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The play’s the thing in CTG plan

Times Staff Writers

L.A.'s flagship theater company has taken a two-year dip in red ink, and its new leader’s response runs counter to intuition: The way to stop losing money, says artistic director Michael Ritchie, is to spend more.

He’s begun by forking out $3.1 million for “Dead End,” his lavish first production, which opens Wednesday.

That’s $1 million more than the usual budget for an Ahmanson Theatre play. And it comes just as Center Theatre Group -- which runs the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre -- is dealing with a $3.3-million deficit for the recently ended 2004-05 fiscal year. The year before, operations were $250,000 in the red, according to CTG officials.

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Ritchie and the board that hired him to succeed company founder Gordon Davidson knew that he would have to excel at fundraising to float ambitious projects such as “Dead End.” He tapped six donors, led by CTG board member Brindell Gottlieb and her real estate developer husband Milton, for the $1-million gap. Sidney Kingsley’s 1935-vintage drama calls for a cast of 42 actors -- and for flooding the Ahmanson’s orchestra pit to create a simulacrum of the East River.

But beyond “Dead End” looms the company’s worst deficit in a decade. “Three million dollars is a serious figure,” CTG managing director Charles Dillingham said. “I don’t mean to diminish it, but for a company with a $40-million-plus budget and as strong a balance sheet as we have, it’s sustainable.”

If audiences don’t come, however, that budget would plummet. And Ritchie, whose lead-off production signals his large ambitions as an impresario, will be at risk of becoming known as the guy forced to downsize the house that Davidson built.

He intends the opposite, of course, and says the way to build a healthy legacy is to think big -- despite economic challenges that he hadn’t expected when he signed on for the job.

“There is a tendency sometimes to just start scaling back, which I think hurts you in the long term,” he said. “You have to take on the responsibility of putting the shows on stage that bring the fannies in the seats. So we moved ahead aggressively on that.”

The path Ritchie and Dillingham have laid out -- immediately curtailing the Ahmanson’s reliance on touring Broadway fare while greatly increasing fundraising -- may be particularly risky.

Always volatile, the touring circuit has gone into upheaval as Las Vegas resorts monopolize some of the hottest properties. So Ritchie is gambling on a costly proposition: producing more Ahmanson shows in-house. And he’s doing this as CTG is wrestling with a double-digit percentage drop-off in subscriber lists last season at the Taper and Ahmanson, which contributed to the deficit.

To lure subscribers, CTG has begun to offer more flexible options -- augmenting traditional full-season subscriptions with packages of as few as three plays. The company also is offering subscriptions that hopscotch among the three theaters, a first step toward Ritchie’s vision of CTG as a unified whole, rather than independent theaters with divergent purposes and styles.

Ritchie, who had accepted the job in fall 2003, was boss-in-waiting when the company’s financial problems began. Davidson was still making the decisions when the 2,100-capacity Ahmanson, which is supposed to be the company’s cash cow, started behaving more like a white elephant.

The 2003-04 season had hot attractions in “Phantom of the Opera” and Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme,” but sales tailed off for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Attendance worsened during the 2004-05 season -- also selected by Davidson -- and was compounded by bad luck as two tours failed to materialize. Season subscriptions fell amid lineup shuffling and a canceled production, setbacks that demonstrated the Ahmanson’s vulnerability in a changing marketplace.

Subscriptions declined at the 745-seat Taper too. The news was better at the 315-seat Douglas in Culver City, where the curiosity factor helped sell all the new available season tickets.

Attendance at the Ahmanson in 2004-05 averaged 65,100 for the three shows with full-length runs, down from 100,500 for six shows the year before, according to CTG figures. Subscriptions fell 18%, from 42,400 to 34,800. At the Taper, average attendance dropped from 36,700 per show to 34,100 (not counting the season-ending production, August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” which closes Sept. 18). The Taper’s subscriber list shrank 14%, to 21,200.

Ritchie and Dillingham cite several causes for the drop-off. Echoing other arts leaders, they say that busier and less predictable lifestyles make audiences reluctant to commit to full-season subscriptions. This erosion is unsettling, because for decades the subscription system has been the fiscal foundation of nonprofit performing arts organizations, such as CTG.

Nationwide, subscription income dropped 2.3% in 2003-04, and attendance fell 4.2%, according to a survey of 92 theaters by Theatre Communications Group, a New York City-based service organization for nonprofit stage companies.

CTG is virtually alone among nonprofit theaters in running two large and very different subscription houses. The closest parallel involves the two allied operations at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts -- where attendance for the Broadway-oriented Denver Center Attractions series has suffered a drop from 602,000 in 2003 to 410,000 this year.

In L.A., the Ahmanson’s once-solid standing as a venue primarily for touring musicals and plays has become shaky. Broadway has failed to reliably generate enough attractive new shows to stock a season, and those that do emerge are now more likely to be picked off by other presenters. Formidable competition comes from the larger Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, owned by national theatrical giant Nederlander. It recently featured “Wicked.” Meanwhile, the Wynn Las Vegas resort has locked up long-term engagements of the recent Tony Award winners, “Avenue Q” and “Spamalot,” preventing those shows from playing in California.

