Los Angeles is changing. Can Flagship Theaters Sustain?

LOS ANGELES – For 55 years, Central Cinemas has shown theaters in a city always known for its movies. Its three stages have won for major new works – “Angels in America,” “Zoot Suit” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” to name three of its most acclaimed productions. — while also importing big-ticket crowd-pleasers from Broadway (coming spring: “The Lehman Trilogy”).

But this Los Angeles cultural institution is at a crossroads as it undergoes its first leadership change in 17 years, and faces questions about its mission, program and appeal in a new era. Cities are changing, all amid a waning pandemic.

Michael Ritchie, the organization’s artistic director, announced last summer that he would be retiring nearly 18 months before his contract ends in June 2023; he walked down at the end of December, cited the need for the organization to move in a new direction in response to societal changes and debated the future of theatre. The organization, as a nonprofit, is using the transition to consider how to adjust to what is undoubtedly a very different post-Covid era – a far-reaching discussion that managers Theater administrator says there will be about 300 people, including its board of directors, staff, actors, directors and contributors.

“At 50, you start thinking about the next chapter,” said Meghan Pressman, chief executive officer of Center Theater Group. “There is so much going on right now. Coming out of the pandemic. Out of a time of racial crisis. Years of injustice.”

“We’re not your mother’s CTG anymore,” she said.

The obstacles are substantial.

Credit…Ryan Miller

Like theaters everywhere, the Center Theater Group – the Ahmanson Theater and Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center downtown, and the Kirk Douglas Theater 10 miles west in Culver City – is struggling. with empty seats, falling revenue and the coronavirus. Ahmanson cut “A Christmas Carol” short with Bradley Whitford in December, canceling 22 shows after testing positive for coronavirus among the cast and crew at the peak of what a normal year would be. a peak holiday.

The cancellation cost Center Theater Group $1.5 million in revenue, including ticket returns. That comes after the organization was forced to cut millions of dollars in spending cuts over the course of the pandemic, cutting staff to 140 this season from 185 and reducing its annual budget to 47 million dollars for this fiscal year, $10 million less than the budget for the pre-pandemic fiscal year.

And the theater group is struggling to adjust to a comprehensive re-evaluation of the tradition that has emerged from social unrest across the country over the past two years. Reminded of this new terrain by the uproar that greeted the announcement of a 2021-22 season for Taper and the Douglas, 10 plays featuring only one woman and one by a transgender playwright. . Jeremy O. Harriswriter of “Playing Slaves” on the schedule, announced that he would pull his play from last season before agreeing to continue only after Taper committed to programming only for “playwrights who identify with women or as non-humans.” binary” next season.

Credit…Tom Bonner

The Center Theater Group has been a hugely influential force in Los Angeles culture for decades.

“Remains LA’s premier theater company,” said Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of Fountain Theatre, an influential small theater on the East Side of the city. “I think it’s a moment of reckoning, like everything that’s going on in theaters in Los Angeles. CTG is the bar we compare ourselves to. They set the standard for LA, not just for us but for the country.”

The Music Center, a vast mid-renaissance arts complex atop Bunker Hill, opposite Frank Gehry’s billowing Walt Disney Concert Hall, is the center of cultural, artistic and social life. in Los Angeles. The project is promoted by Dorothy Buffum Chandler, cultural leader, wife and mother of the publishers of the Los Angeles Times, and also Dorothy Chandler Pavilionwas the site of the Academy Awards from 1969 to 1999. “Before the Music Center, it was really a cultural wasteland,” said Marylouise Oates, social columnist of the Times. Los Angeles newspaper in the late 1980s, said , referring to the city.

Cinemas across the country are struggling to find the right balance between pleasing and challenging their audiences as they face falling ticket sales and the threat of competition in the form of screenings. theater in the living room. Theater here has also long existed in the shadow of Hollywood, to the dismay of those involved in a vibrant theater community by any measure.

“I don’t see how anyone would say it’s not a theater town,” said Charles Dillingham, chief executive of the Center Theater Group from 1991 to 2011.

