Not long ago, Center Theatre Group vowed, via its website, to produce theater that “reflects and informs our own community” through “stories inspired on our own streets” and through “collaboration with other Los Angeles theatres and ensembles.”
Change of plans. That pledge has disappeared from the website.
I had quoted those lines, and linked to them, in three LA STAGE Watch columns since January 2010 (here, here and here), and I had planned to do so again today, in my third annual LA STAGE Watch analysis of the LA orientation of CTG’s latest announced seasons.
But when I looked for those noble-sounding lines on the CTG website within the past two days, I couldn’t find them. They were on a page that was headlined “Artistic Vision.” But now, when I use the CTG’s website to search for those lines, nothing comes up. When I click the once-active links from my own articles, I’m told “page not found.” [Update: after today's post first appeared, a helpful reader found the now-dead web page I was looking for on a website that finds old pages and sent me a copy.]
I wasn’t the only one quoting those lines. So did the Cultural Events in Los Angeles website. If you go to the bottom of that site’s web page about CTG’s Ahmanson Theatre’s 2012-13 season, you’ll find those same lines quoted — right under the information about the new season.
CTG announced that 2012-13 Ahmanson season just last May 30. So when I saw the phrases in question on this other website, I wondered if perhaps those words were taken from the CTG website as recently as May. Then again, perhaps the Cultural Events in Los Angeles website was simply re-running them from a previous post. However, I found yet another web page that quoted the same phrases in a summary of what happens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, just last January.
But now, with new seasons announced at all three of CTG’s venues, it’s crystal clear that CTG programming continues to blatantly contradict the message that used to be conveyed on the CTG website about the company’s intent to “reflect…our own community” and tell “stories inspired on our own streets.” So apparently someone at CTG figured those words might just as well exit the CTG website.
Let’s look at those seasons.
The majority of the just-announced 2013 season at CTG’s flagship, the Mark Taper Forum, consists of three plays set in the British/Irish isles — two by British writers (Nina Raine’s 2010 Tribes and a revival of the 1967 Joe Orton comedy What the Butler Saw), plus The Steward of Christendom, a 1995 play by Sebastian Barry, set in Ireland in the 1930s and earlier.
Of the other two 2012-13 Taper plays, the Chicago-born and Chicago-premiered A Parallellogram apparently takes place in a time-traveling but not-especially-distinct American location, while the revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in Pittsburgh more than a century ago.
The upcoming Ahmanson season also has a propensity for English settings, with Backbeat, a new musical about the early Beatles, and End of the Rainbow — which is about a Hollywood star, Judy Garland, but is set in London. The other Ahmanson productions aren’t set in the UK, but they’re set in locales far from LA or even the West — Seminar on the Upper West Side of New York, Anything Goes on a transatlantic voyage decades ago, The Scottsboro Boys in 1930s Alabama, and Fela! in Nigeria.
The Kirk Douglas Theatre season includes two plays by LA-based playwrights — Jennifer Haley’s The Nether and Marco Ramirez’s The Royale. The former is set in cyberspace but no particular other location, while the latter is about the boxing champion Jack Johnson, who occasionally boxed in LA as well as many other cities. I don’t know whether LA will be mentioned in it, but I doubt it.
LA is briefly mentioned in the current Elephant Room at the Douglas, in the way that comics or magicians who travel to many cities mention a few local references just to tailor their act to each particular crowd. The script purposely mangles the name of one famous local landmark — “Mann’s Chinese Restaurant” — probably in order to demonstrate the ineptitude of these three New Jersey-and-Arizona-based magician characters in the pandering department.
The other Douglas plays are Krapp’s Last Tape and the English-language version of Neva — don’t look for local content in either of these — and a Second City version of A Christmas Carol, which, as in Elephant Room, just might have a few local comments along with the comedy.
So the Douglas comes closer to having a little LA content than the other two theaters, but it’s on a very superficial level.
