Start Spreadin’ the News: CTG is in LA, CA

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

CTG — is it Center Theatre Group or Center Theatre Gotham?

Yes, CTG’s three theaters are in Los Angeles County: the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. So why does artistic director Michael Ritchie program CTG as if it’s in Gotham (aka New York City)?

I’ve raised this issue previously, but the recent announcement of the next Taper season – on the heels of similar reports of the next Ahmanson and Douglas seasons – is an appropriate occasion to raise it again.

The CTG web site includes these words: “The organization is committed to producing theatre that reflects and informs our own community. We hope to attract new audiences to our theatres through stories inspired on our own streets as well as through plays that transport our audiences lifetimes away.”

And this: “Center Theatre Group plans to bring new work and new voices to the stage through collaboration with other Los Angeles theatre companies and ensembles…”

Scanning through CTG’s next sets of titles, it’s hard to see how any of these productions will fulfill those goals to “reflect our own community” and to present “stories inspired on our own streets.” And I don’t see any collaborations with other Los Angeles companies in the coming year.

<p>John Lithgow. Photo by Nigel Perry</p>
John Lithgow. Photo by Nigel Perry

At the Taper, it seems that the only possibility that a 2011 production might reflect L.A. with any specificity is if John Lithgow happens to refer to his life as a sometime L.A. resident in his solo show, Stories by Heart.

Of the other Taper productions, 33 Variations is set in present-day New York and 19th century Austria, Burn This in New York, The Novelist in New England. I’m not sure where, if anywhere specifically, the closing Vigil is set, but the playwright Morris Panych is Canadian.

To be fair, the closing production of the Taper’s current season, Harps and Angels, is likely to refer to L.A., because it celebrates the music of Randy Newman. He loves L.A., right? We’ll soon see to what extent the show reflects that.

Moving on to the Ahmanson, which is built around pre- or post-Broadway attractions, it’s not too surprising that its next season appears as bereft of L.A. material as the Taper’s.

Brooke Shields and Raúl Esparza. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Brooke Shields and Raúl Esparza in LEAP OF FAITH. Photo by Craig Schwartz

The opening Leap of Faith is set in Kansas. Next to Normal is set in a generalized Suburb (for whatever it’s worth, its librettist and lyricist Brian Yorkey grew up in Issaquah, Washington). God of Carnage is about squabbling New Yorkers. Les Misérables is set in, duh, France.

The closest the Ahmanson season will come to local color is in the offer to CTG subscribers of tickets to Iris, the new Cirque du Soleil show that’s scheduled to open at the Kodak. It will celebrate filmmaking and Hollywood — that most popular of all L.A.-related topics. But it’s not a CTG production.

<p>Javier Muñoz. Photo by Don Ipock</p>
Javier Muñoz in VENICE. Photo by Don Ipock

Finally, there’s the Douglas, which will open its season with a new musical, Venicebut no, apparently it’s not L.A.’s Venice. It’s set in some future society, in the aftermath of a 20-year war. The Cripple of Inishmaan is set in Ireland, and This in New York. Among the DouglasPlus short runs, Roger Guenveur Smith’s Juan and John refers to the Dodgers. But the incident that inspired it took place in San Francisco.

So, as far as I can tell, four shows in CTG’s coming seasons are set in New York, and not one is set in southern California. Can you imagine a New York Public Theater season with four shows that are set in L.A. and none in New York?

I’m not a New York basher. It’s an exciting and dramatic city. But so is Los Angeles. CTG’s decisions are especially disappointing considering a couple of projects that CTG has been developing, but which apparently aren’t considered ready for prime time. I wrote earlier this year about the Civilians’ docudrama about the San Fernando Valley porn industry and a locally-set project called Los Otros. What happened to them? Certainly an examination of the local porn scene would draw more interest than some of the above-mentioned titles.

I don’t know precisely where all of CTG’s announced directors live, but none of them is known as L.A.-based. South Coast Repertory, located in another county, does a much better job of using L.A. directors than L.A.’s own CTG.

Of course, the economy is a factor. It’s usually cheaper to import productions than to build your own. And most of CTG’s imports come from faraway companies that, obviously, have no particular interest in serving L.A. audiences.

The Taper’s current import from Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, Gordon Edelstein’s 2009 staging of The Glass Menagerie, glimmers eloquently. Still, while watching it, I was reminded of Jessica Kubzansky’s 2006 Menagerie at the Colony in Burbank. Kubzansky emphasized Tom’s auteur role as innovatively as Edelstein did, and she too used a somewhat unorthodox musical score. Her production was leaner. Menagerie is great enough to be re-visited at least every four years, so I’m not knocking Edelstein’s rendition (although the Taper is too big for the extremely low lighting of the Gentleman Caller/Laura scene). I’m questioning whether bringing it from the East Coast was the best use of CTG’s resources.

What happened to Ritchie’s vaunted plans to import productions from smaller L.A. companies, too? At least CTG wouldn’t have to pay traveling and living expenses for local actors and other artists. But after a few such projects, that idea appears dormant.

Please don’t accuse me of parochialism. CTG’s diet doesn’t have to be all-local. Just one or two productions — per theater, per season — with L.A-based writers and directors as well as local settings would restore CTG’s previous reputation as an important L.A. institution. Without such efforts, CTG could dwindle into just another generic nonprofit theater.

I couldn’t help but notice some relevant comments in Deborah Behrens’ recent interview of American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff, who came down from San Francisco to direct the gripping Elektra at Getty Villa. Perloff wasn’t speaking specifically about CTG — in fact, with the Taper importing next year’s Vigil from her own company, she probably wouldn’t want anyone to connect her remarks with CTG. But it’s easy to make that connection:

“Chekhov always said, the more particular it is, the more universal. If you make something that is really resonant for your own community it will ripple but it will also mean something to that place.

“Martha Lavey [Steppenwolf’s artistic director] has this great expression she calls McTheater, which is every company is doing the same three plays. Why should that be? The sensibility between Chicago and San Francisco is like two different worlds. That is a testosterone driven city that’s about narrative and muscle. San Francisco is about form and really fusion based. I do a lot of dance theater work, music theater work. It’s a very interdisciplinary city. That’s what makes it fun. Different things land in different communities in very different ways, and you should be making work that’s resonant for the community you’re in.”

Of course I had to check whether Perloff is walking the walk as well as talking the talk, so I looked at the upcoming season at her theater — which has only one fully professional venue, not CTG’s three. Only one of ACT’s seven productions appears to be conspicuously local, but it’s a mouth-watering prospect — a musical version of Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco epic, Tales of the City, opening next May. Where’s an L.A. equivalent? Certainly not at CTG.

AND PERLOFF ON PASADENA’S ISSUES: In the same interview, Perloff also spoke of the dangers of relying on celebrity casting and the perils of shrinking cast sizes – both of which are frequently employed for economic instead of artistic reasons.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to the debt-stricken Pasadena Playhouse, where the comeback programming will begin with two celebrity-reliant, small-cast productions: Ed Asner all by himself in FDR and guess-who in Leslie Uggams Uptown Downtown.

These may turn out to be wonderful shows, and they’re certainly better selections than what we’ve seen at the playhouse since Camelot closed last January — that is, nothing. We have to cut the playhouse some slack in this life-threatening crisis.

But if shows like these become a habit, they would make the Pasadena Playhouse artistically negligible. Fortunately, they’ll be followed in January by something that at least sounds more ambitious — the new musical Dangerous Beauty. And I’m happy to disclose that it’s set in Venice! Oh, wait, that’s Italy’s, not L.A.’s.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.