CTG's new artistic director, Michael Ritchie, wants to take H'wood drama to the next level

Michael Ritchie started the year in dramatic fashion.

On Jan. 1, the former stage manager began his job as Center Theater Group’s new artistic director. Ritchie, who spent nine years as producer of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, now oversees the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles, taking over after Gordon Davidson’s 37-year reign.

“Dead End,” the first show Ritchie plans for the Ahmanson, and one he successfully presented with director Nicholas Martin at Williamstown in 1997, is a clear representation of his artistic priorities.

“To begin with, it’s highly theatrical, which is always the first thing I latch onto with any play or production,” he explains. “I ask myself, why does it belong on a stage? Secondly, ‘Dead End’ has great themes that are historical for the time it was written, but still resonate today — about the social situation of the haves and the have-nots. Best of all, the message is buried in the excitement of the story, so it’s not a sermon. It hasn’t been force-fed to you.”

Ritchie’s Ahmanson lineup reflects his diversity of taste, from the U.S. preem of a Canadian-originated musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone” — a hit at the 1999 Toronto Fringe Theater Fest — to the traditional, with classic “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

He’s also presenting David Mamet’s play “Romance” (now Off Broadway) as the opener of the Taper’s upcoming season, the first Mamet work the theater has done.

“L.A. is a much better theater town than I originally thought,” Ritchie says. “It offers us a chance to dream big. I want us to become the portal through which people see theater.”

CTG managing director Charles Dillingham says, “I like his plans to originate plays here, rather than simply importing them from New York, and so do our audiences.”

Board president Richard Kagan feels confident Ritchie will accomplish this, since “people adore him and he has very deep relationships with the theatrical and entertainment world.”

But with all the other entertainment opportunities in California, not to mention Hollywood itself, Ritchie acknowledges he’s facing an uphill battle keeping theater at the forefront of people’s minds.

“When it comes to how they spend their money, there are loads of distractions because of movies and TV,” he admits. “We just have to stay current, which is going to be difficult in this environment.”

Born in Worcester, Mass.,Ritchie sprang from a family that offered him no artistic encouragement as a child. The first show he attended, at 15, was a non-Equity summer stock production he also appeared in.

His Williamstown stint was a triumph, resulting in a 2002 Tony, the first awarded to a summer company. At Williamstown he had a staff of six; now he works with a staff of 200, and loves being surrounded by such a large group, all radiating contagious enthusiasm.

Ritchie has no interest in directing, but he’s enthusiastic about fund-raising, which initially held little appeal.

“I found it difficult at first. But when you have a belief in what you do, and you acknowledge the necessity for raising funds to accomplish your goals, you realize that people out there have the wherewithal and willingness to invest. It’s exciting — especially when you’re successful at it.”

The issue of hiring stars or not is another significant factor in Ritchie’s thinking.

“It’s my belief,” he explains, from the vantage point of a man who has worked with the likes of George C. Scott, John Malkovich and Jessica Lange, “that the vast majority of stars are stars because they’re talented. Why should you not go out and get the most talented people to do the shows you’re doing?”

Especially, he adds, “if they’re going to bring in a great audience. People claim that star-driven is not artistic, and I adamantly oppose that. But my overall approach will be to hire the best actor available, regardless of level of notoriety. And some of those people will be stars, God willing.”

Casting stars might be one approach CTG uses to attract younger auds while retaining its subscriber base. The Taper has 22,000 subscribers, and the Ahmanson 35,000 — off a noticeable 5,000 overall from past years.

The Kirk Douglas Theater launched last fall with a subscriber base of 6,000.

“We want to maintain the audience we have and reach out to as many other auds as possible,” Ritchie says. “We need as diverse an audience as possible.”

The key to increasing season subscriptions is attracting a strong base of all ages. Since the subscriber age is tilted toward a more mature demographic, it would seem vital that youth be courted.

Youth has rarely been the core audience of theater. Ritchie is clearly attempting to address that and to change the more conservative approach by drawing young people from all sides — training them, courting them and presenting shows that push the envelope and appeal directly to their taste.

“I don’t think subscription levels can provide the same barometer of the nonprofit resident theater industry they once did,” says Richard Stein of the Laguna Playhouse. “Today, single tickets, flexible passes and small multiplay packages have become the norm at most theaters. Instead of regarding this as a problem, theaters have begun to mine the opportunities inherent in relying on a larger, more diverse and, often, younger aud whose buying habits aren’t compatible with the perception of being ‘locked into a full season.'”

Kagan is excited about Ritchie’s emphasis on the nurturing of youthful talent.

“We have a terrific education and outreach program,” says Ritchie. “We’ll have a long-term commitment to specific kids at a very young age. My desire is to take these kids from their early schooling through high school, so we maintain a direct connection with them. And our connection with USC will include a training program. It’s going to make us truly unique, in terms of any theater in this country.”

One event he eagerly anticipates is a June workshop of the new musical “Curtains,” by John Kander, the late Fred Ebb and Rupert Holmes.

“It shows great promise,” he says confidently. “We hope the workshop will confirm our belief that it’s ready to go into production. I not only hope — I expect it.”

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