LOS ANGELES — As the pandemic ebbs in the United States and live theater inches closer to a full-scale reopening, Center Theatre Group's longtime artistic director, Michael Ritchie, said he's certain of two things: The American stage is poised for a post-pandemic rebirth, and he is not the one to lead the way.
Ritchie on Thursday announced plans to retire from Los Angeles' largest nonprofit theater company on Dec. 31 — more than a year before his contract ends — after 17 years as one of the city's most powerful arbiters of culture. By the time he oversees the Ahmanson's highly anticipated November reopening, Ritchie will have presented 266 productions, including 49 world premieres, at the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
Critically acclaimed successes under Ritchie's leadership include the 2005 U.S. premiere of "The Drowsy Chaperone," which went on to win five Tony Awards on Broadway the following year; the 2008 world premiere of the rock musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which landed on Broadway two years later; and the 2014 world premiere of "Marjorie Prime," a sci-fi exploration of computer-programmed companionship that later was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Ritchie said in an interview that his time had run its course, and that he wants to make room for a fresh creative voice whose perspective may be completely new and different.
"There was nothing good that came out of COVID or the George Floyd murder," Ritchie said, "but those two things together made us and everybody else step back and say, 'What are we doing, why are we doing it, and where is my value to the conversation, the decision-making and the future?'"
He added: "It's time for me to stop, and it's time to make space for other people."
The racial reckoning unleashed by Floyd's death hit American theater hard, with Center Theatre Group called out by BIPOC staff members and others for a lack of diversity and inclusion. Last June an alliance of BIPOC theater makers, including Lynn Nottage, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, issued a list of demands under a collective letter titled "We See You, White American Theater." In February the group published a progress report that included a commitment to change made by CTG, which acknowledged being "complicit in the culture of white supremacy and anti-Blackness that dominates our field and our society."
Playwrights David Henry Hwang and Rajiv Joseph, both of whom were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for plays produced by CTG under Ritchie's guidance, were signatories on the We See You list. In interviews with The Times this week, Hwang expressed admiration for Ritchie's contributions to theater as well as for his decision to step aside during this pivotal moment in time.
"He could spearhead this rebirth if he wanted to, but it's important and generous for older artistic leaders, white artistic leaders, to start to pass things on to younger, more diverse groups," Hwang said.
Hwang's most recent collaboration with Ritchie was the 2018 Ahmanson world premiere of "Soft Power," which Ritchie/CTG co-commissioned and nurtured throughout its development into a wild musical featuring a 23-piece orchestra and a mostly Asian cast; it takes place 50 years after the 2016 election when China is the dominant global leader.