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Ax falls on another play

An income gap prompts a second cancellation for Center Theatre Group.

April 24, 2009|Reed Johnson

Faced with a production budgeting gap and falling ticket sales across the board, Center Theatre Group has announced it will indefinitely postpone its production of "Heddatron."

The show, a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of Henrik Ibsen's classic tragedy "Hedda Gabbler" created by the performance collective Les Freres Corbusier, with real, functioning robots filling some of the roles of the human characters, originally was scheduled as the 2008-09 season's final production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, running from July 5 through Aug. 2.

The "Heddatron" decision comes on the heels of the announcement in February that CTG would move its scheduled production of Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" at the Mark Taper Forum to CTG's 2010 season. Michael Ritchie, artistic director of CTG, which operates the Ahmanson, Taper and the Douglas theaters, attributed the latest postponement to the current sour financial climate.

But Ritchie insisted that CTG was "not in financial trouble."

Overall ticket sales for the three theaters are down between 5% and 10% from last year, he said, and development income -- encompassing private, corporate, foundational and governmental contributions -- has dropped between 8% and 10%.

"We're making a decision that maintains our level of fiscal integrity," he said. "All in all, this is a very solid organization financially."

Ritchie estimated the gap between what CTG had budgeted for "Heddatron" and the organization's income projections as between $250,000 and $300,000. He said that "Heddatron" was expensive, in part, because of the cost of building a new set of robots, which Ritchie described as more sophisticated than those that appeared in a well-reviewed "Heddatron" production at Manhattan's Here Arts Center in 2006.

"They're more capable of doing more things, and they're more lifelike," he said, joking that "they could sit at the artistic director's desk."

Ritchie said he had considered replacing "Heddatron" with another show so that the Culver City theater wouldn't go dark this summer, but decided not to. "We would've been pulling something together, and I couldn't guarantee quality. Certainly, I couldn't guarantee sales, either," he said.

The decision to postpone "Heddatron" wasn't directly related to the sluggish performance of the Ahmanson's production of Peter Morgan's drama "Frost/Nixon," Ritchie said. Attendance for that show was 48% of the Ahmanson's 1,600-seat space, according to CTG. The relatively low number almost certainly reflected the absence for 11 of 21 performances of the show's star, Stacy Keach. The actor suffered a mild stroke four days after the March 12 opening. He returned for the last weekend of the run and appeared in the evening performances.

CTG is hardly alone among U.S. regional theaters in having to cope with recession-related budgeting shortfalls. According to a recent survey of 210 of 500 member regional theaters conducted by Theatre Communications Group, 20% of those theaters said they are or were planning to reduce their number of productions in response to the economic crisis. Twenty-nine percent said they were planning to substitute a larger-cast play with a smaller-cast play.

Substantial numbers of the surveyed theaters indicated that they were reducing administrative staff, freezing salaries or imposing furloughs. Theatre Communications Group public relations director Linda Jacobs said that may indicate that those theaters are hoping to balance their budgets without having to "cut at the heart of their artistic mission or programming mission."

"You can certainly maintain your artistic mission while reducing the number of productions," Jacobs said. "You're not throwing out the baby with the bathwater."

CTG said "Heddatron" ticket holders will be given a credit that can be used toward the purchase of tickets to any of the three CTG theaters, a refund or a donation to CTG.

The world premiere of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Moises Kaufman ("The Laramie Project"), is currently in rehearsal at the Douglas and will begin previews on May 10. The opening is set for May 17 and the production will run through June 7.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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