by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
[dropcap]In[/dropcap] 2011, Gordon Davidson, who died last week at the age of 83, was six years into his retirement from his role as Founding Artisitic Director of the Mark Taper Forum, which he launched in 1967. His successor, Michael Ritchie, had dismantled the in-house writing labs for ethnic minorities and the disabled; these labs were a cornerstone of Davidson’s devotion to the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s. However, as Ritchie explained in 2006, those labs were using up space and resources while not producing anything he could put on the three stages that were in his fold of Center Theatre Group: the Taper, the Ahmanson Theatre (both downtown) and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. The idea of a theater being a “home” for artists, i.e. providing a room, with or without a view, held no interest for Ritchie, who employed a different, simpler model: When any playwright has a play worth producing, they’re welcome to hang around during their production. Until then, they can develop their work off-site. (That’s the way Ritchie described it in 2006, though his Center Theatre Group has had its own playwrights’ lab for several years, in which writers cycle through.)
For Davidson, his theaters in general, and those labs in particular, helped him to understand the hidden corners of a city that enchanted him. If a play could be developed in one of his labs and then presented somewhere else, that was fine with him. In fact, with shifting economics, world premieres grew less frequent on the Taper stage, and even less so by local scribes, even under Davidson’s watch. What mattered to him were relationships with artists, and with local communities that he sometimes admitted he didn’t understand, and which he wanted to understand. These relationships, to Davidson, would help ensure the relevance of his stages.
I sat down with Davidson two times in 2011, once in March and then again in July — respectively, at his Culver City office, and then at a Culver City bistro. Each meeting was about three hours long, for the purpose of collecting his reflections, from outside the institution, on the shifting currents within the local and national environs he had once inhabited. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, I never promoted these interviews for publication. This has nothing to do with their worth, but with a certain hesitation I had on my own ability to capture the breadth of his perspective. He and his views seemed too important to trivialize or reduce, in the way that journalism tends to boil down both vision and authenticity into stock ruminations that tilt into platitudes.
On learning of Davidson’s death, I grabbed my computer to check if I even still had these interviews — in the intervening five years, I’d gone through three laptops. Yet a search for “Gordon” brought up two documents, time-stamped from 2011 and labeled respectively “Gordon Davidson” and “Gordon 2.”
And so, in two articles on @ This Stage, I’d like to present the essences of what we discussed over those six or so hours, with the aim of remaining as truthful to Gordon, to his ambitions, and to his legacy, as he was to me when he so generously shared his thoughts.
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In 1964, the Brooklyn-reared Gordon Davidson was recruited from his job as assistant stage manager at the American Shakespeare Company in Stratford, Ontario, to run a professional theater, The Theatre Group, that operated under the auspices of UCLA Extension Division. The Theatre Group’s productions included such actors as Jack Albertson, Judith Anderson, Edward Asner, Nina Foch, John Kerr, Cloris Leachman, Carroll O’Connor, Paula Prentice, Robert Ryan, and James Whitmore. John Houseman served as its founding artistic director until 1963, after which Davidson was recruited. In 1962, the Theatre Group received a grant of $500,000 from the Ford Foundation to strengthen its artistic and administrative staff. The group used the grant to employ additional professionals and assistants for a five-year period. The Theatre Group ended its connection with UCLA Extension Division after seven seasons when, in 1969, it moved to the Los Angeles Music Center as the resident dramatic company known as the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles.
In 1966, Davidson was selected by Dorothy Chandler to helm a theater, the Mark Taper Forum, slated to open the following year. (Later, his job description would extend to programming the Ahmanson Theatre and the Kirk Doulgas Theatre – all under the rubric of Center Theatre Group.) In 1972, he directed Father Daniel Berrigan’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, about nine Catholic priests jailed for burning their draft cards in protest of the War in Vietnam. Davidson spoke about that production, and that era, with the kind of thrill that happens when theatre connects directly to politics — there were rumors that F.B.I. agents were in the opening night audience. In his tenure, Davidson helped develop and/or produce three plays that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama: Michael Christofer’s The Shadow Box, Robert Shenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. He premiered Luis Valdez’s Chicano classic, Zoot Suit, at the Taper, before directing it on Broadway in what was a naive marketing miscalculation — presuming that L.A.’s Chicanos were interchangeable with New York’s Puerto Ricans. He turned the Taper stage over to performer Anna Deavere Smith, who premiered her solo performance Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; to Anteaus Company, which presented Anton Chekhov’s The Wood Demon (the pre-cursor to Uncle Vanya); to the Latino sketch-comedy group Culture Clash, which premiered plays such as Chavez Ravine (about the history of Dodger Stadium) and Richard Montoya’s Water & Power (about a renegade LAPD street-cop and his politician twin brother), which premiered on the Taper stage in the first year of Davidson’s retirement (2005).
