The Playgoer: Taking on the Taper

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Taking on the Taper

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.

Amen.

Imagine the New York Times printing a 2,000-word piece by Ben Brantley criticizing the Public in this way?

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent point. One can hardly imaagine the NYT doing that -- but then the Public is not half as bad as CTG. The Public is doing a lot more new work. Not enough, but certainly and considerably more han CTG. Great piece by McNulty -- a good gain for LA and sorry loss for NYC and the Village Voice.

Malachy Walsh said...

The Public would have to get rid of New Work NOW! and stop producing any work from relative unknowns before it even came close to what I understand is happening at CTG.

If anything, under Oskar, I think we'll see more new work, not less, being developed out of the lit department than before.

Anonymous said...

Oskar Eustis programming a roundly-panned play by the execrable Neil Labute only because it is starring Ed Harris is hardly an example of artistic integrity.

The Playgoer said...

The Labute example does indeed seem to be an example of just what McNulty is critiquing out there.

But that aside... yes, I shouldn't have implied that somehow the Public is the one NY theatre that's most due for such a dressing down. I just picked it because it's an institution of equivalent size and reputation.

Eustis is indeed doing a good job so far on the new play front, regarding writers not already famous.

Malachy Walsh said...

Thanks playgoer for the clarification.

(I will say, despite my own misgivings about Neil Labute's work, it's hard to take any comment from an anonymous person seriously. In fact, it's a waste of space.)

My own thought about giving a slot to the well-known: When it comes to programming, a theatre offers a production to several well known writers in order to ensure that there will be some return on the season, thus enabling the company to offers some spots to less well-known writers.

I have issues with this, but I feel it's also one way to make sure you don't go bankrupt. That definitely would not serve new writers, let alone well-known writers.

Theatre companies that produce nothing but new writers (as the Magic did for the most part last year and the year before) are almost always on precarious financial ground.

A balance must be struck.

Eustis deserves some more time before anybody can really say what the Public will be under his tenure.

Violet Vixen said...

I think the major problem isn't just that Ritchie is programing well-known playwrights, but that almost everything that's not Hwang or Mamet has turned out thus far to be middle-of-the-road and dull. He's overturned both a committment to new work and a committment to diversity in favor of the most bland and mainstream work he can find.

Damien said...

It seems to me that the parallel is not with the Public (this site's obsession with it aside) but with something like the Roundabout. Ritchie deserves plenty of criticism for safe, name-driven programming, but anyone who runs a big American theater outside of New York City will complain, with some justification, that they're at least partly paralyzed by the subscriber base. The bigger the base, the more they want the tried and true--classics, familiar musicals, "prestige" productions from New York, or big names. And the bigger the donors, the more esthetically conservative they tend to be. It's a tough balance to strike between giving your audience enough of the familiar to please them and also leading them in new directions. Not that Ritchie is finding that balance, but the Taper's audience...I don't want to generalize, but "adventurous" isn't the first word that comes to mind. (Apologies in advance to the many people who are exceptions to this.)

Joshua James said...

Say what you wish about LaBute, he's not dull and almost always challenging. He's far from a safe booking, even with the movie star, and at least he pushes buttons. Much more of an interesting choice then, say, a one person play by a famous actor who's never written a play before.

LaBute certainly seems dedicated to making a statement through theatre, and whether or not one agrees with him or cares for his work, he's not slumming - he's done a lot of plays and cares about the craft.

Anonymous said...

labute has a nose for hot button topics. but his craft really isn't that good. the storytelling and writing is almost always dull and predictable.(i'd challenge anyone to find a less interesting climax to a produced play than the last scene of 'fat pig'..)