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Laguna Moulton Sets New Course

August 26, 1986|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Something is familiar about the booming voice and well-timed jests of Jody Johnston Davidson, the Laguna Moulton Playhouse's newly hired general manager.

The traits are reminiscent of the late comedienne Totie Fields, whose crackling, self-mocking personality brought her wide popularity as a club headliner and television talk-show celebrity in the 1970s.

No wonder: Davidson is the daughter of Fields. But Davidson's career has taken a different route. She hasn't attempted to become a performer like her mother.

Rather, Davidson, 34, has carved her own niche in the world of theater, working behind the scenes as a director and administrator.

Until last year, she was managing director of the Rainbow Company, a Las Vegas-based children's theater organization that has won national acclaim for staging contemporary social-issue plays and for using handicapped performers and technicians.

And this month), she assumed the top management post at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse, as that Laguna Beach institution embarks on the biggest expansion in its 66-year history.

"It's a marvelous opportunity because the Laguna Moulton has such a wonderful history and reputation yet has such exciting plans for even more challenging theater," said Davidson, who will be running the playhouse in tandem with artistic director Douglas Rowe.

One of the reasons for hiring Davidson, playhouse board officials said, was to draw not only on her skills in theater management, but also on her creative success with the Rainbow Company.

The aim, these officials said, is to establish a full-scale children's theater program at the Laguna Moulton, modeled somewhat on the Rainbow Company, including the staging of children's plays with more serious contemporary themes.

As a move in that direction, "Special Class," Brian Kral's play about students in a public school program for the handicapped, will have its California premiere next April at the Laguna Moulton.

First staged by Davidson in Las Vegas, "Special Class" is one of the productions originated by the Rainbow Company, which is still regarded as one of the few children's theater groups that regularly stages social-issue productions.

Yet, as Davidson tells it, her founding of the Rainbow Company 11 years ago came rather casually.

At the time, Davidson was a theater instructor at the University of Nevada and Las Vegas-area community colleges and a visiting arts instructor at Las Vegas public schools.

In fact, teaching had been her mother's suggestion. "I had this degree in technical theater from Smith College. But, let's face it, I was lousy when it came to actually doing set designing," recalled Davidson, laughing.

"So my mother--bless her--told me to get my teacher's certificate, just in case. Well, she was right. It turned out to be the best combination for me--theater and teaching."

In 1975, the city figured Davidson was a natural to try out a drama program for the Recreation Department on a pilot-program basis. The starting-up subsidy: $2,500.

Once again, mother Totie couldn't resist getting into the act. "She phoned to tell me that a parent had asked if my program would take in blind kids. My mother told the parent, 'Yeah, of course , Jody will."'

Thanks to the community support, said Davidson, the Rainbow program became a long-running hit. At the urging of her mother and others, still more handicapped students joined the company, including those afflicted with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and mental retardation.

(In 1976, Fields lost her left leg from a diabetes-related vascular condition. She continued to perform despite further hospitalizations from heart problems and cancer. In 1978, she died of a heart attack, the day before the opening of another Las Vegas engagement.)

By 1980, nearly 400 students, including 80 disabled, were being taught in Rainbow classes. (The ages were 3 to 18.) Many of the handicapped were in productions as performers or technicians. Among them: a student afflicted with cerebral palsy who was stage manager and a blind student who operated the lighting board by use of Braille markings.

Rainbow's reputation, according to Davidson, wasn't just from the integration of the handicapped--still considered a rarity for a theatrical company in the United States.

The repertory was also considered innovative. While the Rainbow Company offered its share of traditional fare, from "Hansel and Gretel" to "The Sound of Music," Davidson also staged new works with disturbing contemporary topics.

Such works, written by Kral and others for the company, have included such themes as nuclear devastation, suicide among teen-agers and problems of the mentally disabled.

These more serious dramas have brought Rainbow nationwide recognition. In 1984, under Davidson's direction, Kral's "Special Class" was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington as part of a national festival on arts for the handicapped.

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