you’re speaking have never attended a live theatre performance.
- Huge opportunities exist between the arts and neighborhood councils, but take an immense amount of effort and devotion on the artist’s side.
- Neighborhood councils are bound by certain time and bureaucratic requirements. If you want support for a project in April, for instance, begin your outreach to the NC in January.
- Depending on the neighborhood, you’d be surprised how many people have no access to the internet on a regular basis (50% offline is the estimate in Atwater Village, for instance). When’s the last time you performed in a library to reach that population?
Neighborhood councils are run completely by volunteers. The only person the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council regularly pays is our note-taker. Others, like the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, value their website and social media outreach so much that they pay a webmaster.
Many LA theaters are also strongly founded on volunteerism. Many smaller theaters have little to no marketing department, and often are so entangled within the actual productions of their work that do not have the time to truly reach out to their neighborhood. If you can, the follow-up (read: bureaucracy) can often be so difficult to follow that it seems like too much work.
How can we help each other?
Ed Novy from Sunland-Tujunga believes “The arts (in all the various forms) are key assets for any NC. I am fortunate to wear two hats, I sit on my NC Board (Sunland-Tujunga) as a rep for McGroarty Arts Center and I am the Treasurer for the McGroarty Arts Center. McGroarty provides our community much needed instruction for children and seniors in the arts. And provides incredible programming in ceramics, music and visual arts. The Center is also the soul of our community as it has been around for decades.”
Sitting on your neighborhood council is certainly a good option. Simply showing up to meetings occasionally (well before asking for support) is another. NC’s love everyone who shows up to a meeting just as much as theaters value every single donor or audience member.
If your local NC has a nonprofit or outreach representative, that is a great place to start. They can tell you what they need and help with your proposals for better success.
One of the reasons a collaboration is important, Lisa Cerda asserts, is that “the arts bring people together. Which is exactly what the neighborhood councils struggle with. This could be the perfect symbiotic relationship!....the beauty of neighborhood councils, we are so diverse and have ample examples to learn from....what I loved most was tapping into existing community service groups, like Generation One, an organization that provides care and entertainment for the elderly. We learn so much about our communities needs through these new relationships and we both become better service providers because we rely on each other.”
My own local theaters have benefited financially by completing a short funding application and expressing a compelling case for how their work benefits our community: Independent Shakespeare Company moved to Griffith Park in 2010 and immediately visited all of the surrounding neighborhood councils requesting funds to build a stage appropriate to the hundreds of audience members they hosted each night. We on the NC received the comparable sized program ad and Atwater Village claimed one evening of Shakespeare for our community, immediately reaching all of their audience through our outreach table and opening remarks.
Last spring, Atwater Village Theatre (Circle X & EST-LA) asked for assistance with their courtyard area. They completed the budget request, showed up to the meeting with sketches and examples of recent involvement in our community and quite frankly, had good timing: we were at the point in our fiscal year where we had to spend or lose, a new development in the budget afforded NC’s by the city of LA. Their funding request was approved.
It is rarely this simple, and the funding application has very clear guidelines, as do the neighborhood councils:
- We must pay for a specific item (not an amount towards general producing expenses).
- The organization has to be willing and able to get reimbursed, rather than money ahead of time. Neighborhood councils are not in direct control of their funds, and it sometimes takes months of submitting invoices, receipts, etc. to obtain the funding approved.
- Neighborhood Councils must must must only fund requests that directly enhance their community.
- We probably can’t fund your postcards unless you need the money for a translator or extra space to reach the ESL households within the neighborhood.
- The main reason we could fund ISC is because of their already stellar track record, their bilingual outreach pre-shows and their proximity to Atwater Village. (For instance, East Hollywood NC continued to fund them in 2010 even after they moved from Barnsdall Park, but that is specifically because the ISC performs outreach to the East Hollywood schools. There may have been other reasons, but that is my recollection.)
- Think creatively about these opportunities. How many times has a unique, interesting audience development idea occurred to your organization only to be dismissed because there isn’t the manpower or funds?
