jakub | May 1, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | Snehal Desai: At Last, a Roadmap for CTG

Snehal Desai. (Photo by Kim Newmoney)

L.A.’s biggest theatre is back in the ring after nearly a year on the ropes. Announcing a new subscription season under the banner “One CTG,” Center Theatre Group is banking on its unified and revivified brand to raise interest in all of its programming, including three shows at the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum and four shows at its 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre. A separate “add-on” program called CTG:FWD will also offer three shows, two at the Taper and one at CTG’s smaller Westside venue, the Kirk Douglas Theatre. That’s a lot less programming than CTG did in past seasons, but it’s a start.

The Taper roster kicks off in the fall with a new Deaf West take on Green Day’s American Idiot, to be directed by Desai himself; continues in January with Larissa FastHorse’s identity-shifting farce Fake It Till You Make It, initially scheduled for summer 2023 but a casualty of last season’s shuttering; and concludes with a new take on Hamlet from boundary-breaking director Robert O’Hara. The Ahmanson, meanwhile, starts early next year with the U.S. premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, another anthology of the late songwriter’s work, this time starring Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga; then continues with two acclaimed shows from last season on Broadway, Lola Chakrabarti’s Life of Pi and Michael Arden’s staging of Jason Robert Brown’s harrowing musical Parade. A fourth musical is yet to be announced for the Ahmanson.

Getting the Taper back on track after a dark year was the hot potato handed to Snehal Desai, the theatre’s new artistic director, even before he took the job. Last June, just two months after his historic appointment was announced, CTG dropped the bombshell that it would cease production on its then-current season and would not program a 2023-24 at all, while it shored up resources after a reopening season that had performed well below expectations at both of its major downtown L.A. venues. Widely seen as among the most dramatic signs of post-Covid-lockdown contraction, the Taper cuts sent shock waves through the nonprofit theatre industry and gave notice that reopening did not equal recovery at even the nation’s most well-heeled theatres.

The Ahmanson never ceased programming, and the theatre’s smaller Westside stage, the Kirk Douglas, is currently mostly closed due to nearby construction but is not out of the picture. Still, bringing back the Taper in tandem with the Ahmanson—two longtime pillars of L.A. culture which share the L.A. Music Center Plaza with the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—has clearly been the main lift of Desai’s tenure so far, alongside managing director Meghan Pressman.

I spoke to Desai, who previously served as artistic director of East West Players, yesterday about audiences, artists, and the state of the institution he’s inherited.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations. I’m so glad that the Taper is back, first off. I’m also encouraged by the programming you’ve announced so far. I just want to start with how this last year has been for you.

SNEHAL DESAI: We had our gala last night, and I said, “The first year has been nothing short of adrenaline-filled, let’s put it that way.” In these times that are so challenging, there is also a lot of opportunity to question how we did things before and where we want to go. Are we matching what folks’ needs are these days? Are we doing separate seasons at all of our venues during this time of transition, or should there be one central unifying season for CTG going forward under one artistic vision? It’s not that CTG doesn’t have folks coming; we have tens of thousands of folks, it’s just that we’re not necessarily getting folks to move within our venues, from the Ahmanson to the Taper to the Kirk Douglas. If we allow that, it really changes the equation—particularly at the Taper, which has obviously been the most focused area and the place that has been the most challenging to find a model that works and is sustainable.

How is this different from the way the seasons used to be sold?

We used to have independent seasons for the Taper and Ahmanson. The Taper would have five or six shows, and the Ahmanson would have up to nine shows. So signing up for one of the venues each year was plenty for many folks. But there were challenges to that, and some of our thinking was, are we just programming to fill out seasons, or are we really doing what we need to do? What is the model that can help all three venues, in terms of introducing new audiences to them? We want to build and welcome new audiences, but also one of the first things we have to do, for me as a new artistic director, is establish a relationship with our existing audience and community. So now there is one subscription for both Ahmanson and Taper subscribers, and we’re asking them to go on a journey between the two spaces. That really is helpful, because there are certain shows that want a more intimate experience—everything isn’t right at the Ahmanson—and vice versa.

Also on the back end, we used to have organizational structures for each venue, a production team for each. Now we can have one production team that can move between the Taper and the Ahmanson. Along those lines, another thing we’ve looked at is how much simultaneous programming we’re doing, as well as the balance of how much we’re producing versus presenting. The Taper is still a pretty sizable venue, and producing at that scale is pretty significant. So that’s where I wanted to focus, particularly for this next season in terms of our producing.

We actually have a piece in our current print issue about the subscription model, which argues essentially that while it may not be what it used to be, it is far from dead—many theatres still rely on it. I’m intrigued that you’ve basically doubled down on that model.

