Los Angeles Is Changing. Can a Flagship Theater Keep Up?

LOS ANGELES — For 55 years, the Center Theater Group has showcased theater in a city that has always been known for the movies. Its three stages have championed important new works — “Angels in America,” “Zoot Suit” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” to name three of its most acclaimed offerings — while importing big-ticket crowd pleasers from Broadway (coming this spring: “The Lehman Trilogy”).

But this Los Angeles cultural institution is at a crossroads as it goes through its first leadership change in 17 years, and confronts questions about its mission, programming and appeal in a changing city, all amid a debilitating pandemic.

Michael Ritchie, the organization’s artistic director, announced last summer that he would retire nearly 18 months before his contract ended in June 2023; he stepped down at the end of the December, citing the need for the organization to move in a new direction in response to social changes and debate about the theater’s future. The organization, which is a nonprofit, is using the transition to consider how to adjust to what is sure to be a very different post-Covid era — a sweeping discussion that theater administrators said would involve some 300 people, including its board of directors, staff, actors, director and contributors.

“At the age of 50, you start to think about the next chapter,” said Meghan Pressman, the managing director of the Center Theater Group. “There’s so much happening now. Coming out of a pandemic. Coming out of a period of a racial crisis. Years of inequity.”

“We are no longer your mother’s C.T.G. anymore,” she said.

The obstacles are considerable.

The Ahmanson Theater, in downtown Los Angeles, had to cut short a run of “A Christmas Carol” in December.Credit…Ryan Miller

Like theaters everywhere, Center Theater Group — the Ahmanson Theater and the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center downtown, and the Kirk Douglas Theater 10 miles to the west in Culver City — is grappling with empty seats, declining revenues and the coronavirus. The Ahmanson cut short a run of “A Christmas Carol” with Bradley Whitford in December, canceling 22 performances after positive coronavirus tests in the cast and crew at the height of what in a normal year would have been a holiday rush.

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

And the theater group is struggling to adjust to sweeping reassessments of tradition that have emerged from social unrest across the country over the past two years. It was reminded of this new terrain by the uproar that greeted the announcement of a 2021-22 season for the Taper and the Douglas, 10 plays that included just one by a woman and one by a transgender playwright. Jeremy O. Harris, the writer of “Slave Play,” which was on the schedule, announced that he would withdraw his play from the season before agreeing to go forward only after the Taper pledged to program only “women-identifying or nonbinary playwrights” next season.

The Center Theater Group has been a hugely influential force in Los Angeles culture since the Mark Taper Forum, above, and the Ahmanson opened in 1967 at the Los Angeles Music Center.Credit…Tom Bonner

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

It “is still the flagship theater company of L.A.,” said Stephen Sachs, the co-artistic director of the Fountain Theater, an influential small theater on the East Side of the city. “I think it’s at a moment of reckoning, like everything that is theater in Los Angeles. The C.T.G. is the bar that we compare ourselves to. They set a standard for L.A., not only for ourselves but for the country.”

The Music Center, the sprawling midcentury arts complex on top of Bunker Hill, across from Frank Gehry’s billowing Walt Disney Concert Hall, is at the center of cultural, arts and society life in Los Angeles. The project was driven by Dorothy Buffum Chandler, the cultural leader who was the wife and mother of publishers of the Los Angeles Times, and also houses the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which was the site of the Academy Awards off and on from 1969 to 1999. “Before the Music Center, it was really a cultural wasteland,” Marylouise Oates, who was the society columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the late 1980s, said, referring to the city.

Theaters across the country are struggling to find the balance between pleasing and challenging their audience as they confront declining ticket sales and the threat of competition in the form of a screen in a living room. Theater here has also long existed in the shadow of Hollywood, to the annoyance of those involved in what is by any measure a vibrant theater community.

“I don’t see how anyone can say it’s not a theater town,” said Charles Dillingham, who was the managing director of the Center Theater Group from 1991 through 2011.

The Kirk Douglas Theater, in a former movie palace in Culver City, opened in 2004.Credit…via Center Theater Group

For its first 40 years, the theater group’s personality — adventurous and daring more often than not — was forged by Gordon Davidson, who was recruited by Chandler to be the first artistic director at the Taper. He was of a generation of force-of-nature theater impresarios, like Joseph Papp in New York and Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis.

