Thursday, October 13, 2016
Douglas Messerli | "Creating Los Angeles Theater" (on Gordon Davidson's death)
creating los angeles theater
by Douglas Messerli
The death of major one of the major theatrical figures of Los Angeles on Sunday, October 2, 2016 came as a shock to many, and particularly to Howard and me, who’d seen the Davidsons just a few weeks earlier at the MET opera HD production in Century City.
Although we’d known Gordon Davidson for several years, we didn’t get a chance to talk with him on that occasion, a situation which I now regret. He looked healthy, but also, one has to admit, a little frail, and I’m not certain he recognized us, even though we sat only a few seats away. I had even recently seen him at an opening night production of A View from the Bridge at the Ahmanson Theater on September 14, but in the swirl of the opening night crowd, I didn’t have the possibility of speaking to him.
Much has been written about his remarkable career, the invitation by Dorothy Chandler to have him run the then-newly founded Mark Taper Forum, and his numerous successful productions—not all plays which I openly admire, but important in developing an audience for contemporary theater nonetheless—including The Devils (controversial, to the say the least), In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Children of a Lesser God, and Tony Kushner’s absolutely remarkable Angels in America.
I recall when we first moved to Los Angeles, how my friend Marjorie Perloff expressed her delight in a Taper season devoted to several of Beckett’s plays, but was disgusted by the audience lack of attendance and their disparagement of these works. A couple of years ago, after Davidsons’ retirement from that organization, Howard and I saw a brilliant revival of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Taper, with full attendance and admiring reviews, so Davidsons’ great foresight finally did pay off.
Although Davidson produced many more traditional works, he always attempted to push the envelope, so to speak, introducing new works whenever he could. Davidson liked “issues,” however, more than “experiments” in his plays. As he, himself, put it: “I believe it must be the job of theater to take hard looks at life, at issues people don’t always want to confront. They will listen to what is said to them from a stage. That is the power of theater. I respect it. I am in awe of it.”
And, indeed, he did many “issue” plays, including The Shadow Box, for which he received a Tony Award, The Great God Brown, and a wonderful revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Perhaps his best known and most successful issue-oriented play was Luis Valdez’s musical play from 1978, Zoot Suit, presented in 1978 with Edward James Olmos in the lead role. Artist Carlos Almaraz painted some of the sets. It played to full houses for a year before it moved on to Broadway, introducing wealthy white audiences of the Bunker Hill theaters to a whole new theatrical tradition. That work, coincidentally, is scheduled to be revived at the Taper later this year, an event that Howard and I can’t wait to experience.
I first met Davidson when I asked him to join the board of the Sun & Moon Press American Theater in Literature Series, which he gladly agreed to, occasionally attending Sun & Moon literary salons.
I worked with him, indirectly, when he invited director Peter Sellars to stage at the Taper playwright Robert Auletta’s modern version of Æschylus’ The Persians in 1993. Doing away with costumes and sets and placing the play firmly into the US wartime activities in Iraq, Sellar’s production was nearly unbearable, for much of the Taper audience, to watch. I know because, having published the play in my Sun & Moon American Theater in Literature series in time for this production, I attended almost every night, selling copies before and after the performances. Nearly every night, half of the audience stormed out in anger, and I think I sold very few copies. But I admired Davidson for bringing this play to his stage. It took guts.
Even if Davidson did not always present the most innovative works, however, he permanently changed the theater scene in Los Angeles, lighting a fire under its dormant theatrical scene until we finally see today a wide range of theatrical events that in variety and number (there are literally hundreds of small amateur theaters throughout the metropolitan area) seems richer, in some respects, than New York’s Off Broadway. And now, also, with the Taper and Ahmanson on Bunker Hill, the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City (also a result of Davidson’s vision), the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills, the Broad Theatre in Santa Monica, and the Geffen Playhouse, and the Pantages in Hollywood, Los Angeles might be said to contain a kind of mini-Broadway scattered across its vast spaces.
Davidson, finally, was a natural charmer. He always had a smile, at least at the many social events in which Howard and I met him, and spoke, if often excitedly, gently, with a slightly bemused attitude. He was, always, a friend, inviting you into his theatrical vision. Los Angeles will truly miss him.
Los Angeles, October 13, 2016