Who will CTG invite to its 'Block Party'?

kirk-douglas-theatre-ext.jpgPhoto: Craig Schwartz

Yes! Center Theatre Group will produce a Block Party, in which three recent productions from other LA companies will be revived at CTG's 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, next spring (April 14-May 21).

When artistic director Michael Ritchie took the reins of LA's theatrical flagship, more than a decade ago, he promoted this idea of using the Douglas for occasional re-staged productions by some of LA theater's many obscure tugboats and rowboats. Back then, the policy seemed like an opportunity to mollify those in the LA theater community who were unhappy when Ritchie axed many of CTG's previous new-play laboratories.

Three productions appeared under this Ritchie initiative in 2006 and 2007. But since then, no other LA company has fully re-staged anything under better-endowed CTG auspices at the Douglas, except one weekend of public performances of 24th Street Theatre's "Walking the Tightrope" in May 2015. The three productions in the Block Party next spring will each receive 11 performances over two weeks. They'll appear one at a time, consecutively, over the six-week length of the Block Party.

Productions that opened elsewhere in the area since January 1, 2015 will be eligible for consideration. An online application will request companies to submit video, script, reviews, budget and design elements, with applications due by August 12. It isn't necessary for someone on the CTG staff to have seen the first production. Two information sessions will be held at the Douglas for interested parties, on July 16 at 11 am and July 25 at 7 pm.

CTG staffers will weed the applications down to six to eight finalists, whose representatives will then be invited to meet with CTG staffers for another round of consideration. The final selection will be made by early December.

The productions will use the regular Actors' Equity contracts that are in effect at the Douglas. With CTG support, the companies should be able to offer much better compensation to the actors and other artists than was available for the original productions. This might be especially helpful at this moment in time, as LA's small companies (especially those that aren't run by their own members) face potential changes in Actors' Equity's 99-seat plan that could make compensation for actors and stage managers considerably more expensive.

The CTG process at the Douglas sounds somewhat similar to the description of a long-range plan proposed by the LA County Arts Commission's executive director, Laura Zucker. That county plan also would use a competitive review process to pick productions from LA companies for the programming at a midsize theater, but unfortunately the expenditure of funds necessary to build the county's theater - on the campus of John Anson Ford Amphitheatre - hasn't yet been approved.

So kudos to CTG for realizing that that it can lend a helpful hand to smaller theaters in a moment of need. It's a model that other larger-budgeted theater companies should consider. And of course it isn't an act of pure altruism; depending on the results of the competition, the three productions at CTG next year might add a jolt of electricity to the Douglas programming.

We can probably assume that CTG will aim for diversity in the selections. In addition to the usual considerations of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation of the writers and their subjects, I'd like to suggest two other standards of diversity.

First, CTG should provide enough resources to include at least one musical in the Block Party. What's a block party without music? More seriously, the higher cost of producing musicals means that far fewer of them are developed in LA's bare-bones small-theater stratum, compared to non-musical new plays. Yet in general, out in the wider world, successful musicals remain more popular than non-musicals.

CTG failed to produce a brilliant musical it had commissioned, Burglars of Hamm's "The Behavior of Broadus," at the Douglas, but it assisted in the show's premiere at the small Sacred Fools Theater. That production went on to receive some of LA's top theater awards, but it would have been a much bigger feather in the caps of both CTG and the "Broadus" creators if it had opened at the more prominent Douglas. Unfortunately, because it opened at Sacred Fools four months before the January 2015 cut-off point, "Broadus" apparently isn't eligible for this new opportunity at the Douglas.

My second standard for extra diversity shouldn't even have to be mentioned, but here goes: CTG, could you please include at least one production among these three that is not only set in Los Angeles but which couldn't be set anywhere else? Yes, I'm once again urging CTG to think more seriously about the community in which it's located. As I've often noted, LA-oriented productions by CTG, which calls itself "L.A.'s Theatre Company," are rare.

