On a Saturday night last year, 99 theatergoers sat in chairs that were a bit too small, with those flip-up school desk attachments dangling from the sides. Jay McAdams, the executive director of the 24th Street Theatre, took to the stage to introduce La Razón Blindada, a two-person play about Argentine political prisoners, which was named Production of the Year at the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards in 2011.
But McAdams speaks "pretty bad Spanish," he says, and the translator for his speech couldn't make it that night. So he asked if there was a Spanish-speaking audience member to help him. The volunteer evidently wasn't enthusiastic enough for McAdams, a former actor on Days of Our Lives and a theater producer for the past 20 years. McAdams tried to amp things up. "We're excited!" he said, pumping his fist. Then McAdams' cellphone rang. It was an actor backstage, asking if they could start doing the play already.
McAdams and his wife, Debbie Devine, the venue's artistic director, are gringos who produce Spanish-language plays. Their productions have toured in Mexico and El Salvador, but their home base is this former carriage house in the working-class West Adams district, about a mile from the University of Southern California.
Fifteen years ago, then-USC president Steven Sample brought in McAdams, Devine and others to found the theater as a neighborhood-outreach program, and the university remains a major funder.
But it was the couple's idea to also turn the space into a classroom, after a curious group of kids stopped by the building during its renovation. McAdams explained what a theater was, but the kids didn't understand. "They said, 'You mean like a nightclub?' " he recalls.
Now kids from the neighborhood take free theater classes, and arts field trips at the theater are offered to students from all over L.A.
Both McAdams and Devine are stage veterans, and Devine continues to work as head of the drama program for the Colburn School of Performing Arts. Before arts education funding took a hit in the L.A. Unified School District, there were "plenty of artists that would go to school auditoriums," Devine says. "We would never do that. Because we really honestly believe that they have to come to the temple."
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The theater's initial English-language productions weren't as successful as its education programs. Most of the neighborhood adults speak only Spanish. Eventually, McAdams and Devine switched to Spanish-language plays with English supertitles.
For year 15, McAdams and Devine are marking the occasion by putting together a traveling theater company. The actors are adults, but the shows will be geared toward kids. "And we're not doing, 'Hey, boys and girls, la la la,' " McAdams says, poking fun at traditional youth theater. "We're going into this with no taboos."