“I could not have created ‘Twilight’ anywhere else,” said Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright who wrote and acted in “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” at the Taper. “I’ll never forget Gordon sitting down, taking out his buck slip and saying, ‘What do you need?’”

The Taper opened with the “The Devils,” by the British dramatist John Whiting, about a Catholic priest in France accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun. The subject matter caused a rustle, but Chandler, who died in 1997, stood by Davidson.

“She wasn’t always happy,” said Judi Davidson, who was married to Gordon Davidson, who died in 2016. “She said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. You tell which plays I should come to and which plays I shouldn’t come to.’ ”

The Taper staged “Zoot Suit,” by Luis Valdez, in 1978, a rare production of a work by a Latino writer, which went on to Broadway; as well as a full production of both parts of “Angels in America,” by Tony Kushner, in 1992, before it moved to Broadway.

“I could not have created ‘Twilight’ anywhere else,” said Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright who wrote and acted in “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” at the Taper.Credit…Jay Thompson

In recent years, the theater has come under criticism for too often catering to an older audience hungry for the comfort of familiar works. Still, under Ritchie, who declined a request for an interview, it presented the premieres of acclaimed works, including “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which had its world premiere at the Douglas before moving to the Taper.

Harris, the writer of “Slave Play,” said the Center Theater Group had responded quickly when he objected to the overwhelmingly male lineup of writers. “When I raised my issues and pulled my play, they didn’t act defensively,” Harris said. “They acted. Other places would have let the play move on and figure out a way to blame me.”

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“The problems at the C.T.G. are problems that are alive at every major theater institution in America,” he said. “There are significant issues with personnel, and there are significant issues with programming. Women aren’t produced enough. And people of color are not produced enough.”

The question now is whether the change was a one-time accommodation to a protest from a prominent playwright or a sign of a genuine transformation. “What is after that?” asked Jessica Hanna, a member of The Kilroys, a group of playwrights, directors and producers pushing for gender equity in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. “We are at the time of, ‘we’ve been responsive to the crisis.’ And then people go back to what they have been doing.”

Richie’s role as artistic director is being filled by five associate artistic directors who are already moving to address concerns that the organization has been timid with issues of diversity in its programming, staff and audiences.

A 2017 revival of “Zoot Suit,” by Luis Valdez, which the Taper staged in 1978, before it went on to Broadway.Credit…Center Theater Group

“This great moment has arrived,” said Luis Alfaro, a playwright who is one of the associate artistic directors. “And the theater can chose to continue to run the theater the way they’ve always run it, or they can take big bold post-pandemic steps and say, ‘We are going to go out on a limb now and explore how this might be different.’”

That, he said, meant taking advantage of the organization’s three stages for a wide array of programming to appeal to a more diverse audience.

“The theater and its leadership has to look like the city,” Alfaro said. “If it doesn’t make that adjustment, it has literally aged itself out.”

Tyrone Davis, another of the directors, said replacing Ritchie would prove to be a “defining moment for 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 for the theater is how to expand its appeal without losing the mostly white, mostly wealthy audience that lives on this city’s West Side and has long been the foundation of its audience.

“It’s a very good question, and we’re about to find out,” Pressman said. “The West Side theatergoing audience has been enormously supportive, and they are still the core group. But they are not the only group.”

Subscriptions accounted for 31 percent of all revenue, including contributions, in the last fiscal year before the pandemic. The theater is projecting subscription revenues will drop by as much as 20 percent in the coming year, but expects it will ultimately return to prepandemic levels.

That may depend on the return of the subscription-buying audience.

“This is going to be a challenge,” said Andrea Van de Kamp, a former chairwoman of the Music Center. “We have a real theater audience that has developed over the past 30 years of people who really like it. It will take some time to rebuild.”

Judi Davidson said that she thought the Center Theater Group had become a bit too bland over the years. “It’s great that they want to be adventurous again,” she said. “I applaud that. We have so many subjects to talk about. So much is going on. As much as I want to see Hugh Jackman in ‘The Music Man’ — and I really do — I don’t think that’s what they should be doing.”

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