True, Culture Clash's very LA-specific "Chavez Ravine" was revived last year at the Douglas. But that wasn't much of a stretch for CTG - the show's original premiere in 2003 already was a CTG production, at the larger Mark Taper Forum in the pre-Ritchie era. (Also, the three-man Culture Clash isn't a smaller LA company in the same sense as Playwrights' Arena or the Robey and Deaf West theaters, which created the 2006-07 productions that were imported into the Douglas. Culture Clash doesn't consistently produce other artists' work, and it usually operates under the auspices of larger companies such as CTG.)

The Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood is currently presenting two plays that are mostly set in LA. Both are by Julie Marie Myatt. One of these, "Birder," was commissioned and developed by CTG and is presented in NoHo "in association with" CTG. "We hope our collaboration" with CTG "is the first of many," wrote the company's artistic directors in their program note.

It's a play about a middle-class couple who bought a Los Feliz house beyond their means. The husband seeks distraction from his crumbling finances and threatened marriage by joining a small group of birders on outings in the LA area. But the birder metaphor isn't capable of doing all the heavy lifting that Myatt requires of it. It's eventually over-emphasized, yet we never get a close-up view of the man's professional pressures or a sufficient explanation of why he quit his job.

JOHN-IS-A-FATHER-ds.jpgSam Anderson, Carl J. Johnson and John Gowans star in "John is a Father." Cropped photo: Dan Bonnell

Myatt's other Road play, "John Is a Father," is very different and much more successful. It has an economy that's missing from "Birder," in part because its titular character is a man of relatively few words, providing the actor (and company co-artistic director) Sam Anderson with the necessity - and the opportunity - to create a remarkably physicalized performance in which most of the resonances are visual, not verbal.

John has been estranged from his family for decades. He regrets almost everything he did with them. Now that he's around 70, his son's widow gives John another chance to connect with his seven-year-old grandson, at their home in Phoenix. But first, in LA, we meet John's best (only?) friend, who is a homeless vet, and a fascinating LA couple John encounters at the airport.

Is "John Is a Father" fare for Father's Day? Perhaps, but it might be a better choice for someone who has recently reconciled with a father after years of open conflict, than it would be for a family in which the father might wonder if the adult child is trying to send messages of previously unspoken resentments by buying tickets to this play.

The coincidental chronicles

In the first weekend of June, I saw two plays that coincided with events in the real world in completely unpredictable ways.

One of these was a very LA-specific experience. On Friday, I saw Ruth McKee's "In Case of Emergency," in which two young-adult sisters encounter an emergency preparedness consultant in their garage, while hearing media reports of a wildfire in Griffith Park. The sisters work through some personal issues, while the consultant is spooked by his inability to reach his children at their school near the fire.

caseofemerg-haleiparker-ds.jpg‚ÄčAmy Ellenberger, Emma Zakes Green and Daniel Rubiano in "In Case of Emergency." Photo: Halei Parker.

It's a somewhat effective distillation and airing of some very LA-specific anxieties. Chalk Repertory is producing it in three actual home garages. I saw it at a home in Montrose; the automatic garage door was the "curtain" separating us from the action. Now the production moves to a home in Atwater this weekend and then to a Pasadena garage for the following two weekends.

A day later, on my way to see the opening of "Romeo and Juliet" at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, I saw smoke seemingly spreading from the area toward which I was driving. Radio reports quickly confirmed that a fire was raging in Calabasas. After turning south on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, I soon had to reverse course. Only residents were allowed to proceed. I then learned that Theatricum Botanicum had canceled its opening because of the fire. In retrospect, "In Case of Emergency" seemed even more relevant as a result of my attempt to see "Romeo" the next night.

After these two events, on Sunday evening, I saw the final performance of South Coast Repertory's revival of Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus." The play, you may recall, is set during what composer Antonio Salieri believes will be his final hours. He flashes back through his bitter memories of his relationship with the younger, vastly more gifted Wolfgang Mozart, before he attempts to kill himself.

The next morning I awakened to discover that Shaffer himself had died early Monday in Ireland, which of course is eight hours ahead of California. It's possible that Shaffer's demise (no, not a suicide) occurred just as I was watching his most famous play - about an artist who believes he's about to die.

Don't worry - on the eve of the election next November, I promise to avoid seeing any staged satires about what might happen if Donald Trump is elected.

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