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Gordon Davidson Dies at the Age of 83

Gordon Davidson

Gordon Davidson

Gordon Davidson, one of the great leaders of Los Angeles theater — has died at age 83. 

Following a controversial 1966 UCLA production of Rolf Hochhuth’s drama The Deputy about Pope Pius’s attempts to appease the Nazis that he directed, Davidson was tapped by Dorothy Chandler herself to run the yet-to-open Mark Taper Forum, in LA’s re-burgeoning downtown. As the Founding Artistic and Producing Director of the Taper – and then of the Ahmanson Theatre – Davidson directed or oversaw a veritable cornucopia of shows that reads like the history of the West Coast theater scene.  Under Davidson’s aegis, shows from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit all had early productions at the Taper, before moving on to Broadway and Tony and Pulitzer Prize fame.  In the 1970s, he was the guiding force behind the Tony Award winning productions of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God; the Taper’s production of Michael Christofer’s The Shadow Box.

Some of his other notable productions included a local staging of “Candide” which so impressed composer Leonard Bernstein that he invited Davidson to direct his “Mass” for the Kennedy Center, as well as, in recent years, the US debut of David Hare’s ferocious anti-Iraq War drama “Stuff Happens.” 

However, the majority of Angelinos will remember him for his years of glittering prizes, in particular the early ‘90s, when, as Taper Artistic Director, he helped develop and oversaw early productions of Angels in America, Anna Devere Smith’s Twilight, and Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle. Angels playwright Kushner, quoted in the LA Times obit, noted, ““When nobody knew what Angels was, Gordon immediately loved it and supported it and maintained this incredible level of excitement and enthusiasm all the way through.”

A look at Davidson’s artistic resume is a true walk through the hallowed history of LA theater, with his involvement in an astonishing range of important drama. When August Wilson’s dramas were first being performed, Davidson provided a space for each of his dramas, providing one of the first homes for the author’s dramatic cycle.

In more recent years, Davidson earned some criticism for seasons at the Taper, and at the Ahmanson, for some less than challenging theatrical choices.  

“One of the things I’ve had to reconcile myself to is no matter how much we like to think we’re on the cutting edge, we’re on the cutting edge of mainstream,” a quotation taken from the LA Times obit, attributed to a 1992 interview Davidson did with the LA Business Daily.  Still, he channeled his desire to create and produce more challenging work into the founding of the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, which opened in 2004.  

In a 2013 LA Times column by Charles McNulty, producer and then-USC Theater School Dean Madeline Puzo noted, “Fifty years ago there was a handful of visionary leaders — Tyrone Guthrie, Zelda Fichandler, Joe Papp, Bill Ball and Gordon Davidson — who profoundly changed the American theater.”  

Quoted in a 2014 article in @ This Stage, Davidson opined that, at the end of his theater career, “the audience is broader now and there’s a better understanding, not of just racial understandings in America, but global as well. I think we did our work and I was very proud of how popular it was here.”

In the same article, Davidson mused on theater’s ability to frame a life: “Take Chekhov, for instance. The pain and truth of The Cherry Orchard, let’s say, speaks to generations. I always thought about doing that as my last play,” he says through a chuckle, “because it’s about chopping down the old cherry tree. If I could have, I would have done it in repertory with King Lear because one is about giving away the kingdom and the other is about bringing one to an end.”


Frontiers Closes


Excited by the thought of even less theater coverage in the years ahead? No? Well, get ready for it anyway, as Edge Media Group is reporting that LGBT media conglomerate Multimedia Platforms (MMPW) is shutting down several of their papers, most importantly New York City’s Next Magazine and LA’s own Frontiers.

According to the news site, a series of internal management shuffles and the collapse of plans for a loan are behind the company’s financial meltdown. All staff at the company’s papers have been laid off, and none of their papers will print this week.

The loss of Next is bad news for New York – but the loss of Frontiers in Los Angeles may well be worse for the local community. It’s not just that these magazines are central to LGBT culture, which they certainly are; it’s also that these papers happen to be amongst the few print outlets that continue to cover culture, period. In recent years, Frontiers cut back its theater reviews – but they still ran them. Now, even that minimal print outlet will be gone.

We’ll be following this story closely to see what it means, but at this point, it represents once again another spasm in the death knells of old media. Another nail in the journo coffin, as it were.


Ageless Actors


Governor Brown has just signed into law a declaration allowing actors to demand online databases such as to omit their ages, which they traditionally include as part of an actor’s biography. Variety is reporting the story, describing the law as having been strongly pushed by the Screen Actors Guild. It is certainly a positive step against age discrimination in the entertainment business. 

 One of the bill’s sponsors, California legislature Majority Leader Ian Calderon is quoted as saying, “Subscribers should have control over whether their age and date of birth are posted on subscription websites used for employment purposes . . . [this law] provides a necessary clarification in the law that will help prevent age-based discrimination for individuals seeking employment in the entertainment industry.” 

Opponents of the bill express the belief that requiring websites to remove a performer’s age restricts free speech. 

