Regional theater's art moving off center stage

At a time when nonprofit theater in America is at a crucial crossroads, two of Southern California's most prominent regional theaters, the Geffen Playhouse and San Diego's Old Globe, are looking for new artistic leadership. Considering what's at stake culturally for the region and symbolically for nonprofit theater nationwide, the boards of directors conducting these searches haven't much room for error.

The problem in a nutshell is this: Established theaters have by and large grown larger, public funding has become a monumental challenge and artistic directors have moved in an increasingly commercial direction, adopting a bottom-line mentality that has put publicity and profitability over bold and substantive choices.

Compounding matters is the leadership vacuum in our area after Center Theatre Group's trailblazer, Gordon Davidson, stepped down in 2005 and La Jolla Playhouse's Des McAnuff and the Old Globe's Jack O'Brien left their posts a couple of years later. The missionary zeal of someone like Davidson may belong to another era, but the historical thread of nonprofit theater in America has been lost by this new generation of artistic directors. And the commercial seduction they and their boards have succumbed to has allowed artistic vision to be guided by marketplace trends.

The business of theater has become just that — a business. The managers, either from behind the curtain or boldly out in front, are running the show. The most egregious case has been at the Old Globe, where Louis G. Spisto, an executive at the theater, was named CEO/executive producer after O'Brien assumed emeritus status in 2008. Spisto's corporate title was the first sign of danger. It wasn't the last.

Under O'Brien, the Old Globe won a Tony Award for best regional theater and was considered a local and national powerhouse. Since his departure, the theater's prestige has plummeted. It remains one of the country's largest nonprofit producing operations, and good work (such as the recent production of "Dividing the Estate," a facsimile of the Broadway staging) is still done. But in terms of its contribution to the contemporary repertory, the Old Globe has become second tier. What happened?

The organizational structure left in O'Brien's wake was a strange one. Two "resident artistic directors" brought in during O'Brien's reign, Jerry Patch, a dramaturge with a sterling record in new play development, and Darko Tresnjak, a director with a strong classical background, were to share artistic decision-making with Spisto, who was the final arbiter.

An awkward setup

This configuration was intended to shore up the different areas of the Old Globe's artistic mission: new plays, Shakespeare and the classics, and frothy musicals. But appointing a business-side manager lord and master didn't leave them humming in the artistic offices. Patch left almost immediately for Manhattan Theatre Club; Tresnjak stepped down in 2009 and became artistic director of Hartford Stage last year. Our creative loss was the East Coast's gain.

The Old Globe, meanwhile, committed to a menu of ditzy musicals that rarely fulfilled their "Broadway-bound" hype ("The First Wives Club," "Robin and the 7 Hoods"). O'Brien had a healthy appreciation of musical froth himself, but he also generated national excitement through August Wilson and Stephen Sondheim. Spisto's attempts at balancing the docket were less successful. (Not even appointing name-brand British director Adrian Noble to lead the Shakespearean charge had much effect.) When it was announced last fall that Spisto was leaving to pursue work as an independent producer, Harold W. Fuson Jr., the Old Globe's board chairman, praised Spisto for increasing the annual budget from $12 million to $20 million and expanding the audience as well as the donor base.

The real reason for Spisto's abrupt exit is unclear, but it's doubtful that the cause was dismay over the way he squandered the theater's integrity in pursuit of the lightweight confections that make it on Broadway these days. One can only hope that the Old Globe's board will pause to consider the high price the theater has paid for its improved balance sheet and that it will reevaluate the wisdom of consolidating the artistic and managerial leadership positions into one autocratic office.

Nonprofit purity may be an unreasonable expectation in these economically onerous times. (The specter of Pasadena Playhouse's financial crisis looms large for all.) But the way missions are being compromised is highly troubling. Michael Ritchie at Center Theatre Group (consisting of the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre) and Christopher Ashley at La Jolla Playhouse have been gung-ho in turning their venues into Broadway tryout and touring centers. Pre-Broadway runs have become especially alluring, coming as they often do with the incentive of commercial enhancement money — a Faustian bargain in which Broadway producers subsidize a nonprofit theater production while holding onto the rights to transfer the show. If it's subsequently a hit, the nonprofit can get a boost from its share of the royalties, but hits are the exception. For every "Jersey Boys" winner, there's a fleet of "Bonnie & Clyde" losers.

