The Playgoer: This Beautiful City

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

This Beautiful City

By Steven Leigh Morris

This Beautiful City?

Hello from L.A.

When Center Theatre Group announced last week that it was a commissioning The Civilians to develop a new work with music about the porno industry in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, it did give me a moment's pause. The musical is being developed under CTG's New Play Production Program (NPPP), which is described as a laboratory to create new work. This sounds grand, except CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie booted four play development labs out of his Mark Taper Forum upon his arrival in 2005. (These were the Other Voices program for disabled artists, in residence at the Taper since 1982, plus the Latino, Asian-American and African-American labs that had been around since the early-to-mid-'90s, under Gordon Davidson.)

In a kick in the teeth to local lab leaders such as Luis Alfaro and Brian Freeman, Ritchie said at the time that those labs weren't creating producible plays, and his mandate was to fill his three theaters (the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson theaters in downtown Los Angeles, and the Kirk Douglas on the west side in Culver City).

That was really code for, I want my own lab with my people, thank you very much.

The Civilians project has no title and no date set. The press release announced that The Civilians' artistic director, Steve Cosson, composer Michael Friedman and book writer Bess Wohl have “begun investigations in Los Angeles for an untitled porn musical.”

(CTG presented The Civilians' beautiful This Beautiful City at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last year in a co-production with NYC's Vineyard Theatre.)

The sea change at CTG is a shift from developing notoriously risky playwright-centered works, which the discarded labs centered on, to developing company-centered works, which are less risky? Back in 2005, Ritchie said that was his intention, and he got off to smart or lucky start by commissioning the L.A.-based Latino comedy-improv troupe, Culture Clash. Dramaturg John Glore and director Lisa Peterson helped develop company leader Richard Montoya's play, Water & Power, a poetical drama about twin brothers and the machinations of city politics in Los Angeles. It was a successful, collaborative effort which CTG premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 2006. And though the development process resembled that at the Humana Festival or the Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory, where Glore is associate artistic director, Ritchie was placing his producer's bet on the reputation of Culture Clash, not Montoya.

And so it is with The Civilians. There's little doubt that Ritchie is also placing his bet on the salaciousness of the smut biz in the San Fernando Valley, where the porn is as high as an elephant's eye.

That Beautiful City

would be Ojai, California, about an hour north of L.A. in the rustic canyons of Ventura County, where the 12th annual Ojai Playwrights Conference is underway. On Friday starts three days of public presentations of plays-in-development by Stephen Belber, Bill Cain, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, David Wiener, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori.

Both Cain and Wiener were in the Pacific Playwrights Fest down the coast at SCR this spring. Wiener is continuing work on the same play he developed there, Extraordinary Chambers, based on a visit he made to Cambodia.

It's a small world after all.

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