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Exit Stage Left, Slowly

"I’m not retiring, I’m moving on," says artistic director/producer Gordon Davidson, 70, who now oversees programming at the Ahmanson Theater and has been doing the same at the Mark Taper Forum since it opened in 1967. His reign at the downtown Performing Arts Center will end at the close of 2004. Davidson won’t be easy to replace. He is as iconic a figure to L.A. theater as Joseph Papp was to New York’s — and has built a theater empire since he arrived here in the mid-’60s, creating inaugural buzz by opening the Taper with John Whiting’s controversial The Devils, which put on stage the sexual fantasies of a nun.

Rumors still abound that the FBI was stalking the Taper aisles in 1971, looking to arrest Vietnam War opponent Father Daniel Berrigan, whom the feds presumed would be in attendance at The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a docudrama written by the priest and featuring him as a character.

Michael Cristofer’s 1976 cancer hospice drama, The Shadow Box, directed by Davidson, resulted in the first play premiered by the Taper that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Under Davidson’s direction, the Taper also presented and, through its New Works Festival, was integrally involved in the development of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Robert Shenkaan’s The Kentucky Cycle, both of which went on to win Pulitzer Prizes in 1990 and 1991, respectively.

Davidson came out of Brooklyn, where his father was a professor of theater at Brooklyn College and his mother, who had been a piano teacher, became a housewife, rearing Davidson and his younger brothers, Michael and Robert. Davidson attended Western Reserve Academy and then Cornell University. He spoke to the Weekly during a lunch break at his office in the Taper Annex.

L.A. WEEKLY: How did you land in Los Angeles?

GORDON DAVIDSON: [holding a tuna-fish sandwich on a paper plate] A third of the way into the interview, this guy says, "You know, you’re not interested in press." I said "No, I’m interested in production." He said, "Follow me," and went down to the other side of the warehouse on 66th Street, into an office of the production stage manager, who was then Joe Papp’s associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and we talked. He said, "I can offer you an apprentice stage manager’s job, $40 a week. And that’s what I did, until John Houseman brought me out here [in 1964] to assist him on a production of King Lear at UCLA. ä

DAVIDSON Cont.

[Davidson remained in L.A. to run the Theater Group at UCLA. After seeing Davidson’s productions there, Mrs. Norman Chandler recruited him in 1967 to administer the then-brand-new Mark Taper Forum.]

Was the FBI really hanging around The Trial of the Catonsville Nine?

I know my phone was tapped.

How?

I heard funny noises. There was a van parked in front of my house in Westwood. When we’d done the play earlier for a two-week run at New Theater for Now, they hassled the man who played the defense lawyer, a man who obviously had some political activities in his dossier. Before the first main-stage performance of Catonsville Nine, I had contacted Dan [Berrigan] and said it’s usual to have a playwright present for the opening, please send a message. So the house goes to half, and over the sound system, there’s an announcement: "Good evening, this is Dan Berrigan." Suddenly, some people in the front of the theater jumped up and moved forward. They were obviously the FBI looking for him.

Over the years, the Taper has turned down the electrical current of such political immediacy in favor of more balanced discourses and even diversionary entertainments. What happened?

We live in a different world now. Catonsville was providing a forum for a discussion about the war in Vietnam before there was much discussion in the press or in the media. Now you get an overdose of that. The question of what the performing arts can do is not as clear. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a desire. I’ve always been a proponent of documentary plays, but the power of the documentary film is stronger, and all you need to do is get a small video camera and you get real people who say real things. It’s harder to get the same effect with actors. Also, I think Ronald Reagan made people think everything was okay. If you give people a chance to relax, they will. Some of that stuff went away, so we turned our attention elsewhere. Then we moved into the ’90s and we began to search out other kinds of stories, the high point for me was Angels in America, which was political, social, cultural and, of course, at the core, was AIDS.

As a co-founder of the Regional Alternative Theater movement, Seattle playwright Erik Ehn complains that that the theater has become boring because of its dependence on money and the entrenchment of institutional hierarchy.

[Davidson stops chewing for a moment, then resumes] I don’t think we’re boring.

Can you try to imagine what they might be upset about?

I don’t know why they’re mad.

Ehn maintains that the established regional theater network [of which the Taper is a part] has lost its purpose and is suffering from institutional burnout.

I’m not so sure it’s as clear cut as that, because theaters like the Arena Stage [in Washington, D.C.] and the Guthrie [in Minneapolis] were created in the ’50s and ’60s in response to a Broadway that in those days was doing only new plays. The regional theaters were created as homes for actors to do the classics, which nobody else was doing. I remember asking Audrey Wood [Tennessee Williams’ agent] about a new play and she said to me, "Mr. Davidson, first it will be on Broadway, then it will tour the United States, then it will be published by Samuel French, maybe you can do it then." When Broadway turned its back on new plays [in favor of musicals and spectacles], the regional theaters made an adjustment to develop new works — if you want to call that losing our purpose . . . But the institutional burnout isn’t true. In the past month, we’ve done three major workshops of plays that are already in the pipeline. These halls have been abuzz with that special kind of creative energy that is extremely satisfying. [looking up from his sandwich] I’m not B.S.-ing you here.

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