“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.
[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
I know my phone was tapped.
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
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
[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
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.