Following the departure of Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie in 2021, a rigorous search began for his replacement.
With more than 100 applicants from around the world, it turned out the best choice was a few blocks away, at East West Players, where artistic director Snehal Desai was crushing it at a modest venue with barely more than $1 million in annual revenue. He had produced and directed the three highest-grossing shows in the company’s 58-year history: Allegiance (starring George Takei), Mamma Mia!, and a revival of the Stephen Sondheim classic Assassins.
On April 14, CTG tabbed Desai as its new artistic director, bringing hope to a beleaguered organization that was once a national leader and, under founding artistic director Gordon Davidson, originated the landmark Pulitzer Prize winner Angels in America.
Starting in August, Desai will work alongside CTG managing director and CEO Meghan Pressman overseeing three venues—the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre—a big step up from EWP’s
“Same city, same people, same communities—I’m just moving three blocks,” Desai says about relocating from the scrappy theater to the city’s most venerable performing arts campus. “What is different are the venues, the audiences these organizations have cultivated, the scale of operations, the budget—but with the same ends, to serve the people of L.A. and get them to engage with the theater community.”
Local theater was fraught even before the pandemic with the 2019 passage of California AB5, which was meant to protect freelance artists but has decimated the economics of the “blackbox” theater community where new talent and productions traditionally percolate. Twenty months dark during the pandemic cost CTG about $50 million in ticket sales, forcing it to dismiss more than half of its staff and impose salary cuts on those who remained. Compounding those issues, the Kirk Douglas Theatre is set to close indefinitely because of an adjacent construction project.
As the pandemic recedes, it’s clear from coast to coast that subscribers have abandoned live theater and are not coming back, with many regional organizations closing their doors and vital institutions like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in severe jeopardy. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, between 2019 and 2020, the U.S. arts economy shrank at about twice the rate of the economy as a whole, with production off by 6.4 percent. The performing arts sector joined oil drilling and air transportation as the biggest losers, with unemployment jumping to 30 percent.
“For the large theaters, the bigger you get, the more dependent you are on earned revenue and ticket sales. And that’s what’s coming back super slow and not matching the price of production costs. But on the production-cost side, it’s moving at a higher pace than I’ve ever seen,” is how Desai assesses the gloomy outlook. In response, he offers a vision for CTG that includes coproductions and pre- and postshow activities geared toward creating community.
“The way we’ve been programmed is the lights go dim [and] you sit back and watch what’s happening, as opposed to lean forward and engage with us.”
A former poli-sci major at Emory University, Desai hopes to make dialogue central to theatergoing at CTG. “I’m always thinking about creating work that has a deeper dialogue, and I’m interested in hearing other perspectives than my own,” he says. “I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life, but I want to be challenged in my beliefs, and I want to start a dialogue about that. That’s why we go to the theater, to have that engagement. It’s how we progress together.”
Raised in Pennsylvania, Desai earned an MFA at Yale before beginning his career as a theater director. He became literary manager at East West Players in 2013 and graduated to artistic director in 2016. A career collaborator within L.A’.s theater world, Desai coproduced the David Henry Hwang-Jeanine Tesori musical Soft Power at the Ahmanson in 2018. It later premiered at New York’s Public Theater. “I’m thinking about the broader L.A. theater arts community and where it is, and what visibility it has nationally and internationally as CTG approaches its 60th anniversary, as the World Cup comes, as the Olympics come,” Desai says. “We’re about to have the world’s spotlight on us for five years. How do we want to take advantage of that?”
Another legacy of the pandemic was the Black Lives Matter movement and its awakening to the importance of diversity in the wider arts establishment. When playwright Jeremy O. Harris saw CTG’s lineup for the 2021-22 season, he threatened to pull his Slave Play unless more works by women of color were included. The dustup occurred within months of Ritchie stepping down, underscoring the changing of the guard. At $1,433,830, Slave Play became the highest-grossing five-week engagement in CTG’s history. The impulse under current conditions might be to bet safely on Broadway touring companies, but L.A. already has the Pantages and Dolby theaters for that. Desai’s challenge at CTG is winning younger crowds with money—Silicon Beachers and those from the film and financial sectors—who respond to shows they can interact with like the recent immersive production of The Tempest at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, a selfie magnet that lit up Instagram.
COVID cost CTG $50 million in lost ticket sales.
“We live in a town where people want to be at the center of the experience,” Desai says. “With every project you program, there’s going to need to be something people connect with or recognize. It might be the premiere of a new play and people they recognize in it. The younger generation, celebrity for them is on TikTok or Instagram.”
Across town at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse, they’ve been casting people like Bryan Cranston in last year’s Power of Sail and Zachary Quinto and Calista Flockhart in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elizabeth McGovern recently starred in Ava: The Secret Conversations. All three shows enjoyed extended runs. The Geffen’s executive director, Gil Cates Jr., acknowledges producing accessible, star-driven work so there can be room for modest productions like The Lonely Few, a surprise hit. “You have to be intentional about what you’re going to book and who you’re going to cast,” he says. “Nothing’s guaranteed, but the combination of will, intention, and the art helps.”
CTG’s search for an artistic director is mirrored at the Geffen, where Matt Shakman recently resigned to direct the next Fantastic Four movie—casual evidence that competition for talent is keen, especially with Hollywood lurking as an option. Cates is nonetheless excited at the prospect of change in an era that demands it. “There’s an expression ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ So, in that mentality, what’s the opportunity now?” he says. “It is generally more difficult to fundraise. Some theaters are closing; some are cutting expenses. The truth is, everything is more expensive now, and audiences are coming down. Theaters have a revenue problem more than an expense problem. No one’s being grossly overpaid.”
Last season’s biggest local success story was at the Pasadena Playhouse, where artistic director Danny Feldman, on the job since 2016, scheduled a six-month celebration of the works of Sondheim. Featured were a sold-out version of Into the Woods, with a cast of children from the Pasadena Unified School District at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, as well as three concerts by Sondheim muse Bernadette Peters (also at the auditorium) and two full-scale critically acclaimed musicals at the theater: Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, which were both held over.
“We planned for a major deficit this year, funding the celebration through some of the extraordinary grants we received to help us get on our feet,” Feldman says. “We’re in a new world, postpandemic. The models of the past are simply irrelevant. I think the sooner we get our heads around that, the better.”
To attract audiences and new subscribers, Feldman focuses on programming the basics: classic plays, new plays, and musical revivals. He views diversity and community engagement as central to his theater’s mission. At the Geffen, Cates ranks diversity among the top requirements in its search for an artistic director. And Desai, coming from EWP, where diversity is a core value, is making it central to his mission at CTG.
“If inclusivity is an agenda, then, yes, because I’m always trying to create a space where I can feel welcome, where you can feel welcome, and my family can feel welcome,” he says. “The biggest danger is if we just get caught in our echo chambers—that’s just going to continue to divide us. Now is an opportunity moment for us to make these institutions into what we want them to be: a home for as many folks as possible, representative of our city and uplifting as many of our artists as possible.”