Southern California theater

Michael Ritchie replaced Gordon Davidson at Center Theatre Group. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California is famous for being ahead of the national curve -- in styles, fads and unenviable crises. And right now, the region's largest institutional theaters are serving as a crystal ball for leadership concerns affecting nonprofit theaters throughout the country. ¶ I'm referring, of course, to Center Theatre Group, the Geffen Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe, all of which are at crucial crossroads. The founders or guiding spirits of these prestigious theaters have left, are on the verge of leaving or are in a quandary about whether to make an exit at such a precarious historical moment. Meanwhile, their successors, caught between an economic rock and a cultural hard place, seem increasingly ready to give away the store to lure former subscribers from their Netflix queues. ¶ This transitional anxiety, dating to Center Theatre Group founder Gordon Davidson's passing of the torch to Michael Ritchie in 2005, has only magnified worrisome developments that have intensified since the recession. Perhaps the most insidious among them is the blurring of commercial and nonprofit values. ¶ Some explanatory back story: The regional (sometimes known as resident) theater movement, which resulted in the proliferation of nonprofit stages from coast to coast, was designed not simply to decentralize theater -- road shows had long been bringing live performance to the provinces -- but to allow it to flourish as an art form throughout the country.

As "The Cambridge Guide to Theatre" entry on the "Resident non-profit professional theatre in the USA" puts it: "Its non-profit status is significant in that box office profit is not of prime concern; rather the focus is on the art of the theatre, the development of theatre artists, craftsmen and administrators dedicated to establishing a new American theatre, and the production of classical and innovative contemporary drama."

There's plenty of latitude in this description, but it's hard to conceive that foundation money and tax exemptions were originally granted to pay for the current orgy of mass-musical frivolity and star-struck casting in plays that seldom spring from the next generation of playwrights.

The state of the art

Let's begin by acknowledging that in the last few seasons Southern California's nonprofit theaters haven't been firing on all cylinders. If they were elderly patients, their boomer children might be forgiven for wondering every now and again about nursing homes. In Pasadena Playhouse's extreme case, the financial blood work was so dire that cryogenics has been deemed the only hope.

Although these artistic directors would no doubt appreciate it if I borrowed a candy striper's uniform or better yet, a pair of pompoms at such an economically precarious time, I think the gadfly suit from the back of my critic's wardrobe is called for. It's already late March and only two shows have opened at Center Theatre Group's three theaters in 2010 -- "The Subject Was Roses" at the Mark Taper Forum and "Dreamgirls" at the Ahmanson. "The Wake" officially opens Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and I'm thrilled by the prospect of Lisa Kron's new play -- but the title aptly describes the offerings thus far.

Nearly everywhere, budgets have been downsized, staff have been culled, and risk-taking, generally speaking, has ground to a halt. The gaps in CTG's programming have become so pronounced through postponed, shuffled and nixed productions that an outsider hearing the season lineup might reasonably assume that the organization was operating only a single venue.

San Diego's Old Globe -- headed by Lou Spisto, who has no compunction in assuming the corporate title of CEO/executive producer -- chose "Lost in Yonkers" for the inaugural production of its new 250-seat, in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (a luxurious reiteration of the Cassius Carter Centre Stage).

Even at theaters that have never lost sight of their mission, struggle is detectable. At South Coast Rep, still a wellspring of new American plays, revivals are cropping up whose chief lure is their familiarity. This season kicked off rather unambitiously with the old Stephen Sondheim compilation "Putting It Together." A not particularly fresh take on August Wilson's frequently mounted "Fences" followed in January. Beth Henley's war horse "Crimes of the Heart," opening later this spring, caps off (at least for this season) the high-minded version of this lackluster trend.

When private donations falter -- and how could they not after Wall Street kamikazes sank the economy -- box office receipts rise in importance. But the creep of commercialization predates this downturn. The evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts certainly encouraged producers to follow the lead of Joseph Papp, who financed experiments at New York's Public Theater through the gold mine annuity of " A Chorus Line." Unfortunately, few artistic directors have Papp's pugnacious integrity and likely would ransack the proceeds from their musical cash cow to fund the spawning of another bovine moneymaker.

The consolidation of big media has only shored up the equation of Broadway and success. I recall a conversation with a director who, after receiving a negative review in the New York Times, felt that his labor was basically for naught because, even though audience response was enthusiastic, the production had little chance of a high-profile future in New York. In other words, if a play gets produced in the regional theater forest and no marquee critic gets the opportunity to rave over it, did it really happen? To some artists and administrators, the answer is clearly a dismaying "no."

