Cuts’ drama remains at CTG

Times Staff Writer

In the four weeks since Center Theatre Group’s new artistic director Michael Ritchie announced that he would eliminate most of the company’s formal programs for developing new plays -- including the annual New Work Festival as currently constituted and labs for Latino, Asian, black and disabled writers -- his actions have been the talk of the theater community.

One CTG board member, Stephen Liu, a surgeon and founder and chairman of InterBusiness Bank in the City of Industry, resigned two weeks ago, in part because CTG was “not as focused in the ethnic communities as I wanted,” he said. “I wanted them to be more diversified.”

Luis Alfaro and Anthony Byrnes, who are losing their CTG jobs as director and associate producer of new play development, are trying to raise money to establish a consortium of L.A. companies that would continue CTG-style play development with emerging writers. And other theaters are looking to fill the gap caused by the cuts.

The current CTG season has a deficit of about $4 million, according to CTG managing director Charles Dillingham. Subscriptions at CTG’s Ahmanson Theatre were down to 34,841 from the previous year’s 42,417. Although the last New Work Festival did relatively well at the box office, said CTG marketing director Jim Royce, “the audience isn’t as strongly invested in new work as we would want them to be.”

Ritchie’s program changes, Dillingham said, “would have been made regardless of our financial condition.”


Next week, Ritchie is expected to announce the programming at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City -- a venue built to be a home for new play development, as well as plays for youths.

The Douglas opened last year with six world premieres. Ritchie’s predecessor, Gordon Davidson, CTG’s founding artistic director, declined comment on Ritchie’s actions on the phone last week but noted that all six premieres “went through some development process at CTG.” On Monday he issued a written statement in which he said, “I believe in what Michael Ritchie sees as the future of this theatre, but more to the point I think he has a right to put his personal stamp on how he achieves his goals.”

CTG board president Richard Kagan said in a statement that the 50-member board believed “Michael should have the opportunity to experiment with new approaches to play development.”

At a recent CTG board meeting, Davidson took a moment to read aloud the names of CTG employees who lost their jobs as a result of the cuts.

Ritchie later said he “was pleased to see them recognized -- they’re valuable people. It’s my shift to a new model that is forcing this change.”

Play development won’t disappear in his “new model,” Ritchie said. Instead, it will be more selectively applied to plays that are planned for production by CTG or plays that other companies produce in collaboration with CTG. He plans to spread new plays more evenly among the three CTG venues -- the Mark Taper Forum as well as the Ahmanson and the Douglas -- as part of a campaign to unify public awareness around CTG instead of its individual parts. And he pledges that CTG won’t forget the diversity of L.A.'s communities.

Some of the impetus for the changes stem from “my particular passions and talents and lack thereof,” Ritchie said. He dislikes play readings, preferring to read scripts himself. Davidson, he said, “has an absolute connection with playwrights and getting inside their heads. I have less skill in that area.”

Yet necessity is also driving the changes, he added. Many of the axed programs began when the Ahmanson season consisted largely of imports and the Douglas didn’t exist. Now, with CTG producing 18 to 20 shows annually at three theaters, play development programs that don’t lead to full productions “become a luxury,” Ritchie said. There were “too many ways a play could get into CTG and too few ways for it to get out.”

“We’re losing something -- I admit that,” he said. “But on balance, I had to make this decision.”

Details on how Ritchie will incorporate new plays and playwrights from minority groups are still sketchy. No world premieres -- and no plays by writers who are Latino, black, Asian or disabled -- are on Ritchie’s first Ahmanson season. His first Taper season offers two world premieres -- one (“Water and Power”) by the Latino trio Culture Clash -- but both plays are by established writers.

Doubters ask if CTG has any room for emerging writers.

Jose Cruz Gonzales, who once ran the defunct Hispanic Playwrights Project at South Coast Repertory, which was similar in goals to CTG’s Latino Theatre Initiative, said that such programs were “a net, and it’s unraveling.” He contends that “the playing field is still not equal for writers of color.”

Not surprisingly, the minority artists who have been picked for Ritchie’s seasons are more receptive to his decisions. The CTG labs “were very beneficial for emerging artists,” said Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, “but it got pretty bureaucratic. Now those people who were running the labs will be artists, not bureaucrats.”

Ritchie’s only announced show for the Douglas season is “Permanent Collection,” a recent hit at the small Greenway Court Theatre. It was co-produced by the Robey Theatre, which examines African American issues. Robey’s producing artistic director and “Permanent Collection” star Bennet Guillory said that “most playwrights want a production. That really wasn’t happening in the labs. It was always a sore point.”

Even among those concerned about the trimming of new play programs, the idea of assigning playwrights to labs based on race or ethnicity appears to have lost support. There are small exceptions -- 24th Street Theatre uses the name of CTG’s Latino program, Latino Theatre Initiative, as part of the name of its program for Latino playwrights.

Alfaro’s vision of the proposed new play development consortium would not necessarily include ethnic-specific programs. When working with emerging writers, he said, “you don’t have to worry about including races or classes because they’re already there.” He also said he hopes his new group could “find a way to commit to production.”

One potential harbor for emerging writers who can no longer find a CTG home is the Ojai Playwrights Conference, said its artistic director, Robert Egan, the former Taper producing director who oversaw the development of many of the now-slashed programs. Ojai presents readings, not productions. The next festival is slated for August.

Supported by $50,000 from the Irvine Foundation, Pasadena Playhouse began a play readings program in January. A former CTG employee, Kappy Kilburn, oversees the program. She said its main objective is “to develop relationships and work with California playwrights of varying ethnicities and backgrounds.”

The Geffen Playhouse also is expected to expand its play development programs with the autumn opening of a new, small theater on its Westwood campus. “Whatever we do won’t be a response” to the CTG cuts, said Geffen literary manager Amy Levinson. “The most important thing is to talk to L.A. writers and see what they want and need.”

East West Players, the most established of L.A.'s ethnic-specific theaters, runs two play readings series and last week awarded $4,000 to Mrinalini Kamath, the winner of a comedy playwriting contest.

Chay Yew, the outgoing head of CTG’s Asian Theatre Workshop, said that unless L.A. theaters rise to the challenge, there might be “a brain drain” of playwrights away from L.A. The money supporting such programs, Yew said, “is up for grabs, coast to coast.”

But Ritchie said CTG had talked to funders and received “no negative reaction. I’m sure they’ll ask us deeper questions when we apply again, but I have absolute faith they’ll continue their support.”