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BACKSTAGE WITH GORDON DAVIDSON : Rehearsing for 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' With the Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum

February 14, 1988|JAMIE DIAMOND | Jamie Diamond is a fiction writer and free-lance journalist.

DURING THE PAST 20 years, Gordon Davidson has done more than anyone to produce significant home-grown theater in Los Angeles. As artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, Davidson has produced 300 plays, directed 30 more, caused controversy, collected awards and raised money, all with an eye toward creating a theatrical voice for the city.

Now Davidson has entered a new arena--directing his first fully staged opera in Los Angeles, Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opens Tuesday at the Wiltern Theatre. The production will marry the dramatic talents of the 54-year-old Davidson with the vitality of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, a feisty, 2-year-old troupe that is trying to follow the Taper's lead and establish a dynamic local operatic voice.

During one typical week last month, Davidson alternated between producing a Sam Shepard play at the Taper, presenting Spalding Gray at the Taper, Too, and producing "Darlinghissima" at the Itchey Foot Literary Cabaret. But most of his attention was focused on the opera, which challenged a different aspect of his creativity.

ON THE FIRST day of rehearsals for the opera, Davidson arrives at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's Rehearsal Room No. 4 joking about the dog he has to cast. "You want to find an un -frisky dog? Then find a boring person and ask him if he has a dog," he cracks. His gangly posture and chipped-tooth grin make him look like a gray-haired Tom Sawyer.

His mood is lighthearted, but the joke masks a serious concern. As a director of plays, Davidson is accustomed to working with trained and experienced actors. But opera singers concentrate on their voices; often they have less acting experience, and they can sometimes seem wooden on stage. Davidson must, in four weeks, find a way to teach the singers to hum with life as well as melody.

So Davidson has devised a plan. Few of the singers have read the play on which Britten's opera is based. Rather than delivering a pedantic lecture, he has called them together to read the play aloud. "I want them to experience Shakespeare," he says.

Most of the singers wear jeans, T-shirts and running shoes. Cans of Diet Coke dot the table. "This is not a test of your ability to read Shakespeare," Davidson says, his voice soothing and homey. "We're reading the play to go on a journey together and share it with each other." To put the singers at ease, Davidson joins in, taking the part of Egeus, the father of Hermia, one of the lead characters. He races through his lines, barely pausing for breath.

But Angelique Burzynski, the singer playing Helena, reads mournfully: "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the heart." Soon others start to loosen up, and Alice Baker, who plays Hermia, is emphasizing her feelings by stamping her high heels. Two hours later, after the final line is read, there's a silence, then everybody claps. The singers mill about, reluctant to leave.

"I come off too whiny in the play. I like myself better in the opera," one says.

"I'm not sure I understand my motivation," says another.

Davidson stands back, smiling. His

singers are beginning to think like actors.

THE RESTAURANT'S pastel walls are softly lit, and Vivaldi plays in counterpoint to the silver clinks of refined dining. Davidson is rushing through a salad on his 45-minute dinner break before plunging into Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind," which is in previews at the Taper. Although Davidson is producing--not directing--he will study tonight's 3-hour-and-20-minute performance, searching for ways to shorten it. So far today, he has worked with the opera's conductor, solved some costume design problems (if the fairies have wings, how can they roll around on the floor?), "experienced" Shakespeare with the singers and auditioned actors for another Taper play, "Made in Bangkok."

This is the first time today that Davidson has not been surrounded by a crowd. He's finished his glass of wine. It is the perfect moment for him to reveal his personal and secret vision of the opera.

"I don't have a vision," he says.

He smiles. "I release my vision. My dream is to have no dream and to stay open and see what happens. I'm a collaborative director. It's sort of like being a good parent: You sit back and let your children go." He adds a look of studied sincerity. "And watching to see the magic they perform is one of my most immeasurable joys."

Davidson says there aren't many auteur directors in the theater because of the primacy of the playwright. But does that mean theatrical directors feel comfortable delegating their reputation to their collaborators? He waves his hand. "I don't care about my reputation."

A double espresso later, Davidson is off to the Taper. The maitre d' tells him to have a good evening. Even though he is in a rush, Davidson stops and asks the maitre d' his name. Then he offers his hand: "I'm Gordon Davidson, director of the Mark Taper Forum."

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