“Theatre is always in danger of becoming extinct. I worry about the next generation and the next,” says Gordon Davidson who served as Artistic Director of Center Theatre Group for four decades. “I worry about my granddaughter who, at eight years old, can do anything on the computer, which is a threat to theatre.”
Audiences, he laments, “have too many alternative forms of entertainment.”
Yet theatre, he observes, always “rises somehow and goes through various incarnations. So I like to believe it’ll always be there but it’s going to be different. It has to be.”
Davidson relaxes on a white sofa at his home in Santa Monica, a two-story house full of art and books. Among the first of theatre’s impending losses, Davidson believes, is the blockbuster musical. “Nobody expected Phantom [of the Opera] to run 20 years.” (The national touring company’s finale is now playing at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, the city that spawned the first national tour of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which ran at the Ahmanson from May 1989 to 1994.)
As a Tony voter this year, Davidson spent more time in New York City last spring than usual. “I couldn’t help but notice audiences, for the most part, are tourists. They want the big musicals.”
You can hear the disapproval in his voice when he laments, “They all dress in shorts – a more informal theatre-going.” For a man who has staged some remarkably big musicals, he is among the first to realize how unsustainable they are. “Musicals like Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Abba [Mama Mia!] and Lion King are spectacular on the stage but it costs so damn much that eventually….”
He considers the reality of the bottom line. “You’re beginning to see it already. I like to keep it as simple as possible. I think the theatre, essentially, is one person telling a story. And the community is gathered around the fire. And as soon as you say ‘Once upon a time’ you’re hooked. I think that’ll always be there but it will be different.”
The southland has changed, Davidson observes, since he first stepped onto the University of California at Los Angeles campus in 1964. He had left behind the familiar gristle of New York to embrace the new allure of running the university’s theatre group. “It was a professional theatre. I built it to 11,000 subscribers” after starting at about 8,000, a feat he managed in three years.
In 1967 Davidson was offered the Artistic Director’s slot at the nascent Center Theatre Group. “And when we went downtown, that 11,000 grew to 13,000 and then to 33,000 subscribers. That was unheard of in its time.”
That number since has declined, Davidson says. “I think it’s down to about 22,000 now. But we topped out at 33,000 because it was the opening season and people were hungry to see what was happening.”
In those early days, Davidson’s press office could take out a full-page ad in The Los Angeles Times “and we could sell out the show. They’d be lined up at the box office. Them days are gone!” He chuckles, acknowledging changes in media have drastically affected the theatre group’s marketing effort. “It’s such a changing scene in the business of theatre, especially with the Internet and blogs, because it takes so much more to reach the public.”
Davidson has an old-fashioned preference for breakfast with coffee and a side of newspaper. But now “you can be through the newspaper in a very short time which I’m very sad about. They’ve shrunk in size” and, seemingly, in advertising potency.
There are more than 3,000 seats to fill when you combine the Center Theatre Group’s (CTG) Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas Theatres and the Mark Taper Forum. Davidson fondly remembers the days when season subscribers drove ticket sales. “I’m a big fan of having that audience there with the notion you can try anything because they’re regular theatre goers. Now audiences react more to one-at-a-time sales.”
That a guy like Davidson could count on regular and recurring audiences points to today’s strain: While some of those regulars would complain about a particular show and not ever subscribe again, he says, “Some would understand what I meant when I likened a season to having a good meal: It starts with the appetizer, then the first course, then the main course, then dessert. Everything is different. Now, you may like the salad better than the soup but you have a whole dinner. That’s what I’ve always believed in: Come and have the dinner.”
Davidson didn’t go after thematic ideas in the early years but given CTG, with its eccentricities and cyclical nature, eventually saw the birth of seasons with “character.” He says, “Things became apparent because of what was going on in the world. It became a little forced: The Season of Adventure or the Season of Political Intrigue. It didn’t matter. We could always find something and mold it.”
He enjoyed talking about the season in those terms. “We did want a coherent season. That’s flipped around now. Center Theatre Group, especially the Taper and the Douglas, is using something that I worked hard at and believed in: Audience diversity.”
If New York was a melting pot in the mid 1960s, Los Angeles was a boiling stew. “We had staged The Deputy at UCLA. It was 1965, my second year here. It’s a play about Pope Pius [XII] and his silence during the Holocaust, a very touchy play for a Catholic community.
