To counter this, of course, Davidson will point out his Theater for Now productions and the experimental laboratory, where the writer and actor can work secretly, developing their craft. But his critics will point out last spring’s PLAYWORKS as an example of Davidson’s poor judgment in experimental works.
In fact, the strong suspicion about Davidson is that he’s not really committed to avant-garde and experimental work. He’s commercially minded, only his commercial efforts have backfired. He didn’t know Zoot Suit wasn’t good enough for New York because he simply didn’t want to believe it. This, his critics say, is a sign that he’s losing touch and that the Taper is in a stylistic plight.
Stayton goes on to talk about Ron Sossi and his Odyssey Theater as "the best small theater in town," and how his smash L.A. hit An Evening of Dirty Religious Plays got trounced by the New York critics, who described it as "amateurish." (In the latest of a series of L.A. shows protecting themselves from New York’s wrath toward our stages, the 1996 premiere of Oliver Goldstick’s musical hit Dinah Was — about Dinah Washington — won kudos across Los Angeles, including two L.A. Weekly Awards, yet the publicists strategically removed all mention of its L.A. origins when the show went to New York; it did just fine there.)
Stayton was writing for the Weeklyduring a heady time for both the newspaper and Los Angeles theater, with a symbiotic relationship developing between the two: As the Weekly’s reviews and awards ceremonies magnified the attention given local theater’s smaller productions, the paper’s importance to the theater community also grew. It was a time of hubris, as when Gordon Davidson, on the eve of Zoot Suit’sBroadway opening, lectured the press there: "New York is no longer the generator of theater in America, but the receiver." It was also a time of recognition, as, on the occasion of our 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, Time magazine breathlessly ä proclaimed L.A. the latest theater boomtown. But above all it was a time of experimentation, as Murray Mednick’s nationally renowned Padua Hills Playwrights’ Festival staged annual alfresco productions of brainy new works. These, with L.A.’s international arts festivals, were all signs then taken to signify that Los Angeles was emerging as a serious theater city.
Another such sign could be seen in 1991 with the arrival of Southern California’s first classical rep company: a gem of sorts, Glendale’s ever competent if overly conservative A Noise Within. Davidson told me recently that his attempts to found a classical rep at the Taper ran smack into the brick wall of the TV and film industries. He couldn’t compete with pay scales offered in screen work, Davidson said, so in 1977 and 1978 he tried a couple of rep seasons during the hiatus-time summers. Then the industry started to work year-round, and that was that.
Today, in a model that seems to be a reasonable antidote to this situation, and one now being copied citywide, the Matrix Theater on Melrose Avenue stages remarkably polished repertories with alternating casts, designed to accommodate the actors’ come-when-you’re-available film-biz schedules. This concept isn’t very helpful to playwrights who might want to see their plays staged with one cast at one time. After all, a good play is something like a concerto, and that’s hard to refine when the musicians are playing musical chairs. The Matrix is a perfect name for that theater — the point where contrary ambitions intersect.
And yet, of the world’s "real" theater cities, London can barely sustain its classical reps anymore, and New York has none left. The subsidies have evaporated, while, strange as it seems, aging actors find the idea of having families and living in homes preferable to artistic martyrdom. A lack of commitment, you say? Greed, perhaps? The Royal National Theatre can’t even get Sir Ian McKellen to stay put for an entire season. He’s always trotting over here! Whenever Sir Ian is ready to make a serious commitment to the London stage, then let’s talk about opportunism on Melrose Avenue.
In the meantime, the Actors’ Gang Theater, now growing out of adolescence after almost two decades of operation, has emerged as the small-theater community’s elder statesman, helping to facilitate cooperation and conversation. On this front, at least, L.A. has never looked healthier. Jon Robin Baitz recently attributed the vitality of L.A.’s stages, somewhat ironically, to the film and TV industries. He described L.A. as the last theater haven in America, where young people still gather to do theater, not for Hollywood, but "to cleanse themselves of the toxicity of living in a company town." But of course, he did say that from New York, and I don’t see him rushing back here.
The ghosts in LATC’s lobby tell other tales from when that former bank building was a bona fide theater center run by the rugged, ragged Bill Bushnell and Diane White, producers of some of the most worldly, provocative — and sometimes hackneyed — work in the nation.