Travis Preston is the Dean of the CalArts School of Theater and Executive Artistic Director for the CalArts Center for New Performance. Below, Mr. Preston reports on recent efforts of live theater to shake off the effects of the pandemic and venue shutdowns, as well as initiatives to create a more inclusive environment in the industry.
Is there any other industry that’s struggled as much as live theater in the past two years?
Reduced social distancing and widespread vaccination may have helped theaters nationwide slowly reopen their doors and employ artists and technicians who were out of work since 2020. However, many theaters have yet to return, unable to afford the costs of upkeep with reduced attendance, according to Travis Preston.
Other theaters are facing unrelated issues. In Los Angeles, the Center Theater Group has sparked controversy with its announcement of the upcoming season.
Here, Mr. Preston provides the latest update on the Center Theater Group’s recent announcement.
Center Theater Group Forced To Look At Lack of Women In 2021-2022 Season
During its hiatus, artistic directors and decision-makers were forced to take a closer look at the opportunity inequities that existed within their programming. With movements like “We See You, White American Theater,” it seemed as though there would be a marked change in the future of theater across the country.
Center Theater Group, one of Los Angeles’s most prestigious theater organizations, is known as a vehicle for bringing new exciting theatrical works to the west coast. However, when it recently announced the season’s programming for the Mark Taper Theatre and the Kirk Douglas Theater, audiences and artists alike were shocked to discover the lack of diversity present in its comeback season, according to Travis Preston with CalArts.
Although Center Theater Group’s upcoming season has an array of playwrights of color, there was only one female playwright featured in a group of all-male authors. The single female author that was featured in the season was a revival of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” Local critics and theater patrons felt that the oversight of equal opportunity for females was blatant, and changes to the season were encouraged.
Jeremy O’Harris, whose twelve-time Tony-nominated play Slave Play is making an exciting eight-week comeback to Broadway stages, was slated to make its Los Angeles debut during the 2021-2022 season at Center Theater. However, Mr. Preston reports that the author used his platform to critique the oversight. He shared with his 50 thousand followers on Twitter that he would be pulling Slave Play from programming due to the lack of female representation. He then suggested a few of his favorite young female playwrights that the organization could take a look at.
Other playwrights who have voiced their shock and dismay at Center Theater programming include Sarah Shulman and Jessica Gold. Schulman shared on Twitter her frustrations of a career as a playwright in an inequitable landscape and how the news of the lack of representation within CTGs upcoming season was infuriating.
Reshaping the 2022-2023 Season
CTG responded to this public outcry with a statement that said that they “can do better,” and later released an update from the artistic team detailing future action they intend on taking to remedy their oversight.
Travis Preston relates that in the letter, Center shared that they were committing to showcasing all women-identifying or non-binary playwrights in the entire Taper 2022-23 season as well as to have a BIPOC majority season. In this letter, Center also dropped the information that they will be instating a new Artistic Director to program future seasons. They will replace Michael Ritchie with someone that aligns fully with their values and commitments to change.
O’Harris tweeted the open letter stating that he, his team, the artistic directors at CTG, as well as other community members spent a week and a half discussing the issues and necessary resolutions until all sides were satisfied.
In light of these new commitments, O’Harris and CTG shared that Slave Play will remain the opening production in the upcoming season at the Taper.
In The House Ticket Program
In addition to all the progressive programming changes happening at CTG, the theater also recently shared a new program called In The House, according to Travis Preston. This program will offer free tickets to schools, colleges, and non-profits in the LA area. These tickets will be available for early performances of all productions on both main stages, plus a few shows at the Ahmanson Theater, such as “A Christmas Carol.”
This program will be in partnership with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles. Each mentor and mentee match from the Big Brothers Big Sisters Organization will receive an invitation to attend all the productions at all CTG venues during the upcoming season.
This program is a part of Center’s growing work around equity, diversity, access, and inclusion to bring more cultural activities to those who may not otherwise have access in the LA area.
When so many people were looking forward to returning to theaters after years of time-off, many felt dismayed by CTG’s non-diverse season. CTG’s story serves as an example to other artistic directors who are eager to bring audiences back in theater seats, says Mr. Preston: not just any programming will do. Audiences are hungry for inclusive stories and diverse representation.