Applying to Kirk Douglas’ ‘Block Party’

A couple of days ago, Center Theatre Group (CTG) announced their upcoming season for the Kirk Douglas Theater.

What caught my eye was not the shows they announced but a new idea for CTG, something they are calling “Block Party,”

To celebrate the vibrant theatre of our city, we’re premiering Block Party—three recent productions from local theatre companies, highlighting some of the best work our town has to offer.

The basic idea is simple: remount three shows that were produced in the last year and a half at one of Los Angeles’ 99-seat theaters. Essentially, it’s a transfer of a successful show to a mid-sized space (the Kirk Douglas is just above 300 seats). The promise? Give great shows that played in a smaller theater a platform to speak to a larger audience, additional resources, and an opportunity to expand audience and impact.

This is a great idea. Let me say that again, this is a great idea and a critical missing piece in LA’s cultural infrastructure (as I wrote about several months ago).

This should be Center Theatre Group taking a leading role, identifying some of the best of LA’s intimate theater, and throwing their resources behind a small company to grow an audience for both the theater and LA.

But it’s not.

If you dig into the “Block Party” announcement, the project guidelines, and the application each company has to fill out, you see this program looks more like a grant application than an artistic decision.

Instead of picking, straight away, the three shows that Center Theatre Group wants to present at the Kirk Douglas Theater, they are asking any interested company to submit an application and, in essence, argue for why they are the best fit.

Think of it this way: it’s a bit like someone saying ‘I’d be interested in going on a date with you, but before we do I’d like you to write a couple of essays on why you think I should date you. Oh, and by the way, I’ve asked 249 of your closest friends to fill out an application too because I don’t know them that well and I want to make sure I pick the right one.’

Sort of takes the romance out of it, doesn’t it?

By making every company apply to be included they’ve turned an artistic decision into a bureaucratic one.

Now, if we were talking about shows that had not been produced, about a leap of faith in a new idea, then maybe this makes sense but the very point of this initiative is to transfer or remount a show that’s already been done.  The proof of concept is the produced play. The evaluation process: sitting in the audience not reading an application!

The reason to transfer these shows is because you, or someone who works for you, saw this show and was blown away and said something like ‘this show must be seen by our audience, by a bigger audience, by Los Angeles!’  Yes, you’ve got to do your due diligence and confirm schedules, budgets and the like. But if you want to go out to dinner Friday night you don’t ask everyone you know about their schedule – just the person you love.

Instead, Center Theatre Group has created a six-month long process that’s going to require significant effort and resources from small companies that are already cash-strapped, capacity-constrained, and struggling to keep afloat. On the way to their decision in December, Center Theatre Group is going to disappoint a lot of companies by saying no.

Folks truly connected to LA’s small theater community could give you a shortlist in an afternoon and probably come up with three plays in a week. What Center Theatre Group’s process tells you is that they aren’t truly connected to this work and they are risk averse in making what, let’s face it, is a modest but meaningful commitment to LA’s small theater: they are going to pay for the production, two weeks of rehearsal, a $2,000 company fee, and 11 performances. That’s not nothing but it’s not a significant investment for a company of Center Theatre Group’s size and fundraising capacity.

Art is about taking risks. Remounting an existing production is about passion and belief. Unfortunately, while we should applaud Center Theatre Group for recognizing the great value in LA’s intimate theaters, their application process reveals they are not willing to risk that passion and belief.