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Regional theater's art moving off center stage

Critic's Notebook: Fiscal concerns are stealing the spotlight at regional theaters, resulting in facile productions and less risk.

February 19, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • The death of Gil Cates, shown here, led to Geffen board Chairman Frank Mancuso moving over.
The death of Gil Cates, shown here, led to Geffen board Chairman Frank Mancuso… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

At a time when nonprofit theater in America is at a crucial crossroads, two of Southern California's most prominent regional theaters, the Geffen Playhouse and San Diego's Old Globe, are looking for new artistic leadership. Considering what's at stake culturally for the region and symbolically for nonprofit theater nationwide, the boards of directors conducting these searches haven't much room for error.

The problem in a nutshell is this: Established theaters have by and large grown larger, public funding has become a monumental challenge and artistic directors have moved in an increasingly commercial direction, adopting a bottom-line mentality that has put publicity and profitability over bold and substantive choices.

Compounding matters is the leadership vacuum in our area after Center Theatre Group's trailblazer, Gordon Davidson, stepped down in 2005 and La Jolla Playhouse's Des McAnuff and the Old Globe's Jack O'Brien left their posts a couple of years later. The missionary zeal of someone like Davidson may belong to another era, but the historical thread of nonprofit theater in America has been lost by this new generation of artistic directors. And the commercial seduction they and their boards have succumbed to has allowed artistic vision to be guided by marketplace trends.

The business of theater has become just that — a business. The managers, either from behind the curtain or boldly out in front, are running the show. The most egregious case has been at the Old Globe, where Louis G. Spisto, an executive at the theater, was named CEO/executive producer after O'Brien assumed emeritus status in 2008. Spisto's corporate title was the first sign of danger. It wasn't the last.

Under O'Brien, the Old Globe won a Tony Award for best regional theater and was considered a local and national powerhouse. Since his departure, the theater's prestige has plummeted. It remains one of the country's largest nonprofit producing operations, and good work (such as the recent production of "Dividing the Estate," a facsimile of the Broadway staging) is still done. But in terms of its contribution to the contemporary repertory, the Old Globe has become second tier. What happened?

The organizational structure left in O'Brien's wake was a strange one. Two "resident artistic directors" brought in during O'Brien's reign, Jerry Patch, a dramaturge with a sterling record in new play development, and Darko Tresnjak, a director with a strong classical background, were to share artistic decision-making with Spisto, who was the final arbiter.

An awkward setup

This configuration was intended to shore up the different areas of the Old Globe's artistic mission: new plays, Shakespeare and the classics, and frothy musicals. But appointing a business-side manager lord and master didn't leave them humming in the artistic offices. Patch left almost immediately for Manhattan Theatre Club; Tresnjak stepped down in 2009 and became artistic director of Hartford Stage last year. Our creative loss was the East Coast's gain.

The Old Globe, meanwhile, committed to a menu of ditzy musicals that rarely fulfilled their "Broadway-bound" hype ("The First Wives Club," "Robin and the 7 Hoods"). O'Brien had a healthy appreciation of musical froth himself, but he also generated national excitement through August Wilson and Stephen Sondheim. Spisto's attempts at balancing the docket were less successful. (Not even appointing name-brand British director Adrian Noble to lead the Shakespearean charge had much effect.) When it was announced last fall that Spisto was leaving to pursue work as an independent producer, Harold W. Fuson Jr., the Old Globe's board chairman, praised Spisto for increasing the annual budget from $12 million to $20 million and expanding the audience as well as the donor base.

The real reason for Spisto's abrupt exit is unclear, but it's doubtful that the cause was dismay over the way he squandered the theater's integrity in pursuit of the lightweight confections that make it on Broadway these days. One can only hope that the Old Globe's board will pause to consider the high price the theater has paid for its improved balance sheet and that it will reevaluate the wisdom of consolidating the artistic and managerial leadership positions into one autocratic office.

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