Last month, when a gala Beverly Hills fund-raising ball celebrating a quarter century of Gordon Davidson's tenure as artistic director/producer of the Mark Taper Forum was canceled at the height of the recent riots, it provoked no small measure of irony.
Twenty-seven years earlier, the opening night of "The Deputy," Davidson's inaugural production as artistic head of the Theatre Group at UCLA, coincided with the onset of the Watts riots.
Indeed, if Los Angeles' political realities have remained dishearteningly intransigent, the city's artistic makeup has proven more malleable. In the 25 years he has headed the Taper, Davidson has overseen the growth of the theater from its origins as a small university-sponsored company into the city's premier theater and one of the nation's largest and most prestigious not-for-profit stages.
Under his stewardship, the Taper has helped launch the plays "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," "The Shadow Box," "Zoot Suit," "Children of a Lesser God" and this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Kentucky Cycle." The theater has won six Tonys and numerous other awards, bringing first-ever national recognition to a city more accustomed to Broadway roadshows and summer stock revivals. On a national level, Davidson is a leader in the country's regional theater movement; at 59, he is one of the last founding directors still running a theater--and at a time when many not-for-profit stages, including the Yale Repertory Theatre, Washington's Arena Stage and the New York Shakespeare Festival, have undergone radical transformations of leadership.
Locally, he wields even greater influence. As the artistic director of Center Theatre Group, Davidson has gone from being the hand-picked steward of Dorothy Chandler, the founder of the Music Center, to Los Angeles' theatrical gatekeeper. In his position, Davidson has established unprecedented ties with producers in New York and London while controlling a mini-empire of stages that includes Los Angeles' most prestigious theaters--the Taper and the Doolittle in Hollywood. When "The Phantom of the Opera" departs the Music Center's Ahmanson Theatre next year, Davidson is expected to take over that space as well. It is a position of power and influence that, except for a handful of New York theater owners, few impresarios can rival and one that has altered the city's cultural landscape.
"Gordon has created a venue where one did not previously exist," says Jack Viertel, who served as literary manager at the Taper from 1985-87 and is currently creative director of the Jujamcyn Theaters in New York. "In Los Angeles, which has a poor reputation as a theater town, he has proved that plays of substance and merit can be seen and well-attended."
That Davidson has piloted his theaters into national prominence within the long shadow cast by Hollywood (a second-class status embodied in TV producer Grant Tinker's fabled reference to the Taper as "minor league"), and at a time when other resident stages, notably the Los Angeles Theatre Center, have tried and failed, is testimony to both the accomplishments and challenges inherent in creating live theater in the nation's film capital.
"I don't try to hype or not be a booster of West Coast theater," said Davidson during a recent interview. "There is a life out here. When we started 25 years ago, we were virtually the only game in town and a lot has happened. But it hasn't quite jelled in the way that I would like."
And there's the rub.
Supporters and detractors agree that Davidson is a talented administrator who survived two generations of leadership at the Music Center, an exceptionally savvy producer who established a cultural beachhead in a town considered hostile to the performing arts, and a charismatic, generous-spirited individual who, unlike his Hollywood counterparts, is roundly liked by those who know him.
But to the extent that a theater reflects the faults as well as the virtues of its artistic leadership, observers also say that Davidson has missed the opportunity to create a truly indigenous theatrical climate. While forging impressive links with New York's and Britain's theater communities, he has not formed similarly consistent relationships at home.
Interviews with dozens of playwrights, directors, producers, critics and staff members, past and present, reveal the consensus that Davidson's talent and taste for power-brokering--epitomized in his producing duties at the Doolittle--has overtaken his ability for risk-taking.
As a result, more innovative work has been done at the La Jolla Playhouse, and more plays by area dramatists, including minority writers, have been done at LATC and South Coast Repertory. In seeking the respect of his peers on Broadway and elsewhere, Davidson has lost touch with a generation of local artists, many of whom describe the Taper today as remote, even "irrelevant."