The stories we tell: 50 years of Center Theatre Group

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(Note: – I worked at CTG from 1997 – 2005 both as Associate Producer for New Play Development and helping to build and open the Kirk Douglas Theatre).

Last Saturday night, Center Theatre Group celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a gala performance and party at the Ahmanson theater. It was revealing.  It showed us how Center Theatre Group envisions their past and hint at what they think a compelling fundraising message is for their future.

Center Theater Group, and more specifically the Mark Taper Forum, was part of a fledgling movement to create home-grown or at least home-produced theater in America. It’s easy to forget that the network of “large” theaters that dot America (think ACT, Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, Hartford Stage, The Guthrie Theatre, et al) were all babies when theater at the Music Center began in 1967.

The anniversary celebrated was not only Center Theatre Group’s but also, by extension, the anniversary of the birth of regional theater in America. This is a big deal. The founding of the Mark Taper Forum was significant not simply as a new cultural organization in an existing ecosystem (think of the opening of the Geffen Playhouse in 1995) but as part of a broader gesture into the unknown.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter celebrating the opening Seattle Repertory Theater, “The development of such theaters, soundly based in the life of the community and with permanent companies, is one of the most important and hopeful signs in our national cultural life.”

One could parse that quote and find within the divergent interpretations of its words both the promise and challenges facing Center Theatre Group’s next 50 years.

Hopeful Signs in our national cultural life

The anniversary gala centered around a performance that broke Center Theater Group’s five decades into a five act structure as a way to tell the theater’s story. Each act followed the same basic structure, a song from one of the Broadway shows produced during that time (think “Phantom of the Opera”, “Rent”, etc.), a short clip of video testimonials from different groups for each act (think major voices in the American theater, 50-year subscribers, artists and playwrights who’ve worked at CTG, donors, and high school students), and then short snippets of scenes performed on stage from plays produced, mostly, at the Mark Taper Forum.

It was these chosen scenes that tell you the most about how Center Theatre Group would like to see itself and its place in the national landscape.  They included:

The players speech from “Hamlet”

Matthew Broderick performing a monologue from “Brighton Beach Memoirs”

A monologue from Robert Schenkkan’s  “The Kentucky Cycle”

The meaning here fairly clear: a connection to the classics, to Neil Simon choosing LA rather than New York to begin a handful of his plays, and to the Mark Taper’s high water mark in 1994: a year where three of the four Tony nominees for “Best Play” were produced in the previous year at the Mark Taper Forum: “The Kentucky Cycle,” “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” and the Tony winner “Angels in America: Perestroika.”

The other scenes performed,

Edward James Olmos reprising the opening monologue of “Zoot Suit”

A scene spoken and signed from “Children of a Lesser God”

David Henry Hwang’s “Yellowface”

Culture Clash’s “Water and Power”

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean”

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Perestroika”

The goal clearly to articulate a theater of diversity and inclusion, to speak to Gordon Davidson’s founding ethic for the theater and how Mr. Ritchie has carried this forward in the past 12 seasons. However, Center Theater Group’s history of diversity is not as simple as as these selected plays.

Center Theatre Group’s future is challenging and those celebratory words of President Kennedy can offer new guidance: “soundly based in the life of the community.” What does that mean for a diverse Los Angeles of the 21st century?

Center Theater Group nodded toward this future by including young diverse voices of today’s high school students in celebration. Artistic Director Michael Ritchie centered his gala speech around the email of a student who credited CTG’s programs with her success in college. He also made reference to students seeing plays at Center Theatre group and being transformed, walking out taller because they had seen their stories portrayed onstage. But in how many of the plays is this truly the case? In the past? Or in this promised future?

What was clear on Saturday night was that founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson’s artistic priorities illuminated a path for the theater’s first decades. It was also clear that Center Theater Group recognizes their value and impact to both Los Angeles and the American theater. It’s where these fundraising pitches become artistic commitments and choices that the theater’s next 50 years will be determined. There is no question that Center Theatre Group’s gala told a compelling story of the past, how much it tells us about their future is a story is still being written.