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Center Theatre Group's Season Gets Underway, Slowly, Following Covid Shutdowns

Theater returns to LA's Music Center with two shows about identity.

The Ahmanson Theatre is the largest venue operated by Center Theatre Group.
(© Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

In deciding when to reopen its three stages following the pandemic shutdown, Los Angeles's Center Theatre Group opted to play it safe. While some Southern California playhouses welcomed audiences back in the fall, CTG decided to wait until February to open the mid-size Mark Taper Forum, and until March to open its smallest venue, the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

But for its largest space, the Ahmanson Theatre, leadership took a risk. The critically acclaimed London and Broadway adaptation of A Christmas Carol was available, so they snapped it up for December. It would be "a welcoming, heartwarming family experience," said CEO and managing director Meghan Pressman — the perfect homecoming.

Performances began just as Omicron arrived. As cases of the Covid-19 variant spread through the company, the theater was forced to cancel 22 shows — more than half of the scheduled run.

Center: Roy Haylock (better known as Bianca Del Rio) played Hugo/Loco Chanelle and Layton Williams played Jamie New in the West End production of Everybody's Talking About Jamie. They will reprise their roles for the US debut at the Ahmanson Theatre.
(© Johan Persson)

Today, the wave of infections seems to be cresting, and the Ahmanson is back in operation, with the North American premiere of the British musical Everybody's Talking About Jamie. Protocols have been tightened; fingers remain crossed.

"We ask on almost a daily basis: Do we still feel good both about artist safety and public safety?" said Pressman. "What are we hearing from public health officials? Things can change. We have become very nimble."

With this show on its feet, and the West Coast premiere of Slave Play set to open the Taper on February 19, the region's preeminent nonprofit theater organization is returning to something approaching normalcy. That's a hugely important step for the Los Angeles theater scene. But a lot has changed at the company since the shutdown in March 2020.

Meghan Pressman is the Managing Director/CEO of Center Theatre Group.
(© Teresa Castracane)

For one thing, longtime artistic director Michael Ritchie has retired. Five associate artistic directors are assuming his responsibilities jointly until a replacement is hired, which is still months away. "We want to clarify what our values are before we ask what are the qualities we want in an artistic director," Pressman said. "So that search won't really start until later this spring."

For another thing, strict pandemic protocols are in place, covering performers, staff members and audiences alike. For casts and crew members, testing is now more frequent than it was for A Christmas Carol. In addition, key personnel are being deployed in savvier ways.

"We had some staff teams who all went into isolation at the same time, because they were in the same environment [when a case was detected]," said Pressman. "We have come up with ways to have a 'designated survivor.' We want to make sure that all people who are essential to a specific process aren't in the same place at the same time."

Tighter rules are in effect for patrons as well. All audience members will need to show proof of vaccination to enter the auditorium — and, starting in February, proof of a booster shot. They'll also need to wear masks, with medical-grade ones "strongly encouraged."

The Mark Taper Forum is Center Theatre Group's mid-size venue.
(© Craig Schwartz Photography)

Of course, plenty of potential patrons remain reluctant to spend a couple of hours in an enclosed space with hundreds of strangers. CTG set conservative goals for subscription sales — and it's having trouble meeting them, particularly at the Mark Taper Forum. "They might be worried about cancellations," she said. "I hope our track record has shown that we are very accommodating and will reschedule as needed."

The situation is better next door at the Ahmanson Theatre. As luck would have it, that venue kicked off its subscription campaign in February 2020. According to Pressman, renewals had reached an impressive 73 percent before the campaign was suspended in the spring. The 2020-21 season was canceled, of course, but tickets were simply transferred to the 2022 slate of shows — and "the vast majority" of those people hung on to their seats.

Both the Taper and Ahmanson have plenty of highly anticipated shows to entice people back, starting with Jamie, a feel-good musical about a teenage drag queen. "It's about inclusivity and being true to yourself," Pressman said. "As we come back to the theater, I love that we're able to signal that those things really matter — especially after we've had all these great conversations about representation and inclusivity."

Issues of identity and sexuality get significantly tougher treatment in the West Coast premiere of Jeremy O. Harris's Slave Play, the Broadway hit that uses the interpersonal problems of mixed-race couples as an R-rated metaphor for our nation's racial divide. "It's provocative, conversation-leading, transformative theater," Pressman said.

Jeremy O. Harris is the author of Slave Play.
(© Tricia Baron)

Last fall, Harris threatened to withdraw rights to the play, after protests erupted about the lack of any work by female playwrights on the Taper season. He relented after it was announced that the 2022-23 season would be made up exclusively of works by women writers.

Pressman attributed that unfortunate scheduling to the fact the season was "an amalgamation of multiple years of commitments." Even before Harris spoke out, "We were absolutely aware that gender was underrepresented," she said. "In order to swing the balance back, we had already looked toward next season, where we had more of a clean slate in our planning."

Why not just say so? "You don't typically announce seasons that far in advance, so it was not our instinct to be transparent about 'we know this season is heavily male, so next season will be heavily female.' We learned that we have to be much more clear 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 of basketball superstar LeBron James. In addition, a new Jon Robin Baitz play, written and filmed during the pandemic, will be released in the spring as a digital adjunct to the Taper season.

Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley (pictured here at Park Avenue Armory) will reprise their roles in The Lehman Trilogy at the Ahmanson Theatre.
(© Stephanie Berger)

The Ahmanson season features one major drama, The Lehman Trilogy, along with six musicals, including the West Coast premiere of Hadestown. It concludes in June with director Daniel Fish's dark, revisionist revival of Oklahoma! That production has been restaged for a proscenium arch theater — and if the recent Chicago reviews are any indication, it works quite well in that format.

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