Tempted as I am to make a clarion call for new vision, I think a crash course in older values is more urgently needed. A fresh face is no guarantee of anything, especially if there's no sense of history attached, and outrage at the impresario tilt of nonprofit leadership should be a given.

Shortly into Ritchie's second season as Center Theatre Group's artistic director, I wrote a critic's notebook urging him to renew the commitment to new American plays that distinguished his institution under Davidson.

There has been some progress -- Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," which premiered last year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and opens next month at the Taper, is the best play about the Iraq war to date, and audacious new work by David Henry Hwang and Les Freres Corbusier has been launched. But original plays are still being overshadowed by musicals that would feel right at home at the Pantages. When "Mary Poppins" swoops into the Music Center, her magic umbrella sprinkles pixie dust on an underused field.

The hope of Christopher Ashley, the talented director who succeeded Des McAnuff as artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, remains an IOU. The dramatic offerings there thus far haven't made much of an impact, and we'll have to wait to see how far his focus extends beyond the giddy shows ("Memphis," "Cry-Baby") he's sent to Broadway from his West Coast base.

If Ashley likes his musicals splashy, Spisto, who has taken over the Old Globe reins from the venerated Jack O'Brien, doesn't mind them schlocky. Perhaps this is why I found "Whisper House," a small, off-Broadway-style musical that opened there in January, such a refreshing break from the string of overproduced duds ("Dancing in the Dark," "The First Wives Club," "Sammy") that have characterized his tenure. Although the ghost-filled show by Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow had weaknesses (chiefly, an unsettled book), it signaled to me a step in the right direction -- musical theater as art, not vacuous commercial spectacle.

Slow to change

No one can master all dimensions of the job. Sensibilities need to be supplemented through artistic staffing. Would the Kirk Douglas be a more dynamic space if Ritchie had brought in someone as energetically resourceful as, say, the Evidence Room's Bart DeLorenzo or Echo Theater Company's Chris Fields to curate the space on a shoestring budget? Would the Old Globe have fallen into its current state of dramatic disrepair if a comparable replacement for the admittedly irreplaceable Jerry Patch had been discovered? Theater people love to hold forth on the joys of collaboration, yet its head honchos are typically no better at sharing power than Donald Trump and his counterparts in big business.

Letting go of the ropes is never easy, especially when there's a legacy on the line. Gilbert Cates has been talking about retirement for some time. How long? Well, he told The Times in 2000 that he had no intention of leaving the theater for at least five years. This was after Randall Arney had been brought in as artistic director.

Ten years later, Cates is still deploying his Hollywood horse sense to keep the Geffen from buckling under the weight of economic pressures. On the plus side, he's maintained relationships with major playwrights ( David Mamet, Donald Margulies, Neil LaBute), and it's heartening to see the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, the Geffen's attractive second stage, percolating, even if mostly with solo shows. But I'm not the only one to point out that a fresh literary and directorial imagination is badly needed to improve the theater's erratic batting average.

Recently, David Emmes and Martin Benson announced that the current season at South Coast Repertory -- their 46th as founding co-artistic directors -- is going to be their last. But wait: They're not going anywhere. "It's so paramount that there be no bumps," Emmes told The Times' Mike Boehm. Emmes and Benson will pick the 2010-11 season and, adopting the new title of founding directors, will continue to play a role in the theater's artistic direction.

In other words, don't expect any radical departures from the status quo. And yet isn't that what the theater -- any theater -- must do to remain vital? Artists, as Samuel Beckett pointed out, fail better than the rest of us. More boldly. And artistic directors establish an environment in which this is encouraged -- in writers, directors, actors and, most crucially, audiences.

Veteran leadership can be invaluable when it comes to institutional stewardship and growth, although too much focus on these areas in boom periods can leave financial burdens in times of bust that are unsustainable. Look at what all this real estate mania has brought us -- more comfortable seats in darkened theaters.

Which brings us to Pasadena Playhouse. Artistic director Sheldon Epps did a laudable job of diversifying the playhouse's audience and productions. But the stern truth is that the unfortunate hiatus of this historic venue hasn't moved me to proselytize about the necessity of live performance.

Instead, I would argue that it compels us to reflect on what theater truly means to us today. Is it merely an earnest diversion in competition for our entertainment dollars, or is it a challenging reflection of the way we live -- and perceive -- now?

More and more, Southern California's largest theaters have been simply mirroring the consumerist trends in politics, media, education and the arts, where core values have become a function of market research and revenue projections trump all other considerations.

It's not too late to get ahead of a new curve. All it takes is leaders willing to put their art where their mouths are.

charles.mcnulty@latimes .com