Inside Center Theatre Group’s search for its next leader

It may come as a surprise to those waiting for news about Michael Ritchie’s successor as Artistic Director of the Center Theater Group that the official job description is still being written.

No, Gustave Flaubert does not put the finishing touches to the prose. CTG – the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theater – has undergone what is known as “strategic alignment”.

The idea is that before any search can begin, there must be a consensus on the basic principles of the organization. Flaubert would have balked at business school jargon, but the work was deemed necessary as the institution navigates some dangerous crosscurrents.

As Meghan Pressman, CTG’s Managing Director-Chief Executive, said in a phone interview, the theater “reached over 800 people, both internal and external, in either a survey or focus group to provide past, present and future feedback Center Theater Group on Values, Opportunities and Challenges.”

The Arts Consulting Group, a team of business consultants specializing in the creative sector, was selected last summer to lead the search for the new artistic director. (It’s a common step for cultural organizations to seek outside help when moving through major leadership changes.) The planning process, Pressman said, “began in earnest in November, December.” Later in the winter, contacts were made with members of the theater community to clarify first principles.

This groundwork is intended to inform the Search Committee, which Pressman says was “recently set up.” The group, consisting of 11 Members of the CTG board, including Pressman, will be chaired by Gail Berman, a vice president of the board and chairman and chief executive officer of the Jackal Group, an entertainment company that recently produced the Baz Luhrmann film Elvis.

Pressman, who joined CTG in 2019 from the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C., said she expects the job posting to be posted later this month, along with news that the search has been completed by the Candidate Advisory Group at the national and national level will be international. She added that CTG will likely host an open house to answer questions about the process.

A woman in a dark tank top smiles at the camera.

Meghan Pressman, executive director of the Center Theater Group.

(Teresa Castracane)

“We’re right in the middle,” she added. “But we’re not ready to have candidates yet. There is currently no formal process for becoming a candidate.” The hope is that a new leadership will be announced this winter, but the timeline is hazy.

This deliberate, somewhat sluggish pace might indicate a lack of urgency. Pressman acknowledged that the strong executive team already in place when Ritchie left eliminated the need for an interim artistic director.

Production director Doug C. Baker, who 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 new play development at the Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre.

“We’re not starving for people to be able to choose shows and communicate with artists and keep those programs going,” Pressman said. “But what we’re missing most of all in the role of artistic director is a singular point of truth.”

Ritchie, who replaced CTG’s founding artistic director Gordon Davidson, left the company late last year after a more than 16-year tenure that many felt lacked a defining vision. His departure came a little sooner than the organization expected. Pressman said, “It would have been great to have him here for a longer portion of the transition period, but once he picked the date for his departure, he really gave the Assistant Artistic Directors that leadership authority in terms of the season selections that they’ve worked on.”

Is Ritchie even involved in the search for a successor? With a wry laugh, Pressman said, “No. He has very happily moved on with his next life interest.”

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in conversations with producers and theater artists with deep LA roots about finding a new artistic director for CTG. Interest is huge as many theaters feel their destiny is tied to the city’s flagship theater organization.

These discussions with community stakeholders have confirmed what my colleague Jessica Gelt reported in May: that our local theaters are facing an unprecedented crisis. Businesses are suffering and artistic directors are desperate for leadership.

Visitor numbers have not recovered. As one artistic director put it, audiences have been weaned from going to the theater during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even well-reviewed shows run with large swaths of empty seats.

Readjusting to traffic, grappling with the headache of parking, and considering the high cost of gas are certainly inhibiting many Angelenos’ return to the theater. The fear caused by the various waves of increasingly transmissible variants certainly doesn’t help, not to mention the issue of masks and more elaborate check-in procedures in theaters that still prioritize the safety of their customers.

In the wake of racial and cultural considerations, artistic directors also struggle with figuring out how to retain existing audiences while doing a better job of creating a more inclusive theater environment on both sides of the limelight. Finding an answer is a long-term project, but the financial challenges posed by faltering participation, the drying up of emergency government aid, and the added burden of pandemic costs have made institutional survival an additional and increasingly urgent concern.

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

Actors perform on stage.

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

(John Persson)

CTG’s budget for next year is in the mid-$60 million range, making it one of the largest nonprofit theater operations in the country. It’s better able to weather these storms than less resourced theaters, but the scale of the challenge becomes increasingly frightening.

“I know some people who would be great at this job who have absolutely said they don’t want to take it at this point in their careers,” Pressman said. “We want someone who has the energy, ambition and vision to do it. And that will be self-selecting to some extent.”

Many people I’ve spoken to have expressed hope that CTG will elect a leader who is BIPOC. There is also a desire to see a woman at the helm of an institution that has historically been heavily male-dominated.

The selection committee must prioritize knowledge of LA’s unique and uniquely challenging cultural landscape. Heads shake sadly at the thought that someone from New York or London will walk in and try to remake CTG in the image of those theater capitals. On one point, everyone seems to agree that the theater’s communal ties need to be restored. This includes representation at the top.

There is also a strong feeling that CTG should be in the business of generating new work, not just looking for it on Broadway. Great art made in LA should be the norm rather than the exception.

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

One concern is that some of the top local candidates may not have the extensive management experience to lead an operation of this size. Pressman allayed that concern by noting that CTG is a big company and there are plenty of resources available to lighten the workload — “people who can teach, encourage, connect, build.” She believes this institutional support will allow the right candidate “to implement their skills at this scale.”

The painstaking process of basing the search on fundamental principles, Pressman says, is designed to align the board with the values ​​they seek in a new leader. By reflecting collectively on what’s needed from an artistic director at this point in the company’s history, she added, CTG will be better able to avoid the most obvious temptations, such as Netflix.

But does the board itself conduct a rigorous self-assessment? Certainly the diminishing prominence of CTG—summarized by one artist as “obscene potential, lackluster new imagination”—can’t be attributed to just one artistic director. “I would say it’s ultimately a focus,” Pressman said, “but it was a little bit under the radar.”

But everything will be checked, she assured. Does that include configuring CTG as a three-venue behemoth – a structure some experts believe may no longer be sustainable?

“Our mission is something that supersedes our commitment to leases,” Pressman said. “But the ownership we currently have control over allows us to fulfill our mission. I’m really looking forward to an Art Director with a vision coming in and playing in the sandbox.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-14/center-theater-group-new-artistic-director-search Inside Center Theatre Group’s search for its next leader

Sarah Ridley

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