Forum’s playwriting labs taper off

Development workshops lead only to readings

Michael Ritchie, new artistic director of L.A.’s Center Theater Group, has a vision for his company’s future, and on July 1 he’s giving it plenty of room.

That day marks the end of new play development programs that have become a staple of CTG’s Mark Taper Forum.

Gone are the African-American, Asian-American and Latino play labs — in place since the early ’90s — and Other Voices, which began supporting disabled writers in 1982. Among L.A.’s few minority playwriting initiatives, these labs mounted dozens of workshops and staged readings.

But according to Ritchie, who assumed his post in January, development was leading too rarely to production. “The outcome,” he says, “was a series of readings that never put anything onstage, and that’s what matters.”

Ritchie is adamant that “attention has to go to production.” When the play labs were being created, he notes, CTG was focused primarily on the Taper, which mounted six productions a year. At the time, the Ahmanson Theater was a road house for Broadway tours, and the 2-year-old Kirk Douglas Theater didn’t exist. Now, however, all three are geared toward homegrown work, meaning CTG annually stages 18-20 shows.

With so many slots to fill, Ritchie doesn’t want to focus on new plays that will simply languish in development hell.

“The doorway is still open … workshops will still be done,” he insists, but “there will be fewer plays getting that (type of development.)”

As an example that CTG will still support new work, Ritchie offers Culture Clash’s “Water and Power,” which is slated for the Taper in 2006 “even though it hasn’t been written.”

Still, the massive overhaul invites concerns. For example, don’t development workshops make it easier to find scripts?

Luis Alfaro, whose job as director of new play development will be eliminated, feels the play labs had great success uncovering new writers. The programs, he declares, “were designed to bring forward specific (writing) communities, and it is my belief that excellent work emerges because those communities exist, not because one writer is supported.”

Alfaro also notes the production history of the play labs, stating, “I think we had an 89% success rate of the work (we developed) getting produced. Not always with this company, but it got produced.”

Though he believes L.A. playwrights will form new communities, Alfaro mourns the losses at CTG. “I had been told that the Kirk Douglas Theater would be the home for new work,” he says, “(so) I am saddened by these recent changes. I thought more attention would be paid to the legacy of the theater as a home for play development.”

CTG’s legacy is also affected by the loss of many key staffers. Along with Alfaro, pink slips were handed to at least two play lab directors and an educational programmer. Diane Rodriguez, who heads the Latino Theater Initiative, will move to a new post, making her one of the shakeup’s few survivors. Rodriguez was unavailable to comment.

Dramaturg John Glore steps down voluntarily, though there are no plans to replace him. “I’m saddened,” he says, “to see some talented colleagues lose their jobs here at CTG.”

When asked how new work will be scouted without the labs and their staff members, Ritchie claims collaborations with other L.A. theaters will bolster a “smaller, more focused” CTG artistic team.

Ritchie denies economics are a factor in his choices, saying, “It wasn’t as if there were financial considerations driving these changes. … All decisions were artistic.”

It will take time for the repercussions of these changes, both artistic and financial, to be felt. Meanwhile, the staff needs a readjustment period. For his part, Glore claims to be withholding judgments on Ritchie’s decisions.

“To be candid,” he says, “I don’t really want to comment on what’s going on, because I think it’s premature to judge what Ritchie is doing. … Having recovered from the initial shock of the seismic shifts here, I’m now staunchly maintaining a wait-and-see attitude.”