By contrast, LA content does seem to count for something in one, publicly obscure corner of CTG. That’s CTG’s New Play Production Program. In the program’s fall 2011 newsletter, CTG literary manager Pier Carlo Talenti wrote about three CTG play commissions that sound extremely substantive and extremely local:
“As part of an initiative we’ve titled ‘On the Brink: Three Plays Explore 21st Century California,’ we recently commissioned three Los Angeles-based playwrights to write plays on themes specifically assigned to them. Laural Meade will write a play about the precipitous decline of California’s public school system in the space of one generation; Dan O’Brien will explore how a state with such an astonishing GDP perpetually teeters on the brink of financial collapse; and Evangeline Ordaz will examine the demographic shifts that continually redefine and question the very meaning of the term ‘minority’ in the state.
“We’ve enhanced the commissions with a research stipend that will allow each playwright to conduct her inquiry as she wishes — e.g., honoraria to experts, travel to Sacramento, audio-recording equipment for interviews, etc.”
Well, that’s impressive. But it would be even more impressive if any of these projects — which have apparently been in the works for at least a year — had materialized into a dramatically successful production on one of the three upcoming seasons. While the topics of these commissions might have some resonances beyond California, surely their greatest resonance would be right here with Los Angeles audiences. Of course, I don’t know how these commissions turned out, or even whether they’ve turned out yet. But if one of them isn’t scheduled soon for a production, continuing developments in these newsworthy fields might require even more research and more rewrites, and they could go into developmental hell – if they aren’t there already.
Developmental hell is precisely what Michael Ritchie aimed to avoid when he took over CTG and abandoned the organization’s previous labs, which were mostly ethnic-specific. We were told that Ritchie liked to develop plays by committing to actual productions. We saw one such production with Southern California content, Los Otros, just last June at the Taper. But it wasn’t created by Southern Californians, and in fact half of it had been created for a New York production four years ago. An earlier commission, a play set in LA’s porn industry, was also being created primarily by New Yorkers, the Civilians, but it still hasn’t seen the light of day.
If these particular commissions don’t pan out, Ritchie shouldn’t simply give up on finding productions with local content. But that’s precisely what appears to have happened with the seasons that were just announced. Each one of the theaters should have at least one production per season with an undisputed local flavor.
Should we count it as progress that the upcoming seasons at least appear to be less New York-oriented than some of Ritchie’s recent seasons? Not if London has simply replaced New York. Two years ago I wrote that CTG apparently was an acronym for “Center Theatre Gotham,” but now it looks as if it might be morphing into CTGB — “Center Theatre Great Britain.”
Of course even without the language on the CTG website about how CTG “reflects” its community and tells “stories inspired on our own streets,” CTG still calls itself “LA’s Theatre Company” as part of its basic logo. In the program for Elephant Room I was handed last night, I counted 13 references to CTG as “LA’s Theatre Company.”
But if CTG isn’t going to reflect LA any more than it does in the coming season, then why not retire the “LA’s Theatre Company” designation, too? Some other company that’s more interested in reflecting its community and presenting stories inspired on the streets of LA might also be interested in taking over that promotional handle.
SPEAKING OF ELEPHANT ROOM, I was sitting in the Kirk Douglas Theatre last night, watching this three-man comedy/magic show. The trio was completing a shtick involving references to the Dalai Lama. One of them crumpled up a piece of paper bearing the Dalai Lama’s image and threw it into the audience. Whoever caught it was instructed to throw it farther back, and then the second catcher was told to toss it again, and likewise the third catcher — who threw the crumpled paper up in a way that made it veer to her left. At that point, without any effort on my part to catch it, the crumpled paper simply landed in my lap. And I was immediately told by Louie Magic (Steve Cuiffo) to please stand.
In shows that involve audience participation, I’ve often wondered if the performers have been told where critics are sitting so as to avoid selecting them. After all, critics are there to observe the show, not to actively participate in it.
In this case, however, the course of the crumpled paper appeared to be completely random. Even if the third catcher had known who I was (and I don’t think she did), she certainly didn’t aim at me when she threw. It just happened to land in my lap.
