MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
A funny thing happened to Whitney Weston one Sunday morning while driving past Fairfax High School. She saw its empty parking lot and received what she calls “a divine message.”
Weston, who lives in the area, had been driving past the school for a while wondering how to bring arts education to the students.
“The message came loud and clear saying, ‘The parking lot is empty and the school needs resources,’” said Weston, co-founder and co-artistic director of the Greenway Arts Alliance. “It said, ‘what about starting a fundraiser for the school?’”
“We thought — what about a nonprofit market to support the school,” said Pierson Blaetz, also the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Greenway Arts Alliance.
Blaetz and Weston, both award-winning actors, wanted to make a difference by creating something meaningful for themselves, the community, and the students. So, they started the Greenway Arts Alliance in 1992.
The Greenway Arts Alliance is a community-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to unite communities through art (Greenway Court Theatre), education (Greenway Institute for the Arts), and enterprise (Melrose Trading Post). They have been in the business of educating, giving back and entertaining for more than 20 years.
They approached the Fairfax High School principal and some of the parents about their nonprofit idea. Everyone was skeptical, but eventually Weston and Blaetz won them over and the result was the Melrose Trading Post, a now popular Los Angeles flea market filled with local small businesses run by artists, makers, designers, curators and collectors who sell vintage fashion, antique furniture, unique treasures, eclectic arts and crafts and hand-crafted artisan goods. The weekly market, held on Sundays, raises funds for Fairfax High School programs.
“Originally, we were only going to do the market one time,” Weston said. “It was successful. Since then, it has happened every Sunday for 23 years.”
“We have raised $10 million over 20 years for Fairfax High School,” Blaetz added.
Once the Melrose Trading Post was in place, Weston and Blaetz began an in-school and after-school program that is produced through the Greenway Institute for the Arts, an arts education program focusing on theater, dance, and film for students at Fairfax High. The after-school program is not for credit, but the in-school programming is incorporated into the teachers’ lesson plans.
Greenway offers Fairfax students paid internships, after-school classes and volunteer opportunities through the Melrose Trading Post, Greenway Court Theatre, and Greenway’s Institute for the Arts.
“About 40 students work for us,” Blaetz said. “The Trading Post allows us to provide a minimum wage. A lot of the staff were former students. In all of our programs, we teach them about leadership and management.”
While neither Weston nor Blaetz graduated from Fairfax High School, both said there was something about the school.
“We love that there is so much diversity in the school,” said Weston, a lifelong activist. “It’s a great school. People are so accepting.”
“Fairfax is the second most diverse school in the state of California,” said Blaetz, who studied communications and theater at Miami of Ohio. “More than 30 languages are spoken there.”
After building rapport with the parents and the school, Weston and Blaetz broached the idea of leasing a vacant building on the school’s campus as an office for the Greenway Arts Alliance. The duo, who was looking for a theater home, decided to turn the building into, well, a theater, thus launching the Greenway Court Theatre, a professional 99-seater, known for presenting and producing diverse bodies of work. The building took two years to renovate.
This year marks the Greenway Court Theatre’s 20th anniversary season, and they celebrated with the world premiere of “If I Should Wake,” a collection of eight monologues by a diverse ensemble of contemporary playwrights. The production streamed on-demand through Dec. 3 on Twitch.tv/GreenwayCourtTheatre.
The play, directed by Reena Dutt with dramaturgy by Scott Horstein, featured monologues by Alex Alpharaoh, Boni B. Alvarez, Arianna Basco, Diana Burbano, Inda Craig-Galván, Yehuda Hyman, Grace McLeod and Larry Powell.
“If I Should Wake” was chosen as kind of an homage to the show, “Sonnets for an Old Century” by Jose Revera, which kicked off the theatre’s original production 20 years ago.
“We wanted to tie it back, to find the essence of the play,” said Weston, a Chicago native. “We are extremely grateful to be celebrating our theatre’s 20th anniversary this season and to be a part of the Los Angeles arts community. We feel incredibly fortunate that we are able to sustain our work and to continue to develop new voices that reflect our diverse communities.”
“For two decades, Greenway Court Theatre has been a platform for inclusiveness and for presentations of stories that reflect today’s cultural landscape of America and it is our ongoing mission to cultivate emerging artists,” said Blaetz, an Erie, Pennsylvania native. “When Whitney (Weston) and I founded Greenway Arts Alliance, we created a business model that was centered around community-based partnerships. We are fortunate that in this economically stressful and difficult time, our organization remains financially strong through our Melrose Trading Post, which is able to support both our theatre and Greenway Institute for the Arts programs.”
The Melrose Trading Post is located at 7850 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. It’s open Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Blaetz said from the very beginning their intent was always to be inclusive.
“It’s in everything we do — since day one,” he said. “You can see it in the market and the plays we produce. We were not going to produce shows that didn’t reflect the community. I had a wasp upbringing, then I landed at Fairfax. It’s so diverse. For me, it was like a world had opened up. It was a different way of connecting. We are not going to produce plays written by just white males.”
Pre COVID, Greenway had plans for a large 20th anniversary celebration.
“We were going to connect and produce a play, but not sure what the plans were,” Blaetz said. “There was going to be a fundraising gala to renovate the front of the theater.”
Both Weston and Blaetz are hopeful and looking forward to the next 20 years.
“My hope is for sustainability,” Weston said. “We’ve been so incredibly fortunate. We have a great staff. We just want it to be super solid so that when we’re gone, it can continue.”
“An endowment would be nice,” said Blaetz, a social entrepreneur who founded Free Time, a volunteer placement service, and infoLink, an information retrieval service. “We came up with a great model of how a nonprofit can partner with a school.”
In addition to theatrical productions, for 20 years Greenway has successfully managed Da’ Poetry Lounge, which, pre-COVID, boasted audiences of more than 200 and had poets lining up on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. for a 9 p.m. start time.
A 20th anniversary giving campaign is also in place to help fund the Greenway Residency Program supporting Black, indigenous and people of color) led and focused organizations.
The Greenway Court Theatre’s upcoming 2021 season will more than likely be moved to 2022.
“After COVID we are fundraising for that,” said Blaetz. “Greenway is in a unique position to do well after COVID because of our relationship with the school. We have something called Greenway Reads. We produce a play based on a book that high school students are reading or want to read.
“We did ‘The Color Purple’ and had matinees for the students. The Get Down Poetry Festival will also be part of the season. Every year we want to do a production with a theater company that doesn’t have a home. We want to produce a world premiere with a playwright from Los Angeles. It’s probably not until 2022 when all this kicks in.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.