Credit…via Central Theater Group

During the first 40 years, the drama team’s personality – adventurous and often daring – was forged by Gordon Davidson, who was recruited by Chandler as the first art director at Taper. He belongs to the generation of natural dramatists, like Joseph Papp of New York and Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis.

“I couldn’t have made ‘Twilight’ anywhere else,” said Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright who wrote and acted in “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” at Taper. “I will never forget Gordon sat down, took his briefcase and said, ‘What do you need?’

The Taper opens with British playwright John Whiting’s “The Devils,” about a Catholic priest in France who is accused of witchcraft by a sexually persecuted nun. The subject caused a rustle, but Chandler, who died in 1997, sided with Davidson.

“She’s not always happy,” says Judi Davidson, who is married to Gordon Davidson, who died in 2016. “She said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. You tell me which plays I should go to and which ones I shouldn’t. ‘ ”

The Taper staged “Zoot Suit,” by Luis Valdez, in 1978, a rare work by a Latin writer, premiered on Broadway; as well as fully producing both seasons of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” in 1992, before moving on to Broadway.

Credit…Jay Thompson

In recent years, the theater has under criticism for too often catering to older audiences yearning for the comforts of familiar productions. However, under Ritchie, who declined an interview request, it presented the premiere of acclaimed works, including “Bengal Tiger at Baghdad Zoo,” which had its world premiere at Douglas. before moving to Taper.

Harris, the screenwriter of the play “Slave Game,” said the Central Drama Team was quick to react when he protested against the overwhelming team of male writers. “When I brought up the issue and withdrew my game, they didn’t act defensively,” Harris said. “They took action. Other places will let the play continue and find a way to blame me. “

“The problems at CTG are problems that exist in every major theater organization in America,” he said. “There are big personnel issues, and there are big programming problems. Women are not produced enough. And people of color are not being produced enough. ”

The question now is whether this change is just a one-off protest from a famous playwright or a sign of a real transformation. “Then what?” asked Jessica Hanna, a member of Kilroys, a group of playwrights, directors, and producers promoting gender equality in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. “We’re at the point where ‘we reacted to the crisis.’ And then people go back to what they were and are doing.”

Richie’s art director role is being taken over by five associate art directors, who have moved to address concerns that the organization is timid about diversity issues on the show, staff and audience.

Credit…Central drama group

“This great moment has come,” said Luis Alfaro, a playwright and one of the associate art directors. “And theaters can choose to keep running the theater the way they’ve always run, or they can take bold steps after the pandemic and say, ‘We’re going to go out now and find out. See how this can happen. go differently. ‘”

That means leveraging the organization’s three phases for a range of shows to appeal to a more diverse audience, he said.

“The theater and its leadership must look like a city,” Alfaro said. “If it doesn’t make that adjustment, it’s really aged.”

Tyrone Davis, another director, said Ritchie’s replacement would prove to be “the defining moment in the next 50 years”.

“Our core audience has been with us from the beginning,” he said. “But we can open it up to imagine a different audience. Younger, more diverse”.

One of the key challenges facing the theater is how to expand its appeal without losing sight of its predominantly white, mostly affluent audience living on the city’s West Side. this and has long been the base of the audience.

“That’s a very good question, and we’re going to find out,” Pressman said. “The audience that went to theaters on the West Side was overwhelmingly supportive, and they remain the core group. But they are not the only group.”

Subscriptions accounted for 31% of total revenue, including donations, in the last financial year before the pandemic. The theater is predicting subscription revenue to drop by up to 20% next year, but hopes it will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels.

That may depend on the return of subscription buyers.

“It will be a challenge,” said Andrea Van de Kamp, former president of the Music Center. “We have a really grown theater audience over the last 30 years who really enjoy it. It will take some time to rebuild.”

Judi Davidson says she thinks the Central Drama Group has become too bland over the years. “It’s great that they want to be adventurous again,” she said. “I welcome that. We have a lot of topics to talk about. There’s too much going on. I want to see Hugh Jackman in ‘Musical Man’ as much – and I really do – I don’t think that’s what they should be doing. “

https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/01/28/arts/pop-culture-entertainment-news/center-theater-group-los-angeles Los Angeles is changing. Can Flagship Theaters Sustain?

Fry Electronics Team

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