From There to Eternity, Part II: Unpublished Interviews with Gordon Davidson on Los Angeles Theatre

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This is Part II of two previously unpublished 2011 interviews with Gordon Davidson (the founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, who died two weeks ago at the age of 83). Here, Davidson focuses on Los Angeles and the need for vision, both for the city and for its theatre. We met on two occasions, about three months apart. Part I focused on the national stage.

[dropcap]Davidson[/dropcap] expressed some frustration with the absence of a comprehensive vision for Los Angeles, and cited the demolition in the 1950s of the privately-owned Pacific Electric (Red Car) transportation system, which, in the 1920s, was the largest and most comprehensive electric, inter-urban rail system in the world. (This was originally developer Henry Huntington’s idea to link his real estate developments, before the era of freeways, or even reliable cars.) Even in the 1920s, Pacific Electric train line covered 25% more mileage (1,100 miles) than New York’s subway system today (842 miles). It was organized around the city centers of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, and it connected cities across Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties. The 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit refers at least allegorically to the theory that General Motors, and other automobile and tire companies, conspired during the 1940s to eliminate public light-rail transit systems across the country — and particularly in Los Angeles — in order to promote the American auto industry. (Though General Motors was responsible for developing cars with luxuries such as personalized heating and air-conditioning and radios, the company had nothing to do with the soaring costs of rail maintenance and Angelenos’ rejection of a public rail line maintenance tax in 1926). In the early 1970s, the last of the Red Car train tracks (running along the median strip of Santa Monica Boulevard from Downtown to the beach) was paved over.

In 2011, Davidson said that the Red Car, and that rail transport in Los Angeles, had been on his mind for about 10 years — that the entire system, once the envy of the world, had to be entirely reinvented from the ground down: “The vision is what’s missing. The notion that [in the 1950s, as the Red Cars were being demolished] a group of city councilmen and power brokers couldn’t look at the map of Los angeles and say, ‘Yes, the surface rail is antiquated and has dangerous crossings, and the auto is king, but we’re going to need it some day. Worst case, let’s leave the tracks and we’ll see. Maybe give our grandchildren something.'”

Giving our grandchildren something was on Davidson’s mind a lot. He wanted very much to give theatre’s legacy to our children, and he believed that could be best accomplished by supporting the relationship between live theatre and the communities in which the theaters are situated.

“When we opened the [Kirk Douglas] theater [in 2004], ” he reflected, “the city government told me that within four months, four good restaurants would open. And they were right. One was The Filling Station, owned by Harrison Ford’s son. To me the only thing that’s missing is a bookstore — which is totally anachronistic now — and a pub.”

Davidson argued that having the Kirk Douglas so close to The Broad (Santa Monica) and with the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Beverly Hills) then in the planning, that LA was starting to see a cluster of mid-size theaters on the West Side.

I challenged Davidson with the idea that if Center Theatre Group really wants to engage in community, it needs to do a better job putting on plays by local authors and with local actors, and that he was part of that syndrome by continually employing out-of-town directors, authors, and actors. He concurred.

“You could always accuse me of doing some version of that. But I always tried to make it mean something, not just throw a bone, but a real relationship, and it takes two to do that. The smaller theaters are looking for help, expertise, a pat on the back, exposure. But we’re supposed to be putting on plays that sell tickets, and too often there wasn’t the kind of artistic discipline on the part of the local talent that would sell tickets. I do think that’s now changing, evolving.

“In the end, it’s dangerous, so much of this talk is bullshit, and I don’t mean it to be. I do believe this: you create exciting environments, and if you can start slowly and build it, in terms of energy and depth and imagination, something will happen. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have stayed in the business that long.

“I do think of Los Angeles particularly is where you can practice the art of the possible. You have to believe in that, in the theatre. Everything is possible, except for Spider Man. [By 2011, the Broadway production of Spider Man, Turn Off the Dark, had devolved into a debacle of technical gaffes and poor reviews.]

On International Programming, the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival and David Sefton at UCLA

The 1984 Olympic Arts Festival assembled (at various venues across the region) performances of the world’s most renowned theatre, dance, and opera companies, as well as some local companies. The entire spectacle was so dazzling, Time Magazine published a cover story on how Los Angeles theatre was finally coming of age. That sentiment hasn’t been expressed in any national publication since.

Originally from Liverpool, England, David Sefton ran international programming at UCLA Live through 2012 with a decidedly Anglophilic bent, bringing in standard bearers such as the Royal Shakespeare Company to experimental troupes, such as the Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment. Sefton’s preference was always for the experimental, which rendered the task of raising money for UCLA Live a perpetual challenge. He left UCLA Live in 2012, and has run the Adelaide International Festival since then.

“I think Sefton did a very good job. He knew how to do it. He did have financial backing from the Board, but that wasn’t the real backing, it was the university — he was pretty self-sufficient, he had some good Board people.

“What was so extraordinary about the Olympic Arts Festival was the sheer size and the possibility to have a real impact on the city. I was involved in it. [Festival Director] Bob Fitzpatrick and [Olympic Arts Committee Chair Peter] Uberroth, by whatever magic, they got it, saw it, and put in $7 million. That was an extraordinary sum of money to bring over the best of the best. Los Angeles saw [Ariane] Mnouchkine and Kantor and Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki.

“It’s almost impossible, even in the Edinburgh situation, to see that level of work by major companies throughout the world, in one place.

“My sadness is that [when] we had money left over, and they created a Los Angeles World Theater Festival and they hired Peter Sellars to run it, he went through the money in two years — gone.

“The killing of the L.A. Festival, it took the it away, it took the heart away, and you can only keep something like that going with the repetition — it’s in the atmosphere. I know that my audiences were more attuned, they brought more to the theater after, you could have a discussion with them about what they’d seen.

“I think that the best thing that can come out of a convention or a festival is people talking about the work. That’s what came out of the Olympic Arts Festival. Everyone was talking about the work. Not, ‘Boy, did they spend a lot of money putting the festival on.’”

Los Angeles, and the Work Generated Here

Davidson spoke critically of much of the work generated here, so I asked him what he imagined to be the problem.

“There are so many issues. Money is an issue, but that isn’t everything — money is an enabler. You have to have a dream. You have to have a little power to do it, that means giving up a lot and not [basing] your thinking on one big hit — that aspect — back up a moment, my feeling is, and I’ve got to make it more my business — there’s a fairly lively scene going on — a great deal of activity with some talent and some imagination in little nooks, crannies, making theatre out of nothing, but more serious than when I came [to Los Angeles] in ‘64. Then, there were virtually only showcase theaters, and I had never seen anything like that — people were acting on a stage to get a job in film, they had to either change their name [to avoid sanctions by Actors’ Equity Association], or kick back money to do it, and therefore they didn’t take it very seriously — except for a few pockets of mostly transplanted New York actors — hence Theatre West and others that had that kind of cadre. In other words, there was a sprinkling of theaters that weren’t just about actors being seen.

“The other thing that was clearly the case was that these people were making their living in television and therefore couldn’t do long runs. And there was a thing called hiatus, which doesn’t exist anyone — everybody shut down for the summer, and that’s how The Theater Group at UCLA [which Davidson was hired to run] came into being. Actors like Lamont Johnson and Jeff Hayden were there to create work. So the actors who were attracted to the The Theatre Group, and I give all credit to the people who began that, and I inherited it and broadened it, were anxious to do theater.”


Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw ( Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.