“They started to picket it. A remarkable man, Franklin Murphy, who was the chancellor at UCLA, went out and talked with them and said, ‘Look, this is a university and we explore all kinds of thought and differences and the complexities of all that. No one can tell us what not to do’.”
Davidson draws in a breath. “My point is that I stepped out of a preview of The Deputy at Schoenberg Hall and there was smoke in the distance and red skies. I asked what that was and someone said it was the Watts Riots. I didn’t know what Watts was or what it meant and I was hungry to know. “If someone had said Harlem, I would’ve known. I vowed from that time on that somehow I had to give voice and to build bridges for social and cultural reasons because it better represents who we are. We started workshops and play development: The African American workshop and the Asian American workshop and what we called Other Voices which included the wheelchair-bound.”
Davidson brings up another group that got his attention: Hearing impaired audiences. He directed Children of a Lesser God in 1980, a story about a speech teacher who falls in love with a deaf woman who works at a school for the hearing impaired. It garnered John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich Best Actor/Actress Tony nominations and a Best Director’s nod for Davidson. He says most performances were in American Sign Language. “Most of the [CTG] staff learned to sign. John learned as well,” he recalls.
“The word about John was that he had a particular dexterity with sign language because of his piano playing and because of his father [the acclaimed pianist Artur Rubinstein]. By the time we got to Big River, we had developed a company where you couldn’t always tell who was voicing and who was signing because everybody could do at least a little of both.”
He points to a particular moment in the production. “It was after the singing and dancing in both sign language and [spoken] English. Suddenly the music cut out and there was absolute silence. The only thing happening was they were signing their song. It was so moving. You then had a new appreciation for what it was to be in the deaf world.”
The production of Children put Davidson and the theatre more in touch with the deaf community and with deaf artists. Deaf West Theatre was organized in 1991. It produced A Christmas Carol in 1995 which began Project DATE (Deaf Audience Theatre Experience). You could find Davidson in the audience at Deaf West productions and he became friends with the company’s founder and artistic director Ed Waterstreet. That friendship formed the basis of future co-productions, including Big River in 2002 and Pippin in 2009.
Still, Davidson believes some of the most effective shows CTG has staged over the years are ones that speak to the racial or ethnic diversity of southern California. “Zoot Suit, Chavez Ravine and Flower Drum Song brought in diverse audiences. The more diverse, the better. So when Latinos came to see Zoot Suit, they were sitting next to Westside white people and Asian people and African Americans. And that combination is dynamite because each reaction is different.”
What’s more, Davidson says, “It gives permission to laugh at something you otherwise would say, ‘Oh my God, I would never laugh at that!’ because the person next to you, or the whole section, is going wild.”
CTG’s production of Zoot Suit in 1979 led to a Best Featured Actor Tony nomination for Edward James Olmos. But it flopped in Davidson’s hometown. “New Yorkers didn’t know what a Latino or Chicano was then.” They knew only of Puerto Ricans. “There were three Mexican restaurants in New York. Now, you can’t go a block without one. But the image in New York then by regular theatergoers, and people in general I think, was that Latino meant Puerto Rican. And we were living in a time in which the Puerto Ricans were angry and wanted to be heard. They were [often mentioned in the press for being] involved in slashings on the subway.”
He says he’ll never forget the New York Post, “which had become ‘that’ kind of newspaper.” A tabloid. “That, and the Daily News and Daily Mirror, fanned the flames of that kind of danger and unruly behavior. It was a big obstacle to overcome.”
Zoot Suit was playing in the Winter Garden Theatre, “the home of West Side Story and Funny Girl, all those big, popular shows. And Luis [Valdez, playwright], God bless him, wanted to be the first Latino playwright on Broadway. I urged him to start off-Broadway in a theatre like the old Second Avenue Theatre but he didn’t want to. God bless him, he had that opportunity and he chose it – and the investors,” Davidson stops to laugh, “almost lost their money. But it was still a proud moment for us at the Mark Taper.”
Looking back 30 years, Davidson takes pride in that “the audience is broader now and there’s a better understanding, not of just racial understandings in America, but global as well. I think we did our work and I was very proud of how popular it was here.”
