BWW Interview: Greenway Arts Alliance's Whitney Weston & Pierson Blaetz Talk Flea Markets, Teaching Kids & Loving LUCY
Greenway Arts Alliance has been in the business of entertaining, educating, and giving back in L.A.'s Fairfax district for going on 20 years now. Their very effective, artistic three-prong mechanism of choice include: Greenway's Melrose Trading Post, Greenway Court Theatre and Greenway's Institute for the Arts.
In the midst of the final planning stages of their 20th Anniversary Market Mash this Sunday October 8; we had the opportunity to chat with the two co-founders and current co-artistic directors of GAA, Whitney Weston and Pierson Blaetz.
Thank you Both for taking time for this interview!
What was the seedling in your brains twenty years ago that sparked your creation of Greenway Arts Alliance?
Whitney Weston: We were artists in L.A. looking for a home. We were actors bouncing around from job to job, and not feeling any real connection to the community. We wanted to create theatre that had purpose, that meant something. We approached Fairfax High School to do just that, to use our expertise to help. What we saw is that what they really needed was money, just to have the basics. So we created a flea market in their parking lot, initially as a fundraiser. Little did we know it would become the most successful social enterprise in the history of LAUSD.
Besides your mutual love of theatre, what actually brought you two together to join forces for GAA?
WW: We both wanted to create something meaningful in our community, to make a difference.
Pierson Blaetz: I found someone who was both an artist, and willing to do the work to create the art.
You both manage a 99-seat theatre - the Greenway Court Theatre, direct the Greenway Institute for the Arts - arts education at Fairfax High, and oversee a weekly Sunday flea market - Greenway's Melrose Trading Post. Which of these three ventures came first? Who's crazy idea was it to start a flea market in the Fairfax district?
WW: Well, the Melrose Trading Post was Pierson's idea, which, yes, I thought was crazy. I wanted to do it once, or once a month at most and he wanted to do it every week! I am glad we did because it gave us the constant connection to the school and the community, every week. We discovered an abandoned building, Greenway Court, a social hall that was built in the 1940s six months later. The school let us renovate it into the theatre it is today. It took almost two years to renovate. We then added the education component that we initially went to the school for.
Did you have any obstacles in offering your services to the LA School Board? Or did you approach Fairfax High directly? Lots of red tape and paperwork?
WW: We started by approaching the school. They were apprehensive, but were willing to try a different approach. When we had the principal's support, it was easier to work with LAUSD. I think our biggest obstacle was actually not the school, but the neighbors surrounding the school. They did not want a flea market there and they fought us. Today, most people living in the area moved in after we came, so they chose to live near a school that has large community events.
PB: We approached people who cared, both parents and administrators at Fairfax high school. I can't begin to explain how much red tape and paperwork came between us, and what we have accomplished. We were so lucky to find committed LAUSD educators who guided us.
Do students receive class credits for participating in Greenway Institute for the Arts programs? Extra credits?
PB: Our after-school program is not for credit, but our in-school programming is incorporated into the teachers' lesson plans. Students also get extra credit for seeing shows and participating in programs.
How do you entice high school youngsters into appreciating non-musical theatre?
WW: They have a lot to say, we give them a platform and a voice, it's not that hard really.
PB: We offer theatre on subjects they care about and then we do our best to immerse them in the process.
Both of you stay involve with Greenway Court Theatre in various creative onstage and backstage positions. How do you divvy up your co-artistic director responsibilities? Do you trade off or share Melrose's Trading Post day-to-days? And the Institute?
WW: We both have strengths in different areas. Pierson is a good "big picture person" and is better when it comes to facilities. I am very detailed and work a lot with the admin side, with budgets and grants. It actually falls together pretty well. We also take on different projects, and alternate Sundays at the Melrose Trading Post, but both are actively involved in the Institute planning and staff management.
PB: After twenty years, I think both of us have a sixth sense on who is best to handle a task most effectively.
What would you rate as the most daunting hurdle Greenway faced and conquered in your first twenty years?
WW: For us, it has been staff. We started out working with friends, very casually. No one was paid much. We all pitched in. As we grew, we hired more professionals we didn't know, and it was hard to make the transition. I think we learned a lot, and made a lot of mistakes. I think we were also taken advantage of, and we learned a lot from that, too. Our staff today is amazing, we now know what to look for and how to lead more effectively without losing that family feeling.
I was very fortunate to experience your production of I LOVE LUCY, LIVE ON STAGE in 2011, which subsequently toured for three years after. Would you tell us how that very unique project came to land on GAA's threshold?
PB: Rick Sparks, who has worked on many shows at Greenway and is also a personal friend, came to us with the idea. We knew how talented he is. It was a perfect fit for what he is brilliant at doing, which is recreating an era as if you are living it, in every detail. We just knew it would be a sell-out show.
Your latest Greenway Court Theatre production THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET opened September 29. How did you chose this to coincide with your 20th Anniversary?
WW: This is a part of our program GreenwayReads, where we choose a novel that the Fairfax students are reading. It was actually chosen by the teachers, we just loved the idea and knew an adaptation was out there.
What criteria do you look for in choosing plays for GAA to produce?
WW: We look for socially relevant plays, plays that reflect an issue where we can highlight another side to it, or learn something new.
PB: After 20 years, this question has always been difficult for me to put into words. Here goes: It's a feeling I get from a play that results in a deeper connection to my world. I look for plays that aspire to transport us to that deeper connection or plays that deeply explore the obstacles that keep us from moving toward that connection.
How does a budding poet get in on your weekly Tuesday night Da' Poetry Lounge? Audition? Submit tapes? Open mike?
PB: I know poets show up early. They start lining up around 5pm for a 9pm start time. Shihan, who is one of the founders, manages the list.
If each of you were to pick just one proudest "We did it!" moment in each of your three programs (Theatre, Institute, Trading Post), what would each of your three choices be?
WW: 2000 when we first opened with Jose Rivera's SONNETS FOR AN OLD CENTURY. It took almost two years to renovate the theatre and opening night for our first show was surreal.
PB: I have the same moment (SONNETS), but specific to Rene Rivera's monologue at the end of the play. I was floating in the rafters of the theatre that we built!
WW: I don't really have one. There are so many. I think anytime I see a student light up on stage.
PB: A group of students bowing and crying after their performance - kept bowing and crying - so proud of their accomplishment.
WW: A few years after we opened, I heard a double-decker tour bus announce our tagline as they drove by, it was pretty awesome.
PB: The first time I couldn't find a parking space, "Damn, we're busy!"
Thank you Both! And here's to your next twenty!
For further information on their 20th Anniversary Market Mash this Sunday October 8; available tickets for their current production THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET; as well as, their various educational programs, log onto www.greenwayartsalliance.org