June 13, 2002      


Some A.S.K. Answers

Theatre support organization retools mission and staff, with more changes to come.


by Rob Kendt      

The show goes on at Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects--but the curtains haven't parted entirely on the scene change that has been going on since the dismissal of Mead Hunter a few months ago from his longtime post as director of literary programs for the venerable, deep-pocketed theatre-funding organization. In a press release last week, executive director Kym Eisner tried to put to rest some persistent rumors about the organization and to give a sense of the organization's refocused mission as a "local and national resource for the theatre and its artists."


"Contrary to rumor, A.S.K. is not leaving Los Angeles, it continues to have secure funding, and it will not become a producing organization," Eisner wrote, adding that A.S.K. needs to "better leverage those funds so that we can make more of a difference. It seems that, perhaps, if our programming can go deeper and not so wide, it will have more of an impact on artists and how the national theatre community thinks about developing a new piece."


What the release does not say is which of A.S.K.'s 24 programs--ranging from its annual ensemble-based Common Ground festival to its Playwrights in Schools program--will remain and which will be cut in a reorganization designed to clarify A.S.K.'s place on the national and international theatre scene. Certainly "deeper and not so wide" sounds like more money to fewer artists. Eisner explained last week that to "give $15,000 to 30 artists, as we were in one program, is not very effective. We'd like programs to go deeper into the process with artists and institutions. It's time to stop pretending that we're supporting artists by giving a $25 fee--that's embarrassing."


After years of serving playwrights with readings, labs, workshops, and other "developmental" settings, A.S.K. will focus on getting writers' work into mainstage productions, said Eisner. "That's the goal of writers when they sit down to write--that the play is performed, not read. We're not going to produce, but how can we help the artist get there?"


To that end, A.S.K. has already launched a three-year, $400,000 "New Plays, New Ways" program, which partners with four regional theatres specifically to innovate ways to develop new work beyond the "reading/workshop model." So A.S.K. is granting Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre to commission plays the theatre produce, New Jersey's McCarter Theatre to sponsor an artists' retreat, the Minneapolis' Children's Theatre to support "collectively created works," and Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre to start its FringeACT festival, in which this year it presented 35 new plays on its four stages.


Bart DeLorenzo, artistic director of the Evidence Room, has worked in a number of A.S.K. programs, and directed and produced Delirium Palace last year as part of A.S.K.'s Hot Properites program--a producing partnership with the Irvine Foundation and L.A. County at the [Inside] the Ford Theatre. Hot Properties is one L.A.-focused program, Eisner told Back Stage West, that will remain. DeLorenzo, a fan and friend of the canned Mead Hunter, is troubled by trends at A.S.K. and underwhelmed by the rationale for them.


"Every organization needs a little bit of spring cleaning from time to time, but this seems more radical than that," said DeLorenzo. "For an organization to focus on fewer writers and fund more substantial productions sounds like a more typical foundation-granting program to me."


Among those who consulted for Eisner in the organization's new direction was an arts consultant named Dan Miller--who, incidentally, will begin soon as A.S.K.'s new managing director. DeLorenzo doesn't know Miller (who was unavailable for this story) and doesn't know how he's advised Eisner. But DeLorenzo pointed out that many A.S.K.-developed projects receive productions in theatres big and small, without direct production funding from A.S.K., and that the organization's most valuable function, especially in L.A., was 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 series. It would be difficult for an outside consultant to observe this kind of impact over the years." And A.S.K. threw the "theatre Christmas party of the year," he said.


Eisner admitted that it was also tough for her to consider cutting programs she loved. "That's what has made our programs so beautiful--the staff cares about them so much," she said. "But that's not reason enough to keep them. Everyone wants to know which programs we're doing, but the reason we're not talking about that is because we don't know yet." A.S.K. is committed for another "two or three years" to the popular Common Ground Festival, the next installment of which is currently being held through June 23 at UCLA's North Campus. The ongoing process of staff and board reevaluation should result in a revised list of programs by August, Eisner said.


Why was the beloved Hunter let go? Said Eisner: "Mead wanted to do other things with his life." But reached at home, Hunter--who is now considering theatre jobs in Portland and San Francisco--said that's not true: "I did not leave as a result of a mutual decision, for academia or any other venue. I left because I was informed I no longer had a job at A.S.K. I was there for over 10 years--it was a phenomenal place to work. I really did have the best interests of artists at heart."


So does A.S.K., according to Eisner, who argued that the changes at the organization come in response to the needs of its "artistic partners" around the country, not just in L.A. She said the sometimes vituperative gossip about A.S.K. pains her: "People aren't acknowledging what we have done, our contribution. For 12 years there was something great from this family that has given tens of millions of dollars to work that won't get supported elsewhere. I would hope people can remember and respect what the Kenises have given even if they disagree with where we're going."


Reached at his office this week, Charles Kenis--whose wife, Audrey Skirball-Kenis, gives the organization its name--said they founded it in 1989 because "we felt that the theatre was very sick. Our job is to encourage better theatre, encourage writers to write better stuff. We'll stay in business as long as there's a theatre." Kenis referred questions about the changes at A.S.K. to Eisner but added, "Everybody grows up--gets a little smarter with age."