That theatre makes an effort to challenge audiences is paramount to Davidson. “Absolutely. You have to do that. You don’t exist without that in this city,” a city Davidson has grappled with getting his arms around because of its size and horizontal nature, unlike the vertical New York.
“Theatre can deal with moral issues in a way that puts the question to the audience and they have to do some of the work themselves.” Audiences, he believes, must try harder in the performance theatre than the movie theatre. “In great movies, you don’t have to do any work. It’s all up there. You see it through the eyes of the film artist. But in the theatre, when it’s live, you can’t escape it.”
Davidson says he always believed that his job was to “help the audience discover things by themselves rather than being told or being lectured to. I’m not a big fan,” he says, “of plays that say ‘this is the way to behave’.” He recalls Michael Cristofer’s controversial play Black Angel. “It’s a play that deals with a [German] SS officer who burned a French village and served time in jail. He comes to France to live out his life, not in that same village, but a village like it. He’s an intelligent guy and talks about poetry and philosophy with the town’s mayor. A French reporter finds him and fans the flames of hatred. I’m not excusing what the officer did but to exact revenge raises all kinds of moral issues.
“So I did a discussion afterward. One person raised his hand and said this was the worst play he’d ever seen! It offends him; he hates it. I had learned to answer that kind of comment by asking the audience whether they agree. Inevitably, someone will say, ‘No, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen!’ People argued and got excited.”
He said there was another person who spoke. “A lady up in the corner said, ‘Mr. Davidson, I have a number on my arm’ and I thought, oh, this is going to lead to trouble. But she said the danger in talking about the Holocaust and the terrible things people did in the name of Hitler was that they became monsters in people’s minds. Having been in camps, she said, these people become unreal, invincible, larger than life. Then she said, ‘I feel they are people and people do terrible things.’ It puts the hook back in,” Davidson says, “and I understood that. It was a revelatory moment and I think the theatre – and only the theatre – can do that.”
When you take on a controversial topic, Davidson says, you had better do it with innovation. “I don’t think the answer is putting Hamlet on a motorcycle. And, if I never see another projection on a stage, even though I’ve used them myself, I’ll feel satisfied. You see it once, okay. Three times, okay. But by the seventh time, it becomes a substitute for reality. You can do zillions of those and they seem clever and hip but damn it, it robs the performance and the work. It takes away something.” The human spirit? “Yeah. It takes away perception, the idea of being there.”
He blames CNN.
“When I started the theatre in 1967 in downtown [Los Angeles], there were three networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. And something called Public Television. Those entities didn’t have the kind of reach networks have today. So when I did In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer or The Trial of the Catonsville Nine [1970 Best Director Tony nomination], I was bringing to the audience a point of view and story for practically the first time.”
It’s so different today. “Now, when you take on a subject like that you’d better come up with some original way of doing it and some original insights because everybody’s been bombarded with those images. One thing that drives me crazy about CNN, for example, is that they keep showing the same clip of film. Even if they change the narration, it’s still the same clip. A soldier running. A guy on a stretcher. People looking at their bombed-out house. It’s all background. It’s not the fresh revealing of a point of view.” That said, he gives one well-known reporter his due. “Anderson Cooper is not just on the battlefield, he’s behind the enemy line. You can’t be more immediate than that.”
Davidson has seen theatres flush with money and, at times, at the precipice of closing. Somehow, he finds that threat liberating. “When you’re forced to do something with less money, it opens up new possibilities and new ways of interpreting. But 99 seats,” he points out, “can only take you so far.”
When Davidson arrived in Los Angeles in 1964, he found many small theatre companies forming. “You had actors coming out of drama school. Many of them would unite as a class, wanting to stay together and become a company.” It’s a practice that continues today: Coeurage Theatre, for example, is comprised of recent Cal State Fullerton graduates. Theatre of NOTE was founded in 1981 by several UC Irvine alums.
“But back then, they were showcases, doing a play to be discovered and move on to film. That always saddened me.” It also frustrated Davidson that actors often worked “under non-Equity conditions and would change their names or kick back money out of desperation to be recognized. These companies would focus on the classics because that’s just company work. They were fulfilling another social and cultural responsibility by keeping the classics alive.”
