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THEATER

The reviews are already coming in

As Center Theatre Group kills the lights on some noted development programs, five playwrights react.

June 26, 2005|JON ROBIN BAITZ; LISA LOOMER; ALICE TUAN; ANNA DEAVERE SMITH; JOHN BELLUSO

In one of his first actions as Center Theatre Group's new artistic director, Michael Ritchie moved last month to eliminate four theater development programs and curtail new play readings and workshops.

Ritchie said he wanted to "see a shorter list of plays in production as opposed to a long list that gets mired in development." In place of the Asian Theatre Workshop, the Blacksmyths, the Latino Theatre Initiative and the Other Voices program for disabled artists, he plans to partner with other, smaller theater companies to present their work at one of the three CTG stages -- the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre. For now, the future of the Taper's 18-year-old New Work Festival is uncertain.

The disbanding of the programs caused a stir and raised questions about the direction and philosophy of L.A.'s largest theater company, which built its reputation on new work by emerging artists. For some perspective, The Times asked five prominent playwrights who have participated in various CTG programs for their take on Ritchie's decision.

"Hearing about the dismantling of the Taper Labs, I am reminded that I live in a white country, and in a time of fear there is no room to be compassionate or interested in others who do not think like you," writes Alice Tuan. According to Jon Robin Baitz: "Gordon Davidson created a theater that has a blood-knot bond with the communities of Los Angeles. A new Taper can not be just a city on a hill, a theatrical Parnassus."

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A dramatic shift in the wings / New artistic director Michael Ritchie plans to curtail play development at the Center Theatre Group. Six artistic staffers will lose their jobs, and there are far-reaching symbolic implications. We asked five playwrights with strong Taper ties to comment on this new direction for some of the city's leading stages.

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`Little things are important'

By Jon Robin Baitz

Special to The Times

Michael RITCHIE'S decision to rethink how the Taper develops new plays is no surprise; he's seen the big machinery at work and he has every right to try another way. That's his prerogative as new artistic director. But that in no way implies that Ritchie can simply throw up his hands and abdicate responsibility for the new American play. If anything, it puts more pressure on him to preserve, protect and nurture writers just as his predecessor did, and if he's going to start simply booking in shows, then he shouldn't be in the job (and one doubts he would have wanted it).

Gordon Davidson created a theater in the Taper that has a blood-knot bond with the communities of Los Angeles. A new Taper can not be just a city on a hill, a theatrical Parnassus. Gordon had his own unique social conscience, and his iconic legacy will reflect the commitment he made to the great Babel of voices in L.A. His era was one of heartfelt belief in the narrative of a people, whether they were black, Latino, gay, whatever. Attention must be paid.

But while attention is being paid, Ritchie must remake the political landscape he has inherited. Here's some of it: There are three demanding and different stages to be programmed, big seasonal debts, entrenched staffers, and, somewhere at the lower part of the pyramid, there's something that resembles a political third rail: the development labs.

Perhaps he's wondering if all those labs (Asian, black, Latino, disabled, etc.) are not a somewhat condescending institutional palliative to communities whose writers have been taught to expect nothing more at the end of their developmental process than "a reading from the Taper." Perhaps he's wondering why not many plays have come out of those labs and onto the Taper stage? And what of all those readings? Is he thinking: "Is this the best we can do?"

My experience is that the world of play readings is a murky purgatory of lowered expectations for emerging writers. After all, plays are solitary and costly business for a writer. Readings give you something to look forward to. Often, the workshops that lead to them are a way of bringing lonely, disenfranchised writers together, offering a kind of cruel watery hope of seeing their work on the main stage while literary staffers churn out grant applications, so as to keep the whole ossified cycle moving forward.

Indeed, play development at the Taper becomes a kind of diplomatic career -- it requires caution, patience and the honing of agendas -- for a literary manager, just staking out his or her turf can be a full-time battle. So understand what Ritchie is considering redacting: People's Turf. There is a lot of constituency politics involved in a place like the Taper, and as in life, when politics comes first, art comes second.... Is that why labs tend to produce polemics as often as they do plays?

There are important questions to be asked of the Taper literary staff: Do the plays that come out of these labs have significant lives beyond them?

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