Michael Ritchie retires: How the Ahmanson Theatre can rebuild

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In yet one more signal that our post-pandemic future received’t be a reboot of the pre-pandemic previous, Middle Theatre Group has introduced that Michael Ritchie might be retiring as creative director on the finish of the 12 months.

I come to not criticize Ritchie’s almost 17 years on the helm of the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Discussion board and the Kirk Douglas Theatre (one thing I’ve completed extensively earlier than), however to replicate on the historical past. CTG is at a crossroads, and to determine what it wants going ahead, it’s essential to hint the place it has been.

Ritchie’s tenure was initially challenged by the problem in changing Gordon Davidson, who, because the founding father of the Taper, is usually credited with having put L.A. theater on the map. These had been monumental footwear to fill, and Ritchie didn’t have the missionary zeal to compete.

A couple of years into the job, Ritchie needed to take care of the Nice Recession. What was dubbed the worst financial downturn because the Nice Despair wreaked havoc on budgets and hastened the nationwide pattern of nonprofit theater’s commercialization.

The notion {that a} extra devastating disaster would arrive a few decade later would have been laborious to think about on the time. However COVID-19, which closed public venues for greater than a 12 months, proved the knowledge of Edgar’s line from “King Lear”: “The worst is just not / As long as we are able to say ‘That is the worst.’”

In brief, it’s been a tough couple of many years. All of the extra cause, then, to make word of the numerous memorable productions that emerged throughout Ritchie’s reign — amongst them, Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger on the Baghdad Zoo,” David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face,” productions of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Jitney” and deliriously daft new musicals similar to “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Curtains.”

However CTG’s stature has dramatically slipped from its Davidson heyday, when premieres of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” had been turning the theater world’s consideration to Southern California. After all, comparisons to Davidson’s best hits are usually not simply invidious however unfair to Ritchie.

He wasn’t employed to be an impassioned pioneer. However as a cultured impresario, he attracted high expertise and ensured that touring reveals and in-house productions had been produced on the highest stage.

The issue hasn’t been the standard of the reveals however the lack of discernible imaginative and prescient behind them. Ritchie was criticized early on for disbanding the play-development labs for Latino, Asian, Black and disabled writers. Social justice has had a spot in his programming, which has persistently made room for established artists of coloration. But when I needed to guess what issues to him most, I’d say Broadway with a shrug.

In appointing Ritchie, CTG’s board of administrators made clear that it wasn’t on the lookout for one other Davidson. What it needed was a compliant associate — somebody with discerning style and New York knowhow who might steer an outdated cruise ship into secure waters. What was not sought was an idealistic captain decided to chart a daring new course.

If the board makes this selection once more, CTG will go from diminished to irrelevant. Previous glory solely lasts so lengthy. The Ahmanson and the Taper are enthroned on the Music Middle and nonetheless command affect by way of their prodigious institutional scale, however the crackle inside these grand halls has grown muffled.

The Ahmanson, which is able to reopen after the horrifically lengthy COVID-19 shutdown not with Daniel Fish’s brooding deconstruction of “Oklahoma!” (as as soon as deliberate) however with a touted British manufacturing of “A Christmas Carol,” lends the impression of a doughty dowager who nonetheless enjoys throwing on a silk gown and a few heavy fragrance for a nice Sunday outing. The Taper resembles her daughter-in-law, who works assiduously to hide the persistent thought: “What am I doing right here?”

The problem isn’t what’s on the invoice however who the invoice is for. Davidson’s stalwart viewers has ebbed over time. These subscribers had been cultivated not just by a menu of creative choices however by the theatrical evangelist behind them who frequently sermonized on the cultural, political and communal import of the work.

The character of Ritchie’s viewers has not been formed on this religious method. The advertising of hits has changed extra time-consuming types of outreach. On the extent of scale, this will make sense. However theater isn’t a conventional enterprise. And whereas loyalty might not register on year-end monetary statements, it pays long-term dividends.

In trying to find the subsequent creative director, the board must subordinate MBA logic. This isn’t a high-level custodial place however a rescue job.

The duty forward includes rebuilding. Earlier than the COVID-19 catastrophe, there was hassle. Previous nonprofit enterprise fashions had been now not functioning, clouding and compromising the mission of a theater that was based to strengthen and unfold the artwork type, not arrange a Broadway clearing home.

The pandemic has introduced different adjustments, together with the entrenchment of on-demand consumption patterns of leisure. Theater lovers might miss the foyer hum and curtain name roar, however rush hour visitors is a tough behavior to restart. What can theater imply as we emerge from our cocoons, relieved ultimately of social distancing however nonetheless going through the anonymity and alienation of an more and more digital world? Creative administrators can’t skirt the fact that our lives have mutated in ways in which the theater is uniquely geared up to handle and maybe even counter.

Extra consequentially, there was a nationwide counting on race and fairness because the George Floyd protests final 12 months. The hegemonic whiteness of the American theater has come beneath official assault, and establishments that suppose they’ll return to the outdated monochromatic playbook can anticipate to be loudly referred to as out.

Ritchie acknowledged this altering consciousness as a think about his decision-making within the assertion launched by CTG: “With a lot important consideration and focus being positioned on the way forward for theatre management throughout our discipline, I acknowledge the necessity for brand new and various voices.”

The board might want to appoint an inventive chief for whom range considerations are usually not window-dressing however integral to the aim and observe of the group. This may require change on a extra complete scale than including one other Lynn Nottage or August Wilson play.

The dire financial state of affairs might make a candidate with recognizable institutional experience and confirmed fundraising mettle engaging. However returning to a shedding components isn’t the reply.

Discovering an inventive director who understands L.A. not as a glamorous thought however as an advanced metropolitan actuality, somebody dedicated to doing the laborious work of making a twenty first century cultural group in all its seen and invisible manifestations, somebody with a dedication to growing native artists and dealing collaboratively throughout disciplines with neighboring establishments — all of this must be prioritized over touchdown a Tony-winning resume.

Not that creative achievement doesn’t matter. But when CTG is to appreciate extra of its potential, it’s going to have to maneuver away from a New York definition of success. What can L.A. theater be at a time within the metropolis’s historical past when classical music and the visible arts have been flourishing with innovation?

To develop the pool of candidates, the board ought to look past the small group of embellished stage administrators and contemplate different kinds of theater artists in addition to inventive producers. After I interviewed playwright Jeremy O. Harris in 2019, he informed me he’d prefer to run CTG someday. I can’t think about he’d be all in favour of assuming this duty when his profession is taking off in so many instructions, however maybe a shared management mannequin might enable artists to play a big function in figuring out what this distinctive group can grow to be.

At a time when hierarchies are being rethought, the thought of parachuting in one other czar to regulate three separate and extremely dissimilar theaters appears misguided. Why not take an opportunity on a extra pluralistic method?

If ever there have been a time for brand new paradigms, it’s now. For the sake of Los Angeles’ cultural future, let’s hope the board finds the braveness to withstand the false security of the acquainted.

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