Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Job Performance Reviews -
LA Theater Edition

September 25, 2006

Cast of Nighthawks Photo by Craig Schwartz 2006

Maybe it's just the time of year but lately the local arts press has decided to issue a job performance review for Center Theater Group's artistic director Michael Ritchie, now at the start of his second full year on the job. Most notably the LA Times lead theater critic Charles McNulty published a relatively lengthy notice on Sunday. McNulty makes a fair and impassioned criticism: CTG under Ritchie is too reliant on big name actors and writers to fill seats for lackluster productions at the expense of a serious play development process favoring quality and emerging talent. He cites a pattern of seemingly impetuous decisions that have resulted in bomb's like Steinberg's Nighthawks, which recently arrived sans development at the Kirk Douglas theater. However, one man's wanton impulsiveness may be another's bold decision making. In the eyes of Steven Leigh Morris, over at LA Weekly, risk is a necessary element for moving theater forward and he gives Ritchie some credit for this despite his concurrence with McNulty on Nighthawks otherwise.

Ritchie certainly has taken a lot of flack in the press for his approach, but has it so far really produced much worse outcomes than the last few years of Gordon Davidson's tenure? Didn't anyone else sit through Jones' Stones in his Pockets, Hampton's The Talking Cure, and Wilson's Radio Golf ? Yes, Davidson is a legend and certainly had a more political slant. He also had a strong committment to the development process and help create the careers of many well-respected theater talents. Still, he was by no means above picking up real dogs for the sake of long-trusted colleagues.

Of course the irony is that this is also about the 1-year anniversary of McNulty's arrival on the scene at the LA Times after an extended period without a lead theater critic. Several people in the local community noted that a vacancy in this position at the West Coast's major newspaper caused significant damage to the local theater scene due to the lack of a consistent external voice to cajole and congratulate. It isn't at all clear that McNulty has stepped into this role fully either, though his piece on Ritchie's choices is a big step in the right direction. He certainly seems to review a nice blend of major productions and more community-oriented ones. But I think there is still a tendency to write as an observer from without as opposed to an informed participant from within the community. This carpetbagger image is somewhat unavoidable for someone who hasn't spent most of his time in LA prior to coming to the Times. Still, many of his more recent reviews have been less academic and do a much better job of communicating the excitement of theater and why it is worth fighting for. Slowly but surely, I think McNulty is becoming the stong voice this community has needed for a long time.

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