Inside Center Theater Group is looking for its next leader

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It might surprise those waiting for news of Michael Ritchie’s replacement as artistic director of the Center Theater Group that the official job description is still being drafted.

No, Gustave Flaubert does not put the final touch to the prose. CTG – the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theater – has undergone what is called a “strategic alignment”.

The idea is that before a search can be launched, there must be consensus on the basic principles of the organization. Flaubert would have recoiled from business school jargon, but the work was deemed necessary because the institution navigates dangerous cross-currents.

As Meghan Pressman, CTG’s chief executive, said in a phone interview, the theater “contacted over 800 people, both internally and externally, as part of an investigation or a focus group, to give their opinion on the past, present and future Center Theater Group in terms of values, opportunities and challenges.

Arts Consulting Group, a team of management consultants specializing in the creative sector, was selected last summer to guide the search for the new artistic leader. (It’s a common move for cultural organizations to seek outside help when heading for major leadership changes.) The planning process, Pressman said, “started in earnest in November, December.” Outreach to members of the theater community to clarify first principles took place later in the winter.

This preparatory work is intended to inform the search committee, which, according to Pressman, “was only recently launched.” The group, made up of 11 CTG’s board members, including Pressman, are led by Gail Berman, one of the vice chairmen of the board and president and CEO of Jackal Group, an entertainment company that recently produced the film. by Baz Luhrmann “Elvis”.

Pressman, who came to CTG in 2019 from the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C., said she expected the job posting to be posted later this month, alongside the announcement that the search is led by the advisory group for applicants nationally and internationally. She added that CTG will likely host an open house to answer questions about the process.

The Chief Executive and Managing Director of the Center Theater Group, Meghan Pressman.

(Teresa Castracane)

“We are in the thick of it,” she added. “But we are not so advanced that we have candidates. There is no formal process to apply at this time. The hope is that the new management will be announced this winter, but the timeline is unclear.

This deliberate, somewhat slow pace might suggest a lack of urgency. Pressman acknowledged that the strong management team that was already in place when Ritchie left obviated the need for an interim art director.

Production manager Doug C. Baker, whom Pressman oversees, currently oversees the Ahmanson Theater, CTG’s largest venue. Five Associate Artistic Directors (Luis Alfaro, Lindsay Allbaugh, Tyrone Davis, Neel Keller, Kelley Kirkpatrick) focus on artistic programming and the development of new plays at the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

“We’re not starving for people to select shows and connect with artists and keep those programs going,” Pressman said. “But what we miss most about the role of artistic leader is a singular point of truth.”

Ritchie, who replaced founding CTG creative director Gordon Davidson, left late last year after a tenure of more than 16 years that many felt was singularly lacking in defining vision. His departure came a little earlier than expected for the organization. Pressman said that “having him here for a longer period of the transition period would have been great, but as soon as he chose the departure date, he really gave that leadership authority to the associate artistic directors in terms of season selection they were working.

Is Ritchie involved in finding a successor? With a wry laugh, Pressman said, “No. He passed very happy with his next interest in life.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with deeply rooted theater producers and artists in Los Angeles about finding a new Artistic Director for CTG. There is huge interest as many theaters believe their fate is tied to the city’s flagship theater organization.

These discussions with industry players confirmed what my colleague Jessica Gelt reported in May: that our local theaters are facing an unprecedented crisis. Businesses are hurting and artistic leaders are in desperate need of guidance.

Attendance has not rebounded. As one artistic leader put it, audiences have lost the habit of going to the theater during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even well-reviewed shows run with wide swaths of empty seats.

Reacclimating to traffic, the headache of parking, and factoring in the high cost of gas are certainly hampering the return of many Angelenos to the theater. The anxiety caused by the various surges of increasingly transmissible variants certainly does not help matters, not to mention the issue of masks and more elaborate check-in procedures in theaters that still prioritize the safety of their clients.

In the wake of racial and cultural calculations, artistic leaders are also struggling to figure out how to retain existing audiences while doing a better job of creating a more inclusive theatrical environment on both sides of the ramp. Finding an answer is a long-term project, but financial challenges brought about by failing attendance, the drying up of emergency government aid and the added cost burden of the pandemic have made the survival of establishments a additional and increasingly pressing concern.

Pressman shared that she was informally tracking data from a list of 20 peer theaters across the country and found that the average budget variance for the next year is around 16%. “We all feel pushed to our limits,” she said.

The actors perform on stage.

Center Theater Group will produce “2:22 – A Ghost Story” from October 29 to December 4 at the Ahmanson Theater as part of the 2022-23 season.

(Johan Person)

CTG’s budget for next year is approximately $60 million, making it one of the largest nonprofit theater operations in the country. It’s better able to weather these storms than theaters with fewer resources, but the scale of the challenge is growing increasingly daunting.

“I know people who would do this job well who have absolutely said they don’t want to take it on at this point in their careers,” Pressman said. “We want someone with the energy, ambition and vision to take it on. And it will self-select to some degree.

Many people I have spoken with have expressed hope that CTG will choose a leader who will be BIPOC. There is also a desire to see a woman leading an institution that in the past has heavily biased men.

The search committee should prioritize knowledge of the unique and unique cultural landscape of Los Angeles. Heads are shaking sullenly at the idea that someone from New York or London will come and try to remake CTG in the image of these theater capitals. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the theater’s community ties need to be restored. To that end, representation at the top matters.

There’s also a strong sense that CTG should be in the business of generating new work, not just buying it off Broadway. Great art, made in Los Angeles, should be the rule rather than the exception.

The 2028 Summer Olympics provide an opportunity to showcase what sets the performing arts apart in Los Angeles. If CTG is to remain the dominant theatrical presence in the city, it must lead the charge – with a vision that is not imported from elsewhere and imposed on the city.

One concern is that some of the leading local candidates may not have the breadth of management experience to lead an operation of this scale. Pressman eased that concern by pointing out that because CTG is such a big company, there are plenty of resources available to lighten the workload — “people who can teach, encourage, connect, uplift.” She believes that this institutional support will allow the right candidate “to translate their skills to this scale”.

The careful process of rooting research in the fundamentals, Pressman said, is designed to align the board with the values ​​it seeks in a new leader. By collectively thinking about what is expected of an art director at this point in the company’s history, she added, CTG will be better able to avoid the most glaring temptations, like the director who just won a Tony or steadily building a career on Netflix.

But does the board itself conduct a rigorous self-assessment? CTG’s waning stature — summed up by one artist as “obscene potential, lackluster recent imagination” — certainly can’t be attributed to a single art director. “I would say that’s ultimately a goal,” Pressman said, “but it’s been a little under the radar.”

However, everything will be examined, she assured. Does that include setting up CTG as a three-site behemoth – a structure that some expert observers believe may no longer be sustainable?

“Our mission is something that supersedes our commitment to leases,” Pressman said. “But the property we currently control allows us to fulfill our mission. I’m really excited for an art leader with a vision to step in and play in the sandbox.

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