Monday at the theater

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Monday was a weird day to be an audience member at Center Theater Group.

It had nothing to do with the theater normally being dark on Mondays. It had to do with a deep sense of juxtaposition of the messages coming from Center Theater Group’s stages and their relationship to the realities of Los Angeles theater and Center Theater Group itself.

Let me step back.  

On Monday evening Center Theater Group (whose theaters include the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Kirk Douglas Theater) held a beautiful and inspiring memorial for the Taper’s founding artistic director, Gordon Davidson. It was an evening in the theater that served to not only honor remarkable, theatrical life of Gordon Davidson but also reminded the audience that Gordon was not only a founder of the Taper, he was one of the founders of the American regional theater movement.

We were reminded of Davidson’s politics and his commitment to welcoming everyone onto the stage. This wasn’t a vague ideal or a convenient mission statement, you could see it embodied in the artists who spoke passionately and with deep gratitude for Gordon’s life and work.

Monday night was a testament to Davidson’s remarkable work building Center Theater Group into one of the largest and most respected nonprofit theaters in the country.

But earlier that day, the message coming from Center Theater Group’s stage was, at least superficially, something altogether different.

Monday morning, Center Theater Group invited members of Los Angeles’ theater community to hear a keynote address from Diane Ragsdale entitled Transformation or Bust: When Hustling Ticket Sales and Contributions is Just Not Cutting It Anymore,  You can see a video of the keynote here.

Ragsdale’s central arguments were that the nonprofit theater ecosystem has been chasing the wrong goals for the past 30 years. In oversimplified terms, she believes the theaters have been chasing dollars rather than meaning. In essence the theaters have bought into a market culture that sees audience as money rather than community partners. She lamented that our cultural organizations have become elitist, massive structures valued more for size than impact.

She located much of the cause for this phenomenon in the regional theater’s pursuit and emphasis on “professionalism.”

There is much in Ragsdale’s thinking that I profoundly agree with. It’s in the same vein that Ben Cameron so compellingly shared (to a tragically small audience) several years ago at LA Stage Day. His notion was that we are in the middle of a cultural transformation akin to the religious reformation: a period in which the notion of an intermediary between art and audience is antiquated but not obsolete. He suggested embracing and imagining a broad spectrum of artistic involvement from amateur to professional.

There is value to these thoughts and profound meaning to be drawn from these ideas. It’s not that a distinction between art and commerce is not critical. It’s not that viewing an audience member only as a dollar sign isn’t deeply problematic. It’s not that we don’t need to embrace and engage community with profound integrity. We do… and quickly. But focusing on “professionalism” as the root of the evil of the last three decades feels like identifying a financial symptom for an artistic crisis.

The artists speaking that evening about Davidson’s legacy championed how he welcomed the community into the professional theater.

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Luis Valdez (standing in front of a projected photo from 40 years ago of him, Gordon Davidson and Cesar Chavez) extolled what it meant for Davidson to bring Teatro Campesino from their vital work in the fields of California onto the Taper’s stage. He spoke eloquently about what it meant for a theater company like Teatro Campesino, which did theater in parking lots illuminated by headlights, to be welcomed onto the “professional” stage at the Mark Taper Forum. Valdez was not making a value judgement about whether a parking lot or a 750 seat theater was more important – only that there was tremendous meaning in that distinction.

We can argue, as I often do, about what’s missing in our regional theaters, about what made the work of Gordon Davidson so extraordinary, about what connects a city to a theater. Those are all deeply essential conversations. However, I’m not convinced that at the center of those conversations is the challenge of “professionalism.”

In Los Angeles’ broader theater ecosystem”professionalism” is a terribly loaded word. 99-seat theaters are currently being compelled to adapt to “professional” minimum wage forced upon them by Actors’ Equity. What does Diane Ragsdale’s keynote mean for these theaters?
Why did Center Theater Group, or parts of it, choose this message for its internal, conscripted audience Monday? And isn’t this a strange message for Los Angeles theater more broadly, at this moment in time?