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A Leading Man for L.A. Theater

Michael Ritchie, known as an imaginative producer, will head the Center Theatre Group.

October 07, 2003|Don Shirley and Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writers

The head of the celebrated Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts will assume the leading position in Los Angeles theater in January 2005 as artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre and the new Kirk Douglas Theatre, it was announced Monday.

Center Theatre Group, which oversees the three theaters, named Michael Ritchie to take over what is considered the most powerful theatrical producing job in the West and a key position in American theater. Ritchie will replace Gordon Davidson, who retires at the end of next year.

Ritchie, 45, is a former stage manager with numerous Broadway and off-Broadway ties but with no hands-on directing experience.

In Los Angeles, Ritchie will be called upon to develop new plays and new artists, present classic theater and assist in audience development and fund-raising. During his seven seasons at Williamstown, Ritchie built a reputation for producing new plays by established and emerging American playwrights and major revivals of classics, often with star-studded casts, including such actors as Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, David Schwimmer and Marisa Tomei.

Ritchie has been the producer at Williamstown since 1996. The summer festival mounts at least 10 plays on an annual budget of about $3 million. The Center Theatre Group's budget is $48 million.

Davidson will plan the 2004-05 season and Ritchie will direct the 2005-06 season.

Playwright Arthur Miller, whose "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" received its American premiere at Williamstown in 1996, called Ritchie "a very imaginative producer. He has very good taste, and he knows how to run an organization. It's a very useful and exciting place to put plays on -- it's a good audience, and they welcome new work. He did a wonderful job there."

Under Ritchie's leadership, five Williamstown productions have moved to Broadway and 10 to off-Broadway. The Broadway list includes the new musical revue "One Mo' Time"; revivals of Miller's "The Price" and "The Man Who Had All the Luck," the latter of which starred Chris O'Donnell; a revival of "The Rainmaker," starring Woody Harrelson; and a production of "Hedda Gabler," for which Ritchie's wife, actress Kate Burton, received a Tony nomination.

Last year, the festival became the only summertime company to receive the Tony Award for outstanding regional theater.

Officials would not disclose salary figures for Ritchie. Davidson, after 37 years with Center Theatre Group, is one of the highest-paid arts administrators in the U.S.; he receives about $337,000 yearly, according to the organization's 2000 tax filings.

Davidson, 70, has run the Taper since it opened in downtown L.A.'s Music Center in 1967. It has launched four Tony-winning plays: "The Shadow Box," "Children of a Lesser God," and the two halves of "Angels in America." Pulitzer Prize-winning plays that the Taper originated are "The Shadow Box," "The Kentucky Cycle" and Part 1 of "Angels in America." Other landmark Taper productions include "Zoot Suit" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992."

Since 2000, the Taper's premieres of "Flower Drum Song," "QED" and "The Dinner Party" have moved to Broadway.

Ritchie said that, like Davidson, he hopes to launch more original productions at the Ahmanson, which is largely a showplace for tours. The new 320-seat Douglas Theatre, which is intended primarily for new plays and educational programs, "won't be a marginal venue," he said. "We will produce in the Douglas as if it were in the Taper."

The selection of Ritchie -- who has never directed individual productions and says he has no desire to direct -- for the job of artistic director is unusual, though hardly unprecedented.

"The fact that he's not directing can only help. It's a huge job," said Center Theatre Group board President Richard Kagan.

Davidson, who plans to stage three productions this year at the Taper, noted that he directed many more productions before he took on the Ahmanson in 1989. Next year, he will open the Douglas Theatre in Culver City, and he plans to serve in a consulting role for Center Theatre Group in the future.

Ritchie lives in New York, where he first worked as a stage manager. As the Williamstown producer, he maintains his N.Y. residence (the festival operates out of New York during the off-season). Ritchie spent about two years in Southern California when Burton's acting work drew her westward. His longest L.A. stint lasted about six months, when his wife was a regular on the 1992 NBC sitcom "Home Fires." Williamstown's ability to attract star actors predates Ritchie, but Kagan nevertheless attributed much of Williamstown's magnetism for stars since 1996 to Ritchie.

Although he acknowledged the importance of casting, Kagan emphasized that "it starts with the written word. And Michael's relationship with playwrights is phenomenal. I don't think the emphasis will be on celebrity actors. It will be on great work."

Said Ritchie: "I have nothing against bringing in someone who's extremely talented and will also sell more tickets. But that's not my most important producing tool. I'd rather have 10 unknowns putting on a great play than have a celebrity put on a poor play."

Because the board wants all three theaters to be available for any kind of programming, it decided to keep them under one artistic director instead of returning to the original Center Theatre Group structure, in which Davidson ran the Taper and others (primarily the late Robert Fryer) ran the Ahmanson, Kagan said.

Center Theatre Group officials wouldn't comment on who were the other finalists for the job. But The Times reported last week that they were artistic directors Oskar Eustis of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., and Gregory Boyd of Alley Theatre in Houston. Boyd was one of the directors at Williamstown last summer. Kagan said there were 100 names on the list of possible candidates at the beginning of the search.

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