Knocking on doors and hanging fliers at housing complexes in Tampa probably wasn't what Keith Odums envisioned while living in New York and auditioning for a part in Ragtime.
But what he and others in the community are selling has a bit more flair than your average door-to-door pitch: opportunities in the arts.
Odums, the community ambassador for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the adjacent Patel Conservatory, is part of a group working to increase diversity at the city's most prominent stage for the arts.
Members meet every other month to map out a strategy. How can they entice more minorities, boys and suburbanites to take advantage of the center's classes and shows?
They have called local schools, walked the staircases at Tampa Housing Authority complexes, and passed out candy and beads at the local Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.
The idea is to be proactive — to reach out to the community rather than wait for people to come to them.
The effort shows signs of paying off. In areas where the group reached out, more than a hundred youth have applied for the center's summer programs. They include a graceful African-American girl with impressive talent in ballet, Odums said.
At 35, Odums has worked for the performing arts center since last fall. He has traveled to Paris and Germany and lived in
New York and Dallas, and says part of Tampa's problem is that the center and smaller theater venues in the area don't work together more often.
Still, he said, "the potential is here."
The diversity group started about a year ago with Wendy Leigh, the center's vice president of education. She wanted to crush the stereotype that the center is for the financially and socially elite.
"This group is to serve as a catalyst to mobilize and create synergy and join resources to increase diversity at the performing arts center on every level," she said.
The conservatory offers workshops and classes in dance, media arts, theater and on-camera acting. It also has a piano lab, recording studio, library and "black box" theater.
Initially, Leigh saw the need to get the word out to more African-Americans, but she has since expanded the mission.
Now, the goal is to increase diversity, not only racially and socioeconomically, but geographically and gender-wise.
"For the most part, you get mostly girls in the performing arts," Leigh said. The lack of boys limits the scenes and roles that groups are able to portray.
Geographically speaking, Leigh said: "We're downtown, but we want people to come from all over." That includes drawing more people from East Tampa, Brandon, West Tampa.
About 30 percent of the students taking courses at the conservatory are people of color, Leigh said. And the 1,089 girls dwarf the number of boys, 494. The group's ultimate goal is to have 50 percent minority students involved and to increase the number of boys.
To start the group, Leigh invited people in the community with whom she has worked to participate with the center staff. (One person involved in the group, Geri Kelly, is profiled on Page 3.) They get to know one another and discuss ways to market the center as a place for everyone.
One idea was to have a float and jazz band, tumblers and dancers in this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. "That's another way of bringing the arts out to the community."
As is typical when people reach out to others, some at the center have gained knowledge for themselves.
Leigh, 50, has a history in the local arts scene. She taught basic English and drama at Hillsborough High from 1983 to 1987 and has run an independent theater house and the center's Shimberg theater.
She and other center executives went to the TOBA organization's annual breakfast on the King holiday this year. It was Leigh's first time. The speakers' remarks left her energized.
"I really knew why I was in the parade that day," she said.
The center has always done diverse work, Leigh said, but establishing the group is a way to have an "ongoing formal movement and presence."
The diversity initiative has no official name. About 20 people came to the meeting last week, although the group's list of contacts is about 75 names long.
The next meeting is May 29. Organizers welcome new topics for discussion and new members. Anyone with an interest is invited.
To RSVP, call Odums at 222-1002.