The Ahmanson’s 2004-05 season afforded vivid illustrations of what could go wrong with reliance on touring shows. First, an expected season opener of a Broadway revival, “Wonderful Town,” failed to materialize. Davidson scrambled to fill the slot with the adventurous Tony Kushner musical, “Caroline, or Change,” which concerned racial conflict in the 1960s South. A Broadway box office failure, “Caroline” drew well in L.A., but not as well as a mainstream musical. Then a British export of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” slated to close the season, collapsed -- and an attempt to mount a new revue, “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” in its place fizzled after a co-producer failed to raise the money in time. That left the Ahmanson dark for the summer, costing CTG a shot at the $750,000 a successful summer show was expected to net.

At the Douglas, geared toward new plays and family-oriented shows, all 6,200 available subscriptions were sold for the opening season (about a third of the seats were held for nonsubscribers to buy) and a waiting list was established. But Dillingham and Ritchie acknowledge that tickets become harder to sell as curiosity about the new theater wears off.

With the box office falling short, Dillingham said, CTG did administrative belt-tightening that saved about $800,000 during the second half of the 2004-05 fiscal year. A harder hammer fell as the year ended: A dozen employees across all departments were laid off -- including most of the Taper’s new play development staff. Ritchie said that while costs factored into his decision to disband the $1-million-a-year play development operation, it was more a matter of philosophy. The now-defunct play labs for Asian, Latino, black and disabled writers nurtured emerging talent while feeding a new-work festival of public readings, but Ritchie wants to bet on plays he thinks could have a clear path to the main stages. He said the company will continue to spend about $750,000 a year on play development.

As CTG’s dramaturge until his recent move to South Coast Repertory, where he is associate artistic director, John Glore advised Ritchie on his first season’s play selections. “I don’t think he’s very interested in investing a lot of time in really green talent,” Glore said. “But I haven’t seen anybody better than Michael at picking up the phone and calling Donald Margulies or David Mamet and saying, ‘What have you got?’ I’m curious to see if that will work for him.”

Clearly, Ritchie is bent on bringing new works to the Ahmanson stage as well as the Taper’s. Citing focus group responses, Ritchie and Dillingham predict that new, in-house productions at the Ahmanson will go over better than many touring shows. “They want to see shows before they go to Broadway, rather than after,” Dillingham said. Besides “Dead End,” plans for this season include two new musicals, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” about the business of show business, and a show next summer that has yet to be announced. At the same time, he says, CTG still aims to grab promising tours. “The Light in the Piazza” is a Broadway hit that Ritchie thinks would be ideal for the Ahmanson.

Making a strong go financially at the Ahmanson looms as Ritchie’s biggest challenge, says David Sefton, director of the UCLA Live! performing arts program, which partnered with CTG on one of its money-losing 2004-05 shows, “Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!”

“There’s not a huge amount to choose from to fill a theater that size. You’re not going to be able to fill it year-round with groundbreaking productions. I applaud the move to broadening the definition of what goes in there, but he’s not going to be able to get around doing mainstream Broadway fare.”

Besides offering design-your-own subscriptions, CTG is tailoring packages to demographic subdivisions, such as Latinos, gays and lesbians, and visual arts buffs, complete with such perks as dinners and social gatherings. The mean age of Ahmanson and Taper subscribers is 51. Seventy percent are female, and 92% have at least a college degree. Those moves are in line with current thinking throughout the nonprofit theater world, says Susan Medak, managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and president of the League of Resident Theatres, which negotiates labor contracts for most of the nation’s large nonprofit stage companies.

Past generations were happy to sign up for an entire season of six or seven plays, Medak said, even though one or two might not appeal to them. Now, more people are reluctant to spend money and time on anything not of their own choosing.

Artistic directors often complain about losing time from the fun part of their job -- choosing and directing plays -- because it’s imperative to raise money. That’s not such an issue for Ritchie, who is not a hands-on stage director, but a veteran producer -- including nine seasons with the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.

“I happen to enjoy fundraising a great deal,” says Ritchie. “I think our greatest fundraising tool is going to be the quality of the shows.”

Dillingham jokes while comparing the wallet-tapping capabilities of Davidson, “a formidable fundraiser,” and Ritchie. “Michael has one advantage. He plays golf.”

“Poorly,” Ritchie interjects.

“Even better,” says Dillingham, figuring that beating the one who’s asking will put donors in a giving mood.

Ritchie’s golf swing presumably is not one of the variables being considered by a consultant CTG has hired to study what it would take for the company to double annual operating donations from $7.5 million to $15 million over the next five years.

Ritchie said his fundraising thus far has focused on one-on-one approaches to past contributors. He hasn’t begun trolling for checks in Hollywood, although he may have a entree there: His wife is actress Kate Burton, “the ace up my sleeve in everything.” But CTG has added four board members, and two are major names in the entertainment industry: TV producer Marcy Carsey and Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton.

Although he didn’t expect to face a $3 million-plus deficit in his first season, Ritchie says CTG now embodies the broad challenges facing the American theater scene. “I knew that the environment was shifting and we were going to have to shift with it,” he said. “One of the main reasons I came out here for this job was that I thought this was going to be the cornerstone or laboratory for any kinds of significant changes that might be happening in the field. The big question for us was: ‘Is this [deficit] an anomaly in this particular year, or is it an ongoing trend?’ And either way, how do we face it?”


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