Ritchie is to be credited for his taste in booking shows for the Ahmanson, a challenging space to program because of its enormous size. His instincts as a producer are sharp, and he's made sure that L.A. gets the highest-caliber versions of celebrated productions. ("God of Carnage," for example, featured the original Broadway cast, and "Follies," which arrives this spring, features a first-class ensemble as well.)

Misguided moves

But the Mark Taper Forum, the theater founded by Davidson that was once the flagship of Center Theatre Group, has lost its preeminence. One would think that the tax breaks CTG's nonprofit status affords would be in the service of producing daring new work and invigorating revivals, but the Taper has become a Broadway beltway. At the moment the theater is helping to launch Playwrights Horizons' superb production of "Clybourne Park" onto the Great White Way, and its arms are outstretched for "November," "Red" and "Other Desert Cities," making 2012 in L.A. feel like a replay of the last few seasons in New York, with a couple of world premieres in the mix.

These works justly generate excitement and are welcome, but neither the Taper under Ritchie nor the La Jolla Playhouse under Ashley has distinguished itself through its homegrown offerings. Not that new dramas are missing; they just haven't created much impact, and the balance between developing work and shopping for it is off.

Artistic directors steer the creative direction of their theaters and thus bear the brunt of this complaint, but does the fault lie exclusively with them? What about those board members, whose fundraising responsibilities are eased by box-office smashes? Madeline Puzo, dean of the USC School of Theatre and a former creative producer at Center Theatre Group and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, points the finger at changes in funding.

"Up to the mid- to late '90s there was a national conversation about theater, a really rigorous conversation about excellence in artistry and also about management priorities that was taking place at the federal government and major foundation level," she said. "Since then, the not-for-profits have had to fall back on community support, both in terms of box office and also individual giving, which forces theaters into a more conservative stance. Boards represent that, though I don't know that they're necessarily driving it."

But Puzo acknowledged that "a board comes into its own" only when it subjects itself to "an examination of conscience." This is especially imperative, in her view, when a founder or galvanizing artistic figure steps down. At such a time, she said, the board needs to ask itself: "What kind of theater are we and what kind of theater do we want to be? Do we want to be the kind of theater that offers the same-old, same-old, or do we want to be one that excites our community?"

Another question to throw out there: How open are board members to assertive artistic leadership? This is a concern for South Coast Repertory, a theater that has nobly stuck to its serious-minded path. It's still the region's foremost producer of new American drama. But will new artistic director Marc Masterson have the freedom to realize an independent vision with founding artistic directors Martin Benson and David Emmes playing an active advisory role?

Legacies, of course, must be safeguarded, which is no doubt the reason Geffen Playhouse board chairman Frank Mancuso took the highly unusual step of becoming the theater's interim producing director after the sudden death of Gil Cates last fall. (Where this leaves Geffen artistic director Randall Arney is a real cliffhanger.) But theaters that want to ensure their future need artistic leaders with backbone, as risky and expensive as that can be.

Given the strong head winds nonprofit theaters are facing, there wouldn't seem to be reason for optimism. Robert Brustein, veteran drama critic and founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theaters, held out the hope that "nothing ever stays the same in this country."

"If the NEA and private foundations can increase their subsidies, there may come a time when theaters will recover their adventurousness," Brustein elaborated via email. "But fame as much as money is the spur that drives contemporary theater artists off their true path. And until we start respecting those playwrights, directors, actors, and designers who have chosen the relative obscurity and lower income of the nonprofit world in exchange for artistic freedom and institutional satisfaction, Red State self-interest will triumph over Blue State collectiveness, leaving a once great movement in the same sterile populist void that created it in the first place."

All the more reason Southern California can desperately use a few heroes — or at the very least, a few principled troublemakers unafraid of bucking the commercialized status quo.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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