I can see where and how some folks would opine that the government really should not be involved in legislating such a thing. But there needs to be a way to allow performers to control their images. A concrete statement of age leaves the impression that can absolutely undercut a performer’s ability to get work.  It’s bad enough in an industry where a woman actor might find her ability to play the leading lady ended because her IMDB bio says she’s 40-something.  It’s not vanity at all – it’s sheer pragmatism.  Image is truth.  And if databases such as IMDB won’t omit the performer’s age voluntarily, then by all means pass a law to do it. 

Back in the day, of course, it was fairly common for performers and artists to lie about their age when they couldn’t get away with providing no information at all. My own great grandmother, a best selling author back at the turn of the 20th century, fibbed that she was five years younger than she was, with the truth only coming out after her death when folks looked at her birth certificate. The rage felt by her children, who discovered that they were 21 when they thought they were 17 is the stuff of family legend. 


Scenies Are Announced

Steven Stanley

Steven Stanley

The Scenies, theater blogger Steven Stanley’s annual awards list, has been announced. If you head over to his site, you’ll find the Scenies basically consist of a fairly non-competitive list of, well, let’s face it, almost all the plays that the illustrious Mr. Stanley has seen and thinks are worthy of being noted. Cynics have pointed out that almost every show in town gets a mention. When I was younger, newer to the field, and perhaps angrier, I used to think that a gazillion awards for a gazillions shows was a bit ridiculous. 

But times have changed, and I admit that my attitude towards awards lists such as The Scenies has become more charitable. Yes, there are plenty of shows in LA that move from the 99 seat theaters to other cities – but there are so many more, perfectly terrific shows that play their four weeks and then vanish into the ether with nothing more than a couple of reviews to paste into a scrapbook.  A notation by Steven Stanley is a coup, or a micro-coup — part of a play’s Cotillion, as it were – one of the rites and rituals of presentation and appreciation that should happen if a theater has presented on a play that is worth attention.  

Back in the day, Drama-Logue had a similar philosophy: Mention as many worthy plays as possible. At the time, those who received a Drama-Logue Award felt validated that they were true theater practitioners – though, those who watched the awards from the outside had a tendency to lightly mock them for being so multitudinous. (An old joke asserted that if you’d been working in LA theater for five years and had not received a Drama-Logue Award, it was time to leave town.) And, yet, darned if the awards weren’t also a sign that a performer or show was doing the right thing at the right time.  

A Scenie, if I may interpret, is a sincere seal of approval — an accreditation, if you will, of having done strong work at the professional level.  So when I read snarky articles on some websites about how there is a lack of intellectual rigor to a system that allows for hundreds of award winners, I reply (to myself, as no one else is listening) that there is really room for all kinds of awards in the larger system of giving credit, and accreditation. 


A Plug for Genoa

Sargent (left) and DeLorenzo. Photo by Paul Birchall

A week or two ago, I found myself at the Opening Night for the Mark Taper Forum’s impeccable production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It was quite the experience to attend August Wilson’s eloquent and powerful tale of black jazz musicians fighting for dignity within an oppressive society. It was also really thrilling to hang out at the foyer of the Mark Taper Forum to watch as the town’s cultural great and good arrived for the show. I am the worst at celebrity spotting, truthfully, but the house was simply top heavy with folks you sort of half recognize from TV and the movies. All you need is a head for names.

Before the show, I sighted a pair of my very favorite long time theater practitioners, the awesome creative powerhouse of director Bart DeLorenzo and playwright Michael Sargent. The former is founder of the legendary Evidence Room Theater Company; while Sargent, whose plays, such as The Projectionist (which played at the Kirk Douglas) and my personal favorite, the meditation on Kenneth Anger called Hollywood Burning, have made him one of Los Angeles’s writing treasures.  

I swaggered on up to them and they were both really very pleasant, as theater folks inevitably are when they meet a critic. I mentioned that I was writing a little column and that the two of them should just get together and do another show with Center Theare Group, as The Projectionist was so successful.  With just a bit of a smirk, both men advised me to write about it and work up some excitement for the idea.  

DeLorenzo quipped that there was indeed a play that they have been trying to get done at the Taper, but it is hard to get the interest going.  Perking up my ears, I asked just what show this might be.  Sargent pleasantly told me the show’s name, something intriguingly called Genoa. But my attempts to get more info about the show from the pair came up bupkis: “It’s a really strange and challenging play – you’ll never have seen anything like it!” Sargent explained. Thanks, that helps a lot.

“You should write about it, though!” DeLorenzo smiled, hinting that my power of the press might convince the Taper to eventually put the show on. Good luck with that!  But, a bit of searching on the net shows that Sargent wrote a play called Genoa that had an intriguing reading at Manhattan’s Private Theatre a couple of years back with Tony-winner Kathleen Chalfant in a major role.  

According to the play’s Facebook page (yes, there is one), the show is described thusly:  “An alcoholic actor loses everything and ends up living back with his family in Genoa, Ohio, where he dreams and schemes of a return to California. But the American Dream gets stuck in reverse in this devastating and hilarious tragi-comedy.”  

Oh, I would so see this show. Will somebody please do it in LA!?