Wake up call: non-theatre artists often see smaller theaters as that dreaded label: community theater. You can have all the professional or name actors in your play that you want, but until you invite the people living around you to your work, they associate small theaters with school auditorium productions.
Conversely, most people’s ideas of neighborhood councils involve a small group of community leaders huddled in a basement deciding how to spend taxpayers’ money. Trust me, there are incredibly lengths gone to for assurance the public can be involved; it’s called The Brown Act, but still unfortunately isn’t very effective unless you know where and how to specifically look for the NC information.
Enci and Bitter Lemons found an ingenious way to combine everyone’s efforts towards understanding ways we can collaborate; she visited every NC meeting that has theaters surrounding them, and asked the NC to sponsor a page (or more, depending on the pricing) to highlight both the neighborhood council and the theaters in their communities. See the right hand column on their main page. It was a stroke of brilliance and I believe has gone a long way towards awareness on both sides. Enci crafted her proposal to “reach both artists as well as NC leaders. I've been raising awareness of local theatres, which NC board members didn't know about, and I've been posting articles and polls on Bitter Lemons about NCs, so that our readers become more aware of their local NCs or the NC system in general. I think artists do need to be more involved in their local government and local government should be more involved with their artists. They both would benefit from each other in so many ways, but mostly, they together could strengthen their local economy.”
We all need to work together in this economy. I do not mean to imply that theaters aren't doing everything they can to develop a new audience; simply that you may not be aware or have the time to accomplish everything, and I am here to help. Some more examples:
- Instead of pounding the pavement for every show asking for local businesses to place program ads with money you know they do not have, why not ask the neighborhood’s Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a page of ads?
- How often do you attend fund-raisers and local meetings or events simply to introduce people to your theater? People typically won’t come unless they know about it and are asked.
- How often have you offered entertainment during a farmer’s market, where hundreds of people from all over LA go? I think this could be the ultimate outreach possibility replacing direct mail in the near future - meaning the present.
- Pair up with local businesses and move beyond theatre itself to attract them. I had great success in raising more awareness - and thus more audience - to a reading in Atwater Village because I also ran a small gallery exhibit in my local coffee shop on the same theme as the reading. I garnered at least four people new to attending theater this way. For a one night reading, that is a huge accomplishment.
One last thing: if you still aren’t sure how much effort should go into the neighborhood around you, consider my case. I work in theater, see more theater than a non-theater-artist, yet only since Circle X & EST-LA moved within blocks of my house, did I actively see their work. I’ve seen more of their productions (and rentals) in the year since they moved to Atwater Crossing than in my last nine years of living in LA. Proximity goes a long way. If you plan to reach any people inclined to theater-going but not in the habit, you are more likely to succeed with your neighbors.
I have many more thoughts on these topics. I hope this article sparked some old or new thoughts in your development. If you have any questions, please do feel free to contact me.
CINDY MARIE JENKINS is a Storyteller and Director of Online Outreach for Social | Impact Consulting, a small firm dedicated to the success of nonprofits in social media. She is obsessed with outreach, dragons, and beer.
Photos (provided by the author): Imagine East Hollywood project as part of the Silver Lake Jubilee; Imagine Interaction at Barnsdall Art Gallery, where we broke down a neighborhood council agenda in improv form and with audience interaction; Mary from Independent Shakespeare Company introduces their new connection to Atwater Village a month before applying for funding. Bruce FLeenor, Treasurer, looks on; Look at all the people we were able to meet, sign up for our mailing list, and more by connecting with ISC. It goes both ways.
Full Disclosure, or why Arts for LA asked me to write this article: I work in both theatre and neighborhood councils and wish for both to succeed. I used to write for Bitter Lemons. For the record, I was not paid for anything in which I was involved that was mentioned in this article.
Full Disclosure #2: Arts for LA staff member Camille Schenkkan volunteers with Circle X, but was not aware Cindy would use that organization or its relationship with the neighborhood council within this article.