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Childsplay and Zarco Guerrero

Friday, September 4, 2015

In Tempe, Arizona, Latinos equal about 21 percent of the population. [1] [2] Yet, for many years, this growing community was not proportionately reflected in Tempe theatre audiences, according to the staff of local theatre company Childsplay and theatre artist Zarco Guerrero. Childsplay, which has worked in Tempe since 1977 to bring thought-provoking and high-quality theatre to children, and Guerrero, who began his career in 1972 as a sculptor, mask-maker and social activist, both noted a perplexing and persistent trend.

“We weren’t seeing Latino families at our public performances,” said Childsplay general manager Anthony Runfola. “Kids were coming with their schools during the week, but on Saturdays and Sundays, we weren’t seeing them with their moms and dads and families.”

Guerrero, who had a long history of working with Childsplay, also felt strongly that this was a matter worth addressing. “This issue is so profound—to get the community turned on to theatre, to support the theatre and to have the community feel that the theatre supports them,” he said.

Out of this mutually understood need was born a partnership and a vision, supported by a Building Demand for the Arts grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF).

DDCF developed the Building Demand for the Arts grants competition in 2012 in light of growing evidence that attendance of arts events was declining amid a rapidly changing landscape. [3] These transformations have included changes in technology; cuts in creative arts programs in schools; and diminishing arts coverage in print media. Building Demand for the Arts—housed within DDCF’s special $50 million Doris Duke Performing Artist Initiative, which goes beyond the foundation’s already existing commitment to funding the performing arts—represented the belief that the answers lay with arts organizations and artists, whose collaborations are fertile soil for nurturing new audiences and audience behaviors.

Childsplay and Guerrero’s proposal for the project beautifully demonstrated the potential power of that theory when all players involved are acting as a true team. Each party understood the other’s strengths, having worked on short-term theatre commissions together in the past, and this mutual respect for, trust in and support of what each could bring to the table in this effort was critical to making the partnership work. 

“One of the great things about working with Zarco is that he is connected to this community,” Runfola said. “Guerrero and his nonprofit have been embedded in the culture of the metro Phoenix area for years and years, and to be able to work so closely with someone who has that history and greatness has been a wonderful experience for us.”

That dream became El Puente, a day-long festival featuring performances and a public procession, but the details only came into focus through extensive initial research. From the very beginning, Childsplay and Guerrero believed that “efforts to engage new audiences must begin in the community”—that is, the festival should not only be for the community, it should be of the community. They hired a public relations agency specializing in the Latino market to help them conduct focus groups of Latino families to understand what they actually wanted most from theatre. Some of the findings were surprising.“We never had as much opportunity to have as much support in a partner as professional, as well-established in the community and nationally, as Childsplay, so it was the ideal relationship,” said Guerrero. "It really became my life: every day, working with Childsplay, reaching out to the community and having the resources to put the festival together and make this dream happen!”

“Right away, a lot of people presume that Latino audiences don’t want to pay for or come to indoor events,” Runfola observed, summarizing a prominent “myth” in the arts world that he felt that their research had helped dispel. “It’s unfortunate that maybe nobody bothered to ask the community: What is it that you value? What is it that you’re looking for when you want to go out with your family? This grant has helped us do that, which is fantastic.”

By talking directly with the Latino families in Tempe, Childsplay and Guerrero discovered that “a lot of it is a marketing problem” in which the families remained unaware of the arts resources available to them. Moreover, even where Childsplay and Guerrero had established a presence at schools through artist residencies and classroom workshops, information about outside arts events did not automatically filter back to the home. Another obstacle was that tickets for an entire family to attend an event—a significant purchase—was not always prioritized by parents as the best use of their recreational money. This last discovery led Childsplay and Guerrero to ask themselves what elements were missing from their existing programs that were essential to delivering value to this audience.

“Everything that Childsplay does is high quality, but we learned that we have to do more than just present a high-quality theatrical performance,” said Guerrero. “Latinos essentially told us that they need to see themselves somehow in the work.” In other words, the festival had to be participatory to succeed.

“We’re learning that the performance is only one part of what these families want when they go out,” said Runfola. “How can we build a day around being at the theatre? What else can happen as a part of that experience?”

Armed with these new learnings, Childsplay and Guerrero began to recognize the potential value of incorporating more of the community into the festival. Alongside Childsplay, the festival line-up soon starred local children’s ballet folklorico dance groups, hoop dancers, face painting, petting zoos and food vendors. The children themselves were even cast as players in the festival’s main performance. Guerrero’s long career in mask-making also became a key entry point for the families into a theatrical experience as the artist taught them how to create and perform with their own masks.

“When somebody makes a mask, they’re immediately a part of the performance,” Guerrero said. “They’re an integral part of the festival, and they feel and know that they’re experiencing that transformation and able to really get into and sense the magic.”

While El Puente’s ongoing success has revealed itself in steadily expanding attendance, enthusiastic anecdotes and positive local news coverage, its true strength is seen in the genuine connection the theatrical event has forged with the community. Still, as the festival heads into its fourth season, Childsplay and Guerrero continue to “take a step back and evaluate and do a little retooling,” in Runfola’s words, to ensure that each one is even more integrated into the community than the last. Childsplay staff is on site throughout the festival to collect surveys and talk with attendees to gather feedback. In the previous festival, Childsplay and Guerrero began testing new ideas, such as short drama workshops, so that in addition to making masks, children could also get a brief lesson that their parents could watch. But, one aspect of El Puente likely to stay is the participant-wide procession that spans the City of Tempe’s single bridge and ends back at Childsplay’s theater in a celebration rich with music, color, props and masks. “El puente,” in fact, means bridge in Spanish, which, as Runfola explains, serves both as the symbol for the festival and as a metaphor for entering into the world of theatre. The lessons that Childsplay and Guerrero have learned through the partnership have provided them with a lasting blueprint for how to sustain that bridge in the future.  

“The thing that I think has been different for Childsplay this time is opening that dialogue with the community, talking to them and really understanding what it is that they want out of theatre,” said Runfola.

“It was the best thing that ever happened for me as an artist, I’m hoping it’s the same thing for Childsplay, and I’m sure that all of the community artists involved—they’re tremendously excited!” Guerrero exclaimed. “We can’t keep up with the demand at this point.”

 


[1] U.S. Census Bureau. (2014, 2015.) Population Demographics for Tempe, Arizona in 2014 and 2015. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from https://suburbanstats.org/population/arizona/how-many-people-live-in-tempe.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau. (2013.) State & County QuickFacts. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/04000.html.

[3] National Endowment for the Arts, “When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance.” (NEA Research Report #59, January 2015). Available at: http://arts.gov/sites/default/files/when-going-gets-tough-revised2.pdf.