May 25, 2005
It was Chay Yew, soon to leave the building along with his Asian Theatre Workshop, who suggested to me the analogy of The Cherry Orchard for the Taper in the waning days of Gordon Davidson's long reign. And that was before last week's announcement that new artistic director Michael Ritchie will take the axe to all of the Taper's new play development programs. In place of the org's influential nurturing of new writers is a producer's model: If a play is ready to go up, put it up. This is hauntingly like the logic given when Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre Projects downsized a few years ago (before it imploded): Playwrights want their plays produced, not workshopped or stuck in development hell. Certainly one of the nation's leading theatres uses just that as its model: The Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville believes that the best thing to do for a new play is to stage it, and each year Humana puts up a dizzying repertory of all-new works, with wildly mixed—and, based on my one visit—exhilarating results.
It's perhaps too easy to see Ritchie as the cool, practical Lopakhin levelling a thing of beauty in the name of the future, and to see Davidson as a profligate, emotional Ranevskeya figure, presiding over the end of a cherished—and quite possibly, I'll admit, taken-for-granted—era. Now that I've brought it up, I'll only let the image rest there. I will say that I find Ritchie's first season announcements, with a few exceptions, decidedly uninspiring. The yet-to-be-announced Kirk Douglas Theatre season will be interesting to watch: Ritchie has been on record, hearteningly, saying how pleasantly surprised he is at the depth, breadth, and quality of the L.A. theatre scene, and he's now officially committed to co-productions with local companies on that second stage. While Blacksmyths' Brian Freeman calls this "outsourcing," this kind of mutually beneficial connection is something I've long imagined, and have been glad to see when it occurs (Playwrights Arena at the Geffen, Cornerstone at the Taper and, later this year, at the Pasadena Playhouse). Why not, for instance, take a show like PRT's Happy End, or, even better, Open Fist's knockout Threepenny Opera, and expose it to a wider audience? (And while you're at it, why not give Open Fist and other homeless L.A. companies a season slot at the Douglas? Just a thought.)
But—and it's a big but—this move, after the death of ASK, marks the virtual death knell of Los Angeles as a place where great new plays get born and bred. It also means the end of regular employment for some folks I've come to admire: Yew, for one, but also Luis Alfaro, Anthony Byrnes, and—in a decision unrelated to new play programs—Tony Sherwood, the Ahmanson's press agent.
Another thing: If Ritchie thinks he can replace the diversity of the Taper's various ethnically defined labs by tapping local companies, he'll find himself sorely disappointed. The already announced mounting of the Robey Theatre Company's Permanent Collection is a telling choice: Robey is one of but a tiny handful of sporadically producing ethnic theatre companies in L.A. Go to most theatre in this polyglot town and you'll notice how overwhelmingly white it is, not only onstage but behind the scenes, from the classical rep companies (Noise Within, PRT, Antaeus) to the hip, edgy ensembles (NOTE, Actors' Gang, Circle X, Zoo District, Evidence Room). Exceptions, like the Fountain Theatre (another likely collaborator with the Douglas) or Cornerstone, only prove the rule.
My point is not to play the race card but to note that with this decision Ritchie abdicates a leadership role Davidson fulfilled, however fitfully, for the length of his days at the Taper. I'm all for a re-evaluation of reflexive identity politics; South Coast Rep, for instance, cut its Hispanic Playwrights Program last year in part because they realized they were interested in a new crop of young Asian-American writers but didn't have a "program" for that. Presumably they're continuing their gold-plated play development reputation in a more color-blind fashion. This may be the post-affirmative-action wave of the future, and if Davidson arguably represents a fading, slightly paternalistic liberal consensus on the issue, I honor his tireless commitment to it. Because not to make a conscious choice to represent diversity onstage is to make a choice for default homogeneity.
Davidson, who I spoke to recently, is clearly rejuvenated by directing Stuff Happens, the brilliant David Hare play about the run-up to the war in Iraq that opens June 5. The old menschy vigor is back, and I can't help thinking some of that is relief at releasing the reins. Here's a man who's slogged through the challenges of running a theatre when what he palpably thrives on is the give and take of theatre—in the rehearsal room, in the halls, and most of all in the round at the Taper.
In the balance of give and take, this has been a week for taking.
Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 3:04 PM