For a half-second, I considered thrusting it into the lap of the total stranger who was on my right. But I certainly didn’t want to make any public remarks about how I, as a critic, felt that it would be improper for me to become part of the show — such remarks would have made me an even bigger part of the show. So when Louie told me to stand, I did so — and soon, I found Daryl Hannah (Trey Lyford) standing beside me with a live mic.
Louie asked my name. I wasn’t eager to identify myself, and I felt well within my rights not to do so, because included with my ticket was a little note written to critics politely asking if we could “preserve the illusion that the magicians [with their stage names] are real people” instead of identifying them by their real names — Cuiffo, Lyford and Geoff Sobelle.
So I responded with the name “Lama,” as in Dalai — perhaps because it was the first name that occurred to me, given the circumstances, and perhaps because I figured it might allow the Dalai Lama shtick to go on a little while longer. Of course, in retrospect, I realized I don’t have the requisite skills to do improv as the Dalai Lama.
At any rate, the name “Lama” hardly registered with Cuiffo. I wasn’t even sure he had heard it, so I briefly switched to “Dalai” before finally giving up my half-baked attempt to improvise and resorting to my real name, “Don.” Louie asked me where I was from. I responded with the name of the LA neighborhood I live in, but there was no flicker of recognition, and we simply moved on.
Louie then asked me to think of someone who had “transformed” me in some way. I thought of my wife and daughter, neither of whom was there. But to drag their names into this show without their permission seemed a small violation of their privacy. Then it struck me — two weeks earlier, I had found out that six months before that, my high school drama teacher Jay Dean Jones had died. As the man who, more than anyone else, introduced me to theater, he had indeed “transformed” my life. And as he is no longer among the living, he probably wouldn’t mind if I used his name. In fact, it would be my little way of remembering him in public.
When Louie asked me if I had come up with someone, I said yes. Was I picturing this person in my mind? “OK,” I replied, which drew a little laugh. Louie directed me to write the first name of this completely unknown person, whom he oddly enough referred to as “a young lady,” on a piece of paper. Daryl Hannah, standing next to me, handed me a piece of paper and a marker and I wrote “Jay” on it.
The show’s third character, Dennis Diamond (Sobelle), standing next to Louie, then wrote something on a piece of paper and folded it — after which Louie asked me to utter the name I had written. “Jay,” I disclosed. Dennis unfolded his paper, and there in bold letters was the name “Jay.”
Magic! The audience was duly appreciative.
As for me, I found myself halfway distracted throughout the rest of the show. I hadn’t felt any butterflies while I was contributing to the act — there wasn’t enough time for them to flutter into my body before I had to “perform.” But I must not have been as relaxed as I thought I was, because as soon as I sat down, I felt a pain in my lower back, as if it had tensed up during the performance — and, now that I was seated again, the pain emerged.
The pain ended soon enough, but half of my brain kept spinning. How had I done? Had I seemed calm and clever? It was lame for me to try to keep the Lama shtick going — after all, it wasn’t my act to control. Why had I mentioned the name of the neighborhood where I live? Did I want to encourage visitors? When I tell this story to my wife, would she be annoyed that I hadn’t chosen her name? (She wasn’t, later in the evening).
How had the trick worked? Did Daryl Hannah, standing next to me, see what I had written and have some way of communicating it to Dennis Diamond? Why hadn’t I watched him more closely?
Meanwhile, the other half of my brain kept watching the rest of the show. When I read the script this morning, I remembered almost all of it, but I did miss one rather important line, perhaps because I was thinking too much about my own “performance.”
At any rate, because I was a small part of the show, I don’t feel I’m in the right position to comment on it as a critic. Which actually might be what the performers hope for — they certainly don’t want critics to give away any of their secrets (by the way, there are a few double meanings in the last part of the show about “secrets” that might cause a few parents to question whether they want their kids to see it).
In case you’re wondering, on the page of the script that describes my part of the performance, it does not say that Dennis writes the name “JAY” on a piece of paper. Now, that would have been truly spooky.
Elephant Room, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
***All Elephant Room production photos by Scott Suchman/Arena Stage
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