In truth, I didn’t know Davidson as a person as much as I knew him as an institution. My teenage years, and the decades that followed, were punctuated by presentations at the Mark Taper Forum that inexorably opened with Davidson bounding onto the stage, pre-show, to greet his subscribers as though they were his family. His mop of black hair turned silver with the passing years, but his energy seemed boundless.
In 2005, the LA Weekly honored Davidson with its Queen of the Angels Award, for lasting contribution to the Los Angeles theatre. I was that newspaper’s Theater Editor then, and that was perhaps the first time I became acquainted with Davidson, the man. I heard stories of how he could aggravate staff by his shrugging reluctance to make executive decisions, and those he would make came only after what was described as excruciating deliberation.
He frequently spoke of his love of documentaries, and he believed that perhaps theatre’s highest form was the docudrama. (One of his final productions at the Taper was David Hare’s Stuff Happens, a theatrical chronicle of the second U.S. invasion of Iraq. This made his 2011 confession concerning the writing of his own memoir particularly poignant — that he possessed an almost existential anxiety over his experiences crossing over into memoir.
“I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons, one of which is my own version of my story, which I find challenging, and then I get excited, and then I lose faith in what my observation is, or whether I remember it right… It’s just a lot of words.”
And then there was his piquant self-awareness that emerged as modesty, which is remarkable for a man described as the Moses of Los Angeles theatre.
“I never put Los Angeles theatre on the national map. I tried to put Los Angeles theatre on the national map.”
What I will remember most vividly about him is the way his face lit up upon seeing people he recognized — a twinkle in his eye that never faded, and was the window onto a genuinely kind heart.
The National View
Davidson frequently referred to Los Angeles, and to the theatre in Los Angeles, as the art of the possible. So I asked him, in 2011, what is still possible?
“I’ve written essays and think-pieces about a specific play or something. And even as I write and think about the past, I’m very aware that things are changing, even though my perspective is a critical view of where we are, and came from, and whither we goest.
“I don’t mean to sound like the old kvetch from another era, but it was another era — the 1960s were the beginning of the de-centralization of the theatre… whatever there was in the area of culture was multiplied, soon there were hundreds of symphonies, and there was this burgeoning of the non-profit sector. We got used to the beginnings of the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mellon Foundation as major providers. We wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for those foundations.
“Some of those foundations got tired and moved on to other things, but W. McNeil Lowry (the Vice President of the Ford Foundation), he made it his mission to get the Ford involved in the artists, specifically the not-for-profit theatre, which was springing up – in 1963 the Guthrie, 10 years prior was the Stratford Festival (Ontario, Canada); the Lincoln Center Theater was springing up, the temporary one in Washington Square. The Taper came into being in 1967, Arena Stage [in Washington, D.C.] was already out there. It just kept multiplying.”
The Regional Theatre Movement was Originally for Classics, Not New Plays
“The impetus was to create companies devoted primarily to the classics — because those were the works we could do (new plays were being held for Broadway) – actors were being trained in universities and professional schools, but they were really being trained for the performances of Shakespeare and Chekhov and Molière, as they began to serve their communities, the communities wanted them, as they also wanted Beethoven, Brahms.
“I was bitten by the bug of building a company, and I wasn’t classically trained. My first job in the theatre was the American Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford (two years), which led to everything that followed. I was an apprentice stage manager and became an assistant stage manager, and I very much wanted to direct, and the way to become a director in those days was to become a stage manager — no more, for some reason. But they didn’t have directing programs in colleges. In those two years I was there, I saw a lot of interesting work. Some great, some less so. So it was a good way. A heavy dose of exposure.
“So, there I was [in 1964] , inheriting The Theater Group at UCLA, which had positioned itself through [John] Houseman. And so, I started directing.
“I remember standing in the lobby of Schoenberg Hall, during King Lear, and I thought, ‘I know all these people… this is the theatre audience from New York, from the Upper West Side.’ So you didn’t have to train them, they wanted to see this. And that’s when I understood that a serious audience was here.”