From Rags to Ritchie

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Michael Ritchie grew up on the bad side of Worcester, Massachusetts. Though his parents wanted him to study sociology in college, which he tried and abandoned, his fate had already been sealed during high school when he worked at a summer stock theater on the New Jersey shore — a job to which he kept returning.

On January 1, 2005, Ritchie, now 46, will take over for the 70-year-old Gordon Davidson as artistic head of the Center Theater Group, running the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theater downtown, as well as the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, slated to open next fall. (Davidson will stay onboard through 2007 in an advisory position.) Through this pre-transition period, Ritchie is flying to Los Angeles from his New York City home at least monthly to meet with CTG staff and to suss the terrain.

A fair amount has been written about the fact that Ritchie — an actor-turned-techie-turned-spotlight-operator-turned-stage-manager-turned-producer (of the famed Williamstown Theater Festival) — has no ambition to direct. Fifteen of his productions since 1996, when Ritchie was named Williamstown’s producer, have transferred to Broadway or off-Broadway. His actress wife, Kate Burton (Richard’s daughter), has helped draw celebrities of her caliber to Williamstown, including Blythe Danner and her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow.

From Donald Margulies to Jon Robin Baitz to Arthur Miller, playwrights whose work he’s put on the boards speak admiringly of Ritchie.

Slender, chic and youthful, with spiky silver hair and a quick burst of laughter, Ritchie has a reputation for being personable and persuasive in easing tensions that arise among both artists and boards of directors. Yet he’s leaving his job running a company that has a single theater, a $3 million budget, and produces only in the summer to assume what is probably the most powerful theater position on the West Coast, leading an organization that oversees three venues through a year-round season on an annual budget of $48 million.

The following interview took place at the Taper Annex in a spacious office that’s been set aside for him. The job of running three theaters requires that he keep at least three visions in the air at the same time. Which is probably why the CTG board wanted somebody who had no hankering to direct as well.


L.A. WEEKLY: Do you foresee a change in programming at the Center Theater Group?

MICHAEL RITCHIE: This is a great, great theater in all its elements, or it wouldn’t be here, and wouldn’t be as successful. Will there be a change? Only if it’s right, or the time is right.

Are you seeing a potential for change?

I’m going to see if any possible change is the right change. I want to leave it open. No I don’t project a change, but I presume a change, the question is how big it will be.


Can you say, from your observations during the past several months, what you regard as the Taper’s accomplishments and shortcomings?

Virtually every play I’ve seen on the Taper stage has been about issues and ideas, plays with a soul. That’s not to demonize plays that do other things. Sometimes plays can be about diversion. What I love about plays at the Taper, for the most part, you take something with you. And I hope to continue that tradition. Gordon’s also shown a real responsibility to larger social issues and themes that are distinct to this particular community. Will we end up with the same palate of plays? I doubt it because I’m bringing my view — my credo is to surprise the audience. When I took the job at Williamstown, I didn’t want people to be able to predict what the season would be two years from now.


You’ve very nimbly sidestepped the second half of the question. (Ritchie laughs.) The shortcomings. (Ritchie smiles, still no answer.) Okay, let me articulate a complaint I just heard from an actress and maybe you can address it. It’s about casting — that the Taper is obsessed with celebrity casting and that the kind of second-tier TV actors who appear on the main stage don’t draw audiences, nor are they as talented or as trained as lesser-knowns who have been passed over.

What she was saying was in some way true. It’s an issue I face at Williamstown, where celebrity casting has the same onus. My response is that I’ve produced 100 plays, over 1,000 actors, and there are a great many celebrities who are celebrities because they’re talented. Will you see celebrities here? Yes. Maybe. If they’re appropriate. We’re running an art form and we’re running a business. The celebrities I hire aren’t because of the business decisions but because of the artistic decisions.


What do you look for when selecting a play to produce?

When I’m reading a play, I ask myself why does this story belong in this form. If it can be told just as well as a short story, or as a novel or as journalism, I don’t know that it needs to be on the stage. I like theatricality. I like to entertain, but I also like to engage. I’m not afraid of offending if there’s a purpose to the offense.


Funding cutbacks only adds to the commercial pressures at all three CTG theaters. To what extent are your decisions audience-driven, and to what extent do they stem from your commitment to the vision of a play, or a playwright, regardless of their potential to fill houses?

Every theater is facing cutbacks, it’s not just in California. Both individual and foundation donations are down because of the stock market. Corporations have neither the discretionary income nor the will to give like they used to. How do you continue to program and maintain standards? Do you make a deal with the devil? I don’t know.


If your budget were to be cut in half tomorrow, what would be your priorities? What programs would you keep and what would you let go?

I saw Chavez Ravine, and I do know that the people involved in that were extremely proud of the process and the product, and should have been. The primary mission of this institution is to develop new artists and new audiences. Priorities? I’d say outreach to youth, to kids — some of my proudest work has been outreach to kids, not necessarily disadvantaged kids, but kids, all kids, not defined by race or neighborhood. As for the rest, I don’t know yet. In a crisis, I’d say let’s not define ourselves by the venues we’ve been producing in, let’s produce on the street, let’s pick political rallies and put our theater into action. I hope these are questions I can ask myself over time.


What are your five favorite plays?

In my family there’s been one play that stuck out for all of us — from my wife to my 15-year-old son: Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk. For all the different places that me, my wife and my son came from, we had this explosive love for where this play came from. There’s another shared experience. We were about to put on a show in New York, September 11 struck, we were home and all we did was watch the TV reports over and over, and that sense of almost being disassociated from what was happening in the world — Broadway shut down. Finally, because the mayor decided it was important to get the theater started again, we went to see Stones in His Pocket. I was sitting there watching my son laugh and I forgot about the world outside. We went home that night, and my wife and I had gotten into bed, my son repeated a line from the show, we all broke into laughter, and I thought about the power of theater.

I produced a production of Dead End — which was in someway a rediscovery of that play, not that it had been languishing, but it was so large that theaters couldn’t do it. I read it and fell in love with its range, its scale, and I produced that play — the first play that I had my stamp on it. Then there’s that moment in The Crucible when you want to shout out, “Don’t answer that question!” Our Town is one of the two perfectly written plays in the 20th century — that and Streetcar. For my money, neither is missing a single word. Well, there’s six out of 50.

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