I wouldn’t use the term “doubled down.” I think we’re actually trying to find flexibility within that model—a lot more porousness and openness that allows more gateways of entry and access, and also to explore models where we aren’t solely reliant on that. We’re trying to break it apart in a new way. But yes, we still are very much reliant on subscribers as kind of a baseline of support as we go into the season. We still have tens of thousands of subscribers.

I think the season you’ve announced looks exciting. But no matter what I think of it, it’s got to make a huge difference in terms of raising interest. As opposed to just saying in the abstract, “Please save our theatre because it’s the right thing to do,” you can now say, “Wouldn’t you like to see these shows?”

We also did a lot of interim programming that reminded people of what we do. You know, I led a transition moment like this before. When I started at East West, I came in after a longtime leader and we were in a really hard financial place. What I realized was, when the chips are down, you can’t cut your way out of these situations. You have to remind folks of what they’re missing out on. So this past year we still programmed a lot at the Taper; we committed to doing something every month, in different formats and in partnerships, welcoming local organizations, doing more music. I’m an old-school artistic director in that—I don’t talk about it in terms of subscriptions so much as I look to a season as a way to engage in a sustained dialogue with our community and our audience, and to create a journey you can go on over the course of a year.

Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum. (Photo by Tom Bonner)

I’d love to talk about the shows themselves, starting with American Idiot. I love that show and I love Deaf West, but I did not see this one coming.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how we’re starting next fall, right before the election—where we’re going to be as a country is really hard to tell, but I want to create art that is in dialogue with the moment we’re in. That’s how we landed on American Idiot. We were thinking about all these political musicals, and that one came back, and I thought about what it says about the youth of the time, who they were and what they were wanting. And then I thought, what happens if we take this metaphor of feeling like we’re screaming in a world that is deaf to what we’re saying, and inverted that? That’s where the concept to go to Deaf West and talk to DJ Kurs about a new version came about.

It’s also good to see Larissa FastHorse’s farce back on the schedule after last year’s cancellation.

It was nothing about the play; we just had to pause. The finances were really bad. But we were committed to it, and we did a workshop last fall, and we’re partnering with Arena Stage, so it will also be a part of Hana Sharif’s first season. A lot of folks are like, how do you decide where something goes? Again, after the fall we’re about to have, I think we’re going to need some laughs. It is a very, very funny play. The other thing is, now that I’ve been there for a year, we’ve been able to build more support around the production and the play. We’re going to make sure that Larissa is not the only Native voice during this period; we have this artist residency program, and Native Voices is now at CTG. We have folks like Madeline Sayet developing work. That is how I create, and it’s a model that comes from what I learned at East West and from other theatres of color and culturally specific institutions.

Robert O’Hara doing Hamlet sounds juicy. How did that come about?

The Taper is well known as a playwrights’ theatre. I want it also to be a place for visionary directors. When I was putting together my first season, I knew I wanted to do a classic—I want to bring back a classic every year at the Taper—and I was like, who do I want to see do a classic? Robert is at the top of the list. He and I have known each other for many years, so we started pitching projects back and forth, and he said: I have this idea for Hamlet that feels right to do in L.A. He wants it to be noir, very Hitchcockian and Lynchian—this forensic investigation of passion. As soon as he started describing it, I started to see it, and I was like: done.

In his description of the show Robert says, “There will be blood.” That made me think, while there might not have been any actual blood shed in the past year at CTG, there were probably some painful choices about what you could and couldn’t program.

Yes, this season is just the start. We have so much in the pipeline. Artistic leaders are struggling: There are so many new artists and new work we want to do, and there are only so many slots in the season. So it’s figuring that out and also building an audience that is game for that, that wants to go and experience a new voice for the first time and be a part of that discovery and support. I don’t know that we have that in all of our institutions at the moment. Because we’re still dealing with some construction stuff at the Kirk Douglas, I wasn’t able to fully program the season there that I want. But we have no shortage of works; one of the hardest things has been with works we had to just give a longer timeline. Also, being at a big institution like CTG, the question around performance rights is a very different conversation; they can actually be really hard to get. So I’m very happy with the season we landed with at the Taper, but it’s not where we started.

It’s nice to think of art as not being zero sum, but obviously a season only has so many slots. I think you’ve made the most of the ones you’ve got.

I always say, an artistic director’s first season, even if they can’t do everything, symbolically shows where they are. I hope folks see it as a roadmap of where we’re going. It’s not going to do everything out of the gate, but we’re on this path and we will continue and expand from here.

Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre.

Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!

Source link