And, if you do them well, he says, “and if you understand them both by training and by leadership with brilliant directors, you can do something.” But money, he notes, will always be a problem. “Actors finally prevailed on their own union to alter the rules so they could function in a legitimate framework even though they didn’t earn much money. The thought was that by waiving these rules, some of these companies would evolve into the next level of performance. They could go from 99 seats to 300 seats or 500 seats.”
Yet each night, when the curtain drops, actors generally won’t be able to support themselves. “I don’t think a living wage is possible,” says Davidson. There just isn’t enough money brought in by stage plays, even ones on Broadway. “I don’t know how Equity can ever match the simple needs of people who have to stay alive and make a living of it.” That’s why actors teach, he says. The exception, however, is the big star.
“I saw Fences when I was in New York this spring and Denzel [Washington] was wonderful in it.” But he didn’t walk out the side door, down a couple blocks and board a train. “There was a big black Suburban SUV parked right across the gate from where the actors come out. The cops are nervous because of the crowd. Suddenly the gate opens and Denzel makes a beeline for the car. I was really amazed by the power of a star.”
So, while 99 percent of actors work for gas money, or take on a job or two or more on the side, the union, Davidson says, isn’t “addressing what the challenge is.” Yet the world, he believes, still needs a body of actors to retell the story of Hamlet for the next generation, like his eight year old granddaughter who doesn’t yet know the story.
To steal a line from Kaufman & Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, “There’s always people that like to work – you can’t stop them. Inventions, and they fly the ocean!” Actors and directors and producers and theatre managers, Davidson believes, will continue to work, to struggle, to survive, and to reach out in the process no matter what.
Like Davidson, CTG’s current artistic director, Michael Ritchie, worked in New York theatres, stage managing more than 50 shows on and off Broadway. He was appointed producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1996 and joined CTG in 2005. I asked Davidson whether he believes Ritchie continues his mission of bridging communities and ethnicities.
“I think he wants to,” Davidson says. “I think he’s approaching it differently. I was concerned when he canceled the workshop component of our program because that’s where I thought people would be introduced and find their way in and be encouraged to create. He didn’t want to call it ‘development’. He called it ‘production’.”
Davidson feels that is too big a leap because it was through development “that Children of a Lesser God came to be and how Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle came about. They all went through a process. I think he’s finding his way and he’s certainly done some interesting plays. I hope he continues that.”
After having such a strong voice in LA theatre for four decades, Davidson’s participation at Center Theatre Group is more subdued these days. “I’m still a member of the board,” he says, “but not a voting member. I’ve had 38 years. Michael’s had five. And it takes time, you know?”
He adds that his tenure was in a “very, very different time. There’s always a money problem but never quite like this,” he says. “It’s very inhibiting. I took many chances in all three theatres and those chances, I think, paid off. It’s tougher to get audiences now because of all the other attractions – the total volume [of alternatives] is overwhelming.”
Theatre may not be a way to make a living, he believes, “and it may not be a way to immerse yourself in a life. Take Chekhov, for instance. The pain and truth of The Cherry Orchard, let’s say, speaks to generations. I always thought about doing that as my last play,” he says through a chuckle, “because it’s about chopping down the old cherry tree. If I could have, I would have done it in repertory with King Lear because one is about giving away the kingdom and the other is about bringing one to an end.”
It’s not that his life in theatre is near over. In fact, he and his wife, Judi Davidson, once again will lead a tour of theatres in Europe in January. It’s become a regular excursion. As he plans the trip, he can reflect on the dozens of plays he has produced and directed. Their framed posters line both walls of the stairwell that leads to his home’s second floor. And behind him stands a two-story cottage, occupying a good chunk of his backyard.
It’s where Bertolt Brecht set up his typewriter. “Back in the ’30s, it was such an extraordinary time,” says Davidson. “It was a time when the intellectuals, mostly Jewish intellectuals and artists, fled Europe and wound up here. I think that’s partly because of the movie business and partly because they could see the ocean down the street.
“Salka Viertel, a pretty famous woman of her time, an actress and screenwriter, and confidante of Greta Garbo, held salons here in this house. They’d meet every Sunday, just like they would in Europe. People were poor then but they would dress formally. They’d talk and argue.” And during Davidson’s long residency, “[British playwright] Christopher Hampton stayed there. Arthur Miller stayed there. They were all here so there are wonderful ghosts in this house.”