With the opening this fall of the Mark Taper Forums Westside satellite Culver Citys freshly redesigned, re-named 300-seat Kirk Douglas Theater the Taper appears to be redoubling its efforts to program new plays on its larger stages. The Douglas first season will feature six world premieres. The playwrights include Charles Mee, Jon Robin Baitz, Nancy Keystone, Chay Yew, Charlayne Woodward and the writer-composer team of Doug Cooney and David O. The question remains, will the new Douglas herald a return to the good old days when the Taper regularly launched nationally significant works?
Back in 1979, three of the Tapers six main-stage slots were given to world premieres: Mark Medoffs Children of a Lesser God, Ron Hutchinsons Says I, Says He, and Steve Tesichs Division Street. Four years before Medoffs play went on to win a slew of Tony Awards, the Taper had premiered Michael Christofers The Shadow Box, which snagged the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Notwithstanding stories of FBI agents roaming the aisles during the Tapers 1971 production of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, by 1975, the 8-year-old Mark Taper Forum was clearly generating plays that were part of a national conversation.
But the Taper has been famous in the more recent past for midlife cautiousness for developing plays and playwrights in its laboratories and second stages, and then parking them on its main stage only after theyve made a splash elsewhere. Neither of the Tapers biggest success stories Tony Kushners Angels in America and Robert Schenkkans The Kentucky Cycle was premiered in the Tapers big house, though both were developed in the organizations New Works program, and both went on to win Pulitzer Prizes. (Angels opened at San Franciscos Eureka Theater and Kentucky Cycle at Seattles Intiman Theater.)
The reputation the midlife Taper earned for playing it safe wasnt just the usual local harping against the king on the hill. Theres evidence to back it up. In the seasons between 1995 and 2002, the Taper premiered a mere eight new plays on its big stage, of which only Peter Parnells QED (2001) with Alan Alda playing Caltech scientist Richard Feynman created ripples beyond Southern California, and it was not well received critically in New York.
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This comparatively low average of one new play per year can be explained by any combination of commercial imperatives and organizational jitters. In an era in which arts funding is steadily dismantled, when you launch, for example, new plays by Jon Robin Baitz (Dutch Landscape, 1988) and Robert Glaudini (The Poison Tree, 2000) that sink as they leave port, the disillusion is as expensive as it is expansive. But now with the opening of the Douglas, the Taper finally has the resource a permanent, large second stage to stake its reputation once again on new plays. Success requires tossing the newbies into the sea as though from a bucket. Getting a few of them to float depends on some mysterious combination of artistry, acumen and what theater people like to call chemistry and, of course, getting enough people to agree that the plays are actually floating, rather than in the case of most new plays appearing to float as they suck up water.
The theaters early successes with new work must have been on Gordon Davidsons mind in his final years helming the Taper and Ahmanson theaters, as plans for the Douglas Theater were being drawn up. (Davidson is moving on, as he puts it, at the end of this year.) After a comparative dearth of new plays, the Tapers 2002-2003 main-stage season suddenly included three world premieres: August Wilsons Gem of the Ocean, Lisa Loomers Living Out and Culture Clashs Chavez Ravine. (Wilsons play is scheduled for Broadway this fall.)
Davidson has said that the Tapers recent burst of new-play production is actually not about reclaiming a national reputation (Thats not why were doing it, he told the Weekly), but about doing work that needs to be done. Still, with playwriting festivals cropping up like mushrooms, Davidson says hes asked his staff to consider how the Tapers new-play programs can be unique. A concentration on West Coast writers is one answer. (Davidsons former producing director Robert H. Egan is currently heading up the Ojai Playwrights Festival this summer with a slate of mostly East Coast playwrights.)
All new plays are works in progress, Davidson insists, and he hopes audiences will be partners in their development. The biggest challenge to keeping the program alive is an old one, he says: meeting expenses.