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The Great White Way 

Minority labs booted from Center Theater

Thursday, May 26 2005
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Center Theater Group (CTG) artistic director Michael Ritchie says that, effective July 1, four play-development laboratories at the Mark Taper Forum will be disbanded. These labs were a large part of the affirmative-action legacy left by Ritchie’s predecessor, Gordon Davidson. They include the Blacksmyth Theater Lab, the Asian Theater Workshop, the Latino Theater Initiative, Other Voices (for the disabled), the Writers’ Workshop and the annual New Works Festival — which have been part of the Mark Taper Forum for 10 to 17 years, hoisting a flag of cultural and artistic diversity over an organization with an aging, white subscriber base.

That flag has just been lowered.

Ritchie’s decision comes after the closing of the privately endowed new-play-development laboratory A.S.K. Theater Project three years ago. It leaves local artists with no major cultural institution dedicated to fostering a community of theater artists.

Ritchie says that the decision was agonized over, but that the labs simply weren’t delivering, and Ritchie holds the lab directors responsible. CTG’s production-oriented priorities for its three-theater complex (the Taper and the Ahmanson downtown, and the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City) weren’t as pressing before the Douglas started operating last year, Ritchie explained.

“To produce plays, of course you have to develop them,” Ritchie said. “And we’ll do that. But my aim is to get plays onto the stage. With these labs, I had wanted to see more product, more aggressive advocacy for production [by the lab leaders], as opposed to the idea of continuing development.”

Luis Alfaro, who runs the Latino Theater Initiative, says he was “just as concerned about product as anybody, but who is the product for? The labs were about introducing the theater to a new American audience — that was Douglas’ mandate.”

Anthony Byrnes, project coordinator for the Kirk Douglas Theater and associate producer of New Play Development at the Taper, lost his job, along with lab directors Alfaro, Chay Yew and Brian Freeman. Byrnes says the underlying causes of the shuffle are hard to fathom, but it’s not about money. At an institution like CTG, new works generate grants. Byrnes suspects that a corporate strategy of branding at CTG — so that plays are produced the same way in all three theaters — may underlie the changes. Had Ritchie been brought in to run just the Ahmanson, Byrnes says, “We might not be having this conversation.”

Ritchie’s decision places two issues on the table that blurred into each other under Davidson’s leadership: One is how to best develop a play; the other is affirmative action in the arts.

Though rarely premiered on the Taper main stage, the plays developed by Davidson were often propelled through national streams, and two returned to L.A. with Pulitzer Prizes (Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle). Still, complaints abounded that at the Taper and around the country, new-play development was shifting from a Broadway model (a play has a Boston tryout, then floats into New York, or sinks en route) to a Hollywood studio model in which a play is developed “to death” by committee, demoting playwrights from artists to employees. Ritchie has, in effect, returned the Taper to a system that brought renown to the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon. But that was a long time ago, in a very different economy, and in a land where Broadway was as white as Christmas.

Davidson’s policies brought artists of color to the Taper — August Wilson, L. Kenneth Richardson, Charlayne Woodard, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Alfaro, Culture Clash and Yew — and with them, new audiences. Says the outgoing director of the Blacksmyth Lab, Brian Freeman, “Black audiences were starting to come to the Taper. Not in big numbers. But it was growing. People definitely came, and then came back.”

Ritchie must face the embarrassing reality that in a city with a newly elected Latino mayor and in which whites are now a statistical minority, 15 of 16 CTG plays chosen for production by Ritchie were written by white men. Ritchie says he hopes to see that change.

Meanwhile, the city’s smaller companies, struggling to keep doors open as their neighborhoods gentrify, face a crucial turning point. New-play development must now come from their ranks, as must a coherent strategy for survival and sustainability.


See Robert Greene’s story on conflict at the Los Angeles Theater Center by clicking here.

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Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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