LA Times critic Charles McNulty did a thorough eviscerating in the Sunday paper of Michael Ritchie's tenure so far at the Center Theatre Group (the Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson et al--LA's major nonprofit theatre complex).
It is a must-read because it's probably only the glitziest example of what's going wrong with so many nonprofit theatre institutions--big and small, regional and even right here in river city. (Ritchie, as McNulty points out, was also famous for cultivating a star factory mentality at Williamstown.)
Item: the sad decline in commitment to seeking out the best new plays. Sure the Center Group is doing some new plays. But who by? And how good?
Ritchie has expressed his distaste for the whole convoluted process [of new play development]. His approach, as he and his colleagues have informally characterized it, is to pick up the phone and ask a David Mamet if he has anything new-- a simplified, top-down administrative style that privileges enshrined over emerging artists. Is it any wonder theater audiences are growing grayer and grayer?Of course, Ritchie's first controversial decision was in gutting the Taper's development lab devoted to nonwhite authors. (What clearer signal can a theatre send?) By connecting that decision with the safe reliance on "name" playwrights, McNulty paints a clear and damning picture of what's going on.
CTG's impressive legacy stems from being at the forefront of theatrical discovery. After all, it was under [founder Gordon] Davidson that Lanford Wilson, Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, Jon Robin Baitz, August Wilson and Lisa Loomer were all embraced relatively early in their careers.
The creative reaching out now--to writers such as Mamet, David Henry Hwang and actress-turned-playwright Lynn Redgrave--seems geared to familiar names. Certainly there would be no problem with more Mamet or Hwang if the programming showed more commitment to cultivating the next Mamet or Hwang.
The Taper built its reputation on little-known playwrights, but there's not much in the new season that can be characterized as a Ritchie discovery. The theater should be in the business of nurturing original material rather than shopping for it.
Imagine the New York Times printing a 2,000-word piece by Ben Brantley criticizing the Public in this way?