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Commentary: Center Theatre Group needs more than a new leader. It needs to blow up the status quo

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — In yet another sign that our post-pandemic future won’t be a reboot of the pre-pandemic past, Center Theatre Group has announced that Michael Ritchie will be retiring as artistic director at the end of the year.

I come not to criticize Ritchie’s nearly 17 years at the helm of the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre (something I’ve done extensively before), but to reflect on the history. CTG is at a crossroads, and to figure out what it needs going forward, it is necessary to trace where it has been.

Ritchie’s tenure was initially challenged by the difficulty in replacing Gordon Davidson, who, as the founder of the Taper, is sometimes credited with having put Los Angeles theater on the map. Those were enormous shoes to fill, and Ritchie didn’t have the missionary zeal to compete.

A few years into the job, Ritchie had to contend with the Great Recession. What was dubbed the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression wreaked havoc on budgets and hastened the nationwide trend of nonprofit theater’s commercialization.

The notion that a more devastating crisis would arrive about a decade later would have been hard to imagine at the time. But COVID-19, which closed public venues for more than a year, proved the wisdom of Edgar’s line from “King Lear”: “The worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”

In short, it’s been a rough couple of decades. All the more reason, then, to make note of the many memorable productions that emerged during Ritchie’s reign — among them, Rajiv Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger at 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 such as “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Curtains.”

 

But 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” were turning the theater world’s attention to Southern California. Of course, comparisons to Davidson’s greatest hits are not just invidious but unfair to Ritchie.

He wasn’t hired to be an impassioned pioneer. But as a polished impresario, he attracted top talent and ensured that touring shows and in-house productions were produced at the highest level.

The problem hasn’t been the quality of the shows but the lack of discernible vision 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 place in his programming, which has consistently made room for established artists of color. But if I had to guess what matters to him most, I’d say Broadway with a shrug.

In appointing Ritchie, CTG’s board of directors made clear that it wasn’t looking for another Davidson. What it wanted was a compliant partner — someone with discerning taste and New York knowhow who could steer an old cruise ship into safe waters. What was not sought was an idealistic captain determined to chart a bold new course.

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