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New Plays on the Big Stage

With the opening this fall of the Mark Taper Forum’s Westside satellite — Culver City’s 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 Taper’s six main-stage slots were given to world premieres: Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, Ron Hutchinson’s Says I, Says He, and Steve Tesich’s Division Street. Four years before Medoff’s play went on to win a slew of Tony Awards, the Taper had premiered Michael Christofer’s The Shadow Box, which snagged the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Notwithstanding stories of FBI agents roaming the aisles during the Taper’s 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 they’ve made a splash elsewhere. Neither of the Taper’s biggest success stories — Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle — was premiered in the Taper’s big house, though both were developed in the organization’s New Works program, and both went on to win Pulitzer Prizes. (Angels opened at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater and Kentucky Cycle at Seattle’s Intiman Theater.)

The reputation the midlife Taper earned for playing it safe wasn’t just the usual local harping against the king on the hill. There’s 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 Parnell’s 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.

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 theater’s early successes with new work must have been on Gordon Davidson’s 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 Taper’s 2002-2003 main-stage season suddenly included three world premieres: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Lisa Loomer’s Living Out and Culture Clash’s Chavez Ravine. (Wilson’s play is scheduled for Broadway this fall.)

Davidson has said that the Taper’s recent burst of new-play production is actually not about reclaiming a national reputation (“That’s not why we’re 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 he’s asked his staff to consider how the Taper’s new-play programs can be unique. A concentration on West Coast writers is one answer. (Davidson’s 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.

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