July 17, 2003


Don't A.S.K.

Theatre funding organization announces shutdown.


by Rob Kendt

Roughly a year after the death of its philanthropist namesake, Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre Projects has announced plans to shut down Sept. 30. The news comes as a final jolt after a year in which the theatre-funding organization, begun in 1989 by Skirball-Kenis and her second husband, Charles Kenis, drew fire for cutting some popular programs and replacing them with new grant-giving functions. According to A.S.K. co-founder and boardmember Charles Kenis, this programming shift essentially made the organization--which draws its funding from the prestigious Skirball Foundation--irrelevant.


"We no longer do play readings or that sort of thing," said Kenis, referring to A.S.K.'s discontinued Common Grounds festival and other play-development programs, which included lucrative playwriting commissions. "All we've been doing for the past year is passing on grants and money from the Skirball Foundation. They don't need us for that. It's an unnecessary, wasteful step. I don't see the reason for our existence anymore. We've lost interest in doing nothing."


Kenis' comments register as a startlingly brusque dismissal of the organization he and his wife built. Even in its retooled, scaled-back form, A.S.K. had a unique leadership role in L.A.'s sprawling theatre community; it had just announced the first recipients of its Los Angeles Initiative grants, which gave a total of $97,500 to L.A. area theatres committed to producing new work, and will soon announce recipients of its new TIME program, which will bestow six local theatre artists with $45,000 for a year of individual exploration. Though some remained skeptical of the new programs--which would also have included a national "Audrey" award for a noteworthy premiere production--there was a sense that A.S.K.'s new chapter had only just begun, and that the organization's newly directed largesse still might prove to be what executive director Kym Eisner last year promised it would become: a way to "better leverage [our] funds so that we can make more of a difference."


For her part, Eisner was shocked by the news, delivered by her fellow boardmembers--Kenis and his daughter, Andrea Shapiro--before the July 4 holiday weekend.


"There's a great feeling of sadness and mourning over at A.S.K. right now," said Eisner, who worked there for 10 years. "And also appreciation for the history--it's so easy to lose sight of that."


Indeed: A release announcing the closure listed among those "touched" by A.S.K. the playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks, Doug Wright, Maria Irene Fornes, Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner, Mac Wellman, Naomi Iizuka, Marlene Meyer, Donald Margulies, Charles Mee, Luis Alfaro, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jeffrey Hatcher, Neena Beber, Phyllis Nagy, Kia Corthron, Quincy Long, Kelly Stuart, John Fleck, David Rambo, Margaret Edson, Culture Clash, Julie Jensen, Erik Ehn, and Karen Finley, and the directors Liz Diamond, Robert Woodruff, Ruth Maleczech, Anne Bogart, and Richard Foreman--a list which, as one local theatre maven told me, "just scratches the surface" of the organization's impact.


There is talk among some in the community about finding alternative funding for some of A.S.K.'s popular programs, but so far there's been no word from the Skirball Foundation itself about whether it plans to step into the breach; foundation spokespeople were not available by presstime. But while its money is behind two new theatre spaces--a theatre for the use of New York University, and another new space adjacent to the Geffen Playhouse near UCLA--chances are slim that the Skirball Foundation, which Audrey founded with her late first husband, film producer Jack Skirball, to grant a variety of interests, from medical research to film preservation, will be eager to take up the Kenises' pet cause.


Speaking last year about the organization's changes, Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo looked back--only a little prematurely, it turns out--on A.S.K.'s special knack for creating "a sense of community among artists. And it seemed to work without a specific agenda, unlike a theatre, which is looking for pieces they want to put on their mainstage. It was very good at gathering a very eclectic group of artists to mix and mingle over a long period of time, not just one retreat or reading seriesÉ and they threw the theatre Christmas party of the year."


Eisner, the mother of 4-year-old twins who said she'll relish the time off, hailed her organization's "bold choices. If there's anything I want to encourage, it's to encourage artists to keep doing that. We need to find a way to institutionalize that risk-taking, to think ahead and challenge convention. That's how we evolve."


If Eisner talks like she still runs a $2 million theatre-funding organization, you can't blame her. Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre Projects, a bit like the mid-1980s heyday of the city-funded Los Angeles Theatre Center, will be remembered as a theatre institution that quite literally could afford to take risks, which underwrote the first breaks and crucial breakthroughs of major theatre artists, and, perhaps most important, helped introduce the local theatre community to itself and link it to a national scene.


"It was pretty much a desert then," said Charles Kenis of the late '80s theatre environment that inspired him and his late wife to start A.S.K. Last year, in an interview with Back Stage West, he put it this way: "We felt that the theatre was very sick. Our job is encourage better theatre, encourage writers to write better stuff." (Kenis also said at the time: "We'll stay in business as long as there's a theatre.")


The model that A.S.K. adopted, under its beloved literary director, Mead Hunter, was to develop plays with readings, workshops, commissions, and an annual Common Ground Festival of new work, much of it ensemble-created in recent years.


"Play readings are like drilling for oil--it's necessary, to see what the hell you've got," said Kenis last week. "But now everyone's doing them. I don't see the reason for our existence."


Though I tried--as no doubt many genuinely grateful theatre artists have over the years--to impress upon Kenis the immeasurable impact on American theatre of A.S.K.'s taste, authority, and leadership, he seemed unmoved.


"I don't know why everybody's surprised," he said. "Most things come to an end." But he hesitated, relenting for a moment, and added: "I can understand--they don't want it to end."


You got that right. Lamented Mark Seldis, former managing director of the Actors' Gang, now project coordinator for the Music Center's education programs: "It really makes me sad. It isn't just about A.S.K.--it's about what's happening in the culture, in this time of cutbacks, that people are so quick to eliminate funding for the arts." He said he's particularly worried that other grant-giving organizations will take this as a sign: "I'm afraid of the funders saying, 'Well, if Skirball and A.S.K. don't think [theatre is] worth funding, maybe it's not worth funding.' "