In deciding when to reopen its three stages after the pandemic shutdown, the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles chose to play it safe. While some Southern California theater houses welcomed audiences in the fall, CTG decided to wait until February to open the midsize Mark Taper Forum, and until March to open its smaller hall, the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
But for its biggest space, the Ahmanson Theatre, the leadership took a risk. The critically acclaimed London and Broadway adaptation of A Christmas Carol was available, so they took it for December. It would be “a welcoming and heartwarming family experience,” said CEO and Managing Director Meghan Pressman – the perfect homecoming.
The performances started just as Omicron arrived. As cases of the Covid-19 variant spread through society, the theater was forced to cancel 22 shows, more than half of its scheduled run.
Today, the wave of infections appears to be peaking and the Ahmanson is back in business, with the North American premiere of the British musical Everybody’s talking about Jamie. Protocols have been strengthened; fingers remain crossed.
“We ask almost daily: do we still feel good for both artist safety and public safety?” Pressman said. “What are we hearing from public health officials? Things can change. We’ve become very nimble.”
With this show on its feet and the premiere on the west coast of slave game Scheduled to open the Taper on February 19, the region’s leading nonprofit theatrical organization is returning to something close to normal. This is an extremely important milestone for the Los Angeles theater scene. But a lot has changed in the company since the closure in March 2020.
For one thing, longtime art director Michael Ritchie has retired. Five associate artistic directors jointly assume his responsibilities until a replacement is hired, which is still months away. “We want to clarify our values before asking ourselves what qualities we want in an art director,” Pressman said. “So this research won’t really start until later this spring.”
On the other hand, strict pandemic protocols are in place, covering artists, staff members and the public. For cast and crew members, testing is now more frequent than it was for A Christmas Carol. In addition, key personnel are deployed in a more informed manner.
“We had teams of staff who all self-isolated at the same time because they were in the same environment [when a case was detected]”, Pressman said. “We found ways to have a ‘designated survivor’. We want to make sure that all the people critical to a specific process aren’t in the same place at the same time.”
Stricter rules are also in effect for customers. All spectators will be required to show proof of vaccination to enter the auditorium – and, from February, proof of booster. They will also be required to wear masks, with those of medical grade being “strongly encouraged”.
Of course, many potential clients remain reluctant to spend a few hours in an enclosed space with hundreds of strangers. CTG has set conservative targets for subscription sales – and it’s struggling to meet them, especially at the Mark Taper Forum. “They might be worried about cancellations,” she said. “Hopefully our track record has shown that we are very accommodating and will reschedule as needed.”
The situation is better next door to the Ahmanson theatre. Luckily, this place launched its subscription campaign in February 2020. According to Pressman, renewals had reached an impressive 73% before the campaign was suspended in the spring. The 2020-21 season was canceled, of course, but tickets were simply moved to the 2022 roster of shows — and “the vast majority” of those people clung to their seats.
The Taper and Ahmanson both have plenty of highly anticipated shows to keep people coming back, starting with Jamie, a catchy musical about a teenage drag queen. “It’s about inclusivity and being true to yourself,” Pressman said. “As we return to theater, I love that we’re able to signal that these things really matter — especially after having all these great conversations about representation and inclusivity.”
Issues of identity and sexuality are handled much harsher in Jeremy O. Harris’ West Coast premiere slave play, the Broadway hit that uses the interpersonal issues of mixed-race couples as an R-rated metaphor for our country’s racial divide. “It’s provocative, conversational, and transformative theatre,” Pressman said.
Last fall, Harris threatened to pull the rights to the play, after protests erupted over the absence of any work from female playwrights on the Taper season. He relented after it was announced that the 2022-23 season would consist exclusively of works by female writers.
Pressman attributed this unfortunate timing to the fact that the season was “an amalgamation of years of commitments”. Even before Harris spoke out, “we were absolutely aware that gender was underrepresented,” she said. “In order to restore balance, we had already considered next season, where we had more of a clean slate in our planning.”
Why not just say it? “You don’t usually announce seasons that far in advance, so it wasn’t our instinct to be transparent about ‘we know this season is heavily male, so next season will be heavily female. We have learned that we need to be much clearer about our intentions.”
The Taper season also includes a co-production with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater of a new play by Rajiv Joseph, king james. Tony Award winner Kenny Leon will direct the story of two Cleveland men who bond over their mutual love for basketball superstar LeBron James. Additionally, a new play by Jon Robin Baitz, written and filmed during the pandemic, will be released in the spring as a digital complement to the Taper season.
The Ahmanson season features major drama, The Lehman Trilogy, as well as six musicals, including the premiere on the west coast of Hadesville. It ends in June with director Daniel Fish’s dark and revisionist revival Oklahoma! This production was re-enacted for a stage arc theater – and if recent Chicago reviews are any indication, it works quite well in this format.
For more information on subscriptions and single tickets, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.