Center Theatre Group counters COVID with a new Digital Stage

Emilee Geist

Los Angeles’ largest nonprofit theater company, Center Theatre Group, said at the end of March that it hoped to stage live performances by fall at all three of its venues: the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas. But by mid-June, the company said it would have to […]

Los Angeles’ largest nonprofit theater company, Center Theatre Group, said at the end of March that it hoped to stage live performances by fall at all three of its venues: the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas. But by mid-June, the company said it would have to lay off more than half of its staff and remain dark until April 2021.

With almost seven months between now and then, and with spring still very much uncertain, Center Theatre Group is expected to announce on Friday the creation of a fourth venue built for the COVID-19 era: the Digital Stage.

This virtual venue will feature content innovated by a newly announced group of theater artists dubbed the CTG Creative Collective. They include playwright Dominique Morisseau; Chicano performance artist, writer and social activist Luis Alfaro; solo theater performer and comedian Kristina Wong; animator, director and designer Miwa Matreyek; performance artist, playwright and educator Daniel Alexander Jones; director, experimental artist and Early Morning Opera founder Lars Jan; the Latino performance troupe Culture Clash; and the magic, clowning and illusionist company Elephant Room.

CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie said in an interview that he would like to make the Digital Stage a permanent fixture, even after the threat of the coronavirus fades. The hope is that the kind of work appearing on the Digital Stage will transcend COVID-related restrictions to establish a new language for theater.

Members of the collective will receive stipends, thanks to a $200,000 grant from an anonymous donor.

“They’ve been engaged to help us create art but also to be a brain trust, a think tank, evaluating where we are now through to what happens when we get back to what we would consider in a normal theater state,” Ritchie said. “They are working both individually and collectively to create projects, sometimes in pairings and sometimes in groups.”

A complete slate of the collective’s offerings has not yet been released, but the future is being teased out with the announcement of a new serialized retelling of “Chavez Ravine,” the Culture Clash play commissioned by CTG.

The show first played at the Taper in 2003 and was revived at the Kirk Douglas in 2015. The new Digital Stage version, which examines the destruction of a Latino neighborhood in order to make way for Dodger Stadium, will feature selected scenes curated into nine innings or episodes that will be filmed on location around the city. It will incorporate music, archival films, period photos, interviews and new performances by Culture Clash members Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza.

Ritchie said another project will feature an exploration of the L.A. landscape through its rivers, roads and highways. The idea is to create a series of app-based audio performances so people can listen to stories about neighborhoods, told by artists, theater makers and residents, as they walk or drive through them.

A TV studio is being set up at Kirk Douglas in Culver City that will allow dynamic recordings of performances for streaming under the banner “Live From KDT.” Multicamera offerings include Alfaro’s three-play series of Chicano adaptations, “The Greek Trilogy of Luis Alfaro,” as well as “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” a one-woman show examining Wong’s leap from reality TV to hyperlocal politics.

Already-filmed performances will be on offer via the Digital Stage too. These include choreographer and CTG associate artist Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake,” “The Car Man, “Romeo & Juliet” and “Cinderella.” The performances will be introduced by Bourne.

“Until the Flood,” which reflects on the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., will be available to stream. Written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith and directed by CTG Associate Artistic Director Neel Keller, the piece was filmed during a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be working in the theater right now, given the fact that we’re not in the theater,” said Ritchie. “We’re not trying to be television or film or radio. We’re trying to be theater.”

A full list of CTG’s Digital Stage offerings, including community conversations, audio theater and educational programming, is posted on the company’s website.

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