Monday, August 08, 2005

REV: A loss of alternative venues

Will Theater in Los Angeles Fade to White?
By MARGO JEFFERSON, August 7, 2005, The New York Times


How does a majority theater support minority playwrights?

You probably stumbled over the phrase "majority theater." It is awkward, but no more awkward than "minority playwrights"; it's just unfamiliar. Majority groups don't need such ID tags. They're considered the norm.

In traditional mainstream theater, that "majority" consists of playwrights, producers and directors who are largely white, male, middle class and free of physical disabilities. So let's rephrase the question: how do mainstream theaters make space for all those minorities, those "others" whose lives are rarely shown on their stages?

Recently, this familiar question has aggressively reared its head in Los Angeles. Michael Ritchie, the new artistic director of the powerful Center Theater Group, announced that starting in July, four programs devoted to minority play development would be eliminated: Other Voices (for the disabled), the Latino Theater Initiative, the Asian Theater Workshop and the Blacksmyths Theater Lab. These labs were founded in the 1980's and 90's by Mr. Ritchie's predecessor, Gordon Davidson, and their goal was to commission and develop new works.

The Center Theater Group is made up of the 750-seat Mark Taper Forum, the 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theater and the Kirk Douglas, a new 300-seat theater devoted to new plays in Culver City. In explaining his decision, Mr. Ritchie said the programs were not effective in getting plays onstage, generating only dead-end readings and workshops. Those are "a luxury we can no longer afford," he said. "We have to focus on production and focus less on play development."

Of course no one claims there is only one blueprint for nurturing talent, and Mr. Ritchie insists that he is committed to developing works by minorities. Still, the announcement had a grim symbolic resonance, especially coming shortly after Los Angeles elected its first Latino mayor in more than a century. For the moment, something tangible was being replaced by something hypothetical.

The issue has resonance far beyond the West Coast. What is the role of powerful theaters like the Center Theater Group, or Lincoln Center and the Public Theater in New York, or the Arena Stage in Washington, in developing other voices?

The Cuban-American playwright Eduardo Machado, who got his first big break at the Mark Taper in the early 1990's, says the big nonprofits are not doing enough. Mr. Machado now heads Intar in New York, the only company in the United States devoted to works in English by Latino writers. Like all small companies, Intar must fight for every arts council dollar it gets. "If none of the minority theaters get city money, isn't it the responsibility of the bigger companies to represent the entire population?" Mr. Machado asked. "They're public institutions, not private enterprises."

After all, if minorities are still marginal in the theater, it's a different story outside the stage door. The majority of Angelenos are not white. And though the majority of Angelenos are women (as are the majority of Americans), inside the theater, women are just one more underrepresented group.

When Ellen Stewart founded the La MaMa Experimental Theater in New York City more than 40 years ago, she wanted to create a truly international center for artists. She calls it a theatrical pot in which no culture melts down. "You put work in and you take work out," she said. "You give others your choices; you get their choices. You infuse each other."

This vision is rarely found in the United States. Chay Yew, the playwright and director who ran the Taper's Asian Theater Workshop and is now out of his job, is right to ask: "Is the theater still doing an effective job of reflecting and representing the world we live in, or is it merely reflecting a select few? If so, we deserve the dwindling, aging audiences."

Before taking over the Center Theater Group, Ritchie directed the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, long famous for elegant, crowd-pleasing productions that feature celebrated playwrights (Chekhov, Shaw, Coward, Miller) with well-known-to-famous actors (Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Waterston and Kate Burton, Ritchie's wife). His tenure there has been described as profitable and successful.

The Center Theater Group's offerings this season make Ritchie's commercial focus very clear. The lineup is tasteful, respectable and very conventional, including works by David Mamet, Alfred Uhry and Chekhov (a ``Cherry Orchard'' production that will star Annette Bening) and such brand-name hit makers as Robert Wilson and Dame Edna. The Web site tells potential ticket buyers that ``we are in final negotiations with major British talent'' for a production of ``The Importance of Being Earnest.''

But the season also will include the world premiere of ``Power and Water,'' a tough-minded look at Los Angeles history by Culture Clash, a dynamic trio of Latino writer-actors. That work, Ritchie says, represents his streamlined new model for play development: ``I came to them and told them: You have a slot. I will guarantee you a production. Now let's develop a piece.''

But so far, no female playwrights appear on the roster of 22 plays (although one musical will involve a female lyricist). As Brian Freeman, the former head of the Blacksmyths Theater Lab, observed: ``It's jaw-dropping, the sheer number of plays by white men.''

Ritchie insists the door is still wide open to minority writers. ``The difference,'' he says, ``is, it's one door.''

In an ideal world there should be just one door. But in the real world, that door usually isn't wide enough for minorities or women to pass through until labs and workshops devoted to their work become part of an institution.

Cuban-American playwright Eduardo Machado got his first big break in the early 1990s at the Mark Taper Forum, one of three halls that make up the Center Theater Group. He now heads Intar in New York, the only company in the United States devoted to works in English by Latino writers. Like all small companies, Intar must fight for every arts council dollar it gets, and Machado says the big non-profits are not doing enough.

``If none of the minority theaters gets city money, isn't it the responsibility of the bigger companies to represent the entire population?'' he asks. ``They're public institutions, not private enterprises.''

At this point, some readers undoubtedly are thinking, ``Talent is not an equal opportunity employer.'' It certainly isn't. Most of the plays produced by traditional mainstream theaters are written by white men; many of these plays are terrible. Quality isn't the barrier. Access is. Experience is. Exposure is.

Loy Arcenas is a Filipino-American set designer who has worked for some of the best theaters in the country. He is directing now, at the Ma-Yi theater in New York, which presents plays by Asian-American writers. ``You don't just become a good writer or terrific writer,'' he said. ``You need to be helped. Nurtured.''

Directors, producers, even audiences need to be nurtured, too. Our cultural realities are changing rapidly. How does art map those changes? How do we learn to see the world differently and stretch our imaginations in unexpected ways?

Asked about his theater's place in the city of Los Angeles, where whites now make up only about 30 percent of the population, Ritchie answered: ``Los Angeles is probably the most diverse and vibrant city in America right now. It's to our well-being to be as diverse and vibrant as possible.''

Let us hope he lives up to the far more eloquent words of Joseph Papp. Papp's Public Theater in New York City helped create a long, still singular tradition of artistic excellence through diversity. Thirty years ago, he wrote: ``What fills me with everlasting hope is the diversity of the people who make up this impossible cosmopolis. New York's energy has always come from the bottom of the heap, the minorities, the Irish after the potato famine, Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans. And long before any of them, the blacks. As Shakespeare wisely said, `The city is the people.' I say amen to that.''