Gordon Davidson sinks into a couch in his office beneath walls filled with posters for plays he has recently produced at the Music Center's Mark Taper Forum: "Angels in America," "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," "Black Elk Speaks." Nearby, artworks from earlier shows bear witness to his three decades in Los Angeles theater: "Terra Nova," "Children of a Lesser God," "Zoot Suit."
The array of subcultures and social issues that these dramas take as their subjects--gay life, urban unrest, the Native American experience and more--suggests that this is a display that could only belong to a theater man of a certain stripe.
"I'm a liberal," the Taper artistic director says in a voice that still smacks of New York, even after all these years. "I believe in affirmative action. I believe in welfare. I'm not trying to be politically correct. I happen to believe in it."
Those beliefs have come in handy lately--especially as the Taper has found itself in the midst of the continuing national experiment known as multiculturalism that took hold beginning in the late 1980s. As the flagship theater in increasingly racially charged Los Angeles, the Taper provides a revealing case study of some of the major audience-building challenges facing arts institutions today.
While the Taper has long averaged about one work a season addressing the interests of minority constituencies, Davidson and his staff have greatly increased that number in recent years. In large part, this has been in response to two factors: the folding in 1991 of the Los Angeles Theatre Center company, long known for its political work, and a push from some granting organizations toward greater diversity.
Faced with a diminishing subscription base that may be attributed, at least in part, to the new programming, Davidson's report from the front is decidedly mixed.
"We have to acknowledge that these changes (in the type of material being staged, as well as in audience demographics) mean giving something up, but also, hopefully, gaining something," he says. "What you're gaining is a larger view of what mankind and this city consist of, and that means sharing the seats with other people. It's not the most popular theater in town. I only hope that we're the most engaged in town."
It's a tough battle, because the national climate has already begun to turn away from affirmative action. And reflecting that, and many other factors, in the last couple of years, the majority of the Taper's ethnic-oriented plays have fared poorly with both audiences and critics. Still, Davidson says he plans to stay the course--and arguably has to, given the current priorities of the grant-giving foundations the Taper relies upon.
THE INSTITUTION: THE MARK TAPER FORUM
Davidson was appointed found ing director of the Taper in 1967, about the same time that many of L.A.'s major cultural institutions came into being. From the start, he wanted his theater to be politically charged, and indeed the Taper first made its mark with topical docudramas.
Davidson's vision--supported by both staff and artists--has always been vintage liberal.
" 'Zoot Suit' was the most emphatic early statement that we made," he says of Luis Valdez's 1978 drama. "It was a play that was designed not only to speak to the regular audience but to embrace the audience from which it came culturally."
The pachuco-era play, inspired by a historical incident, was one of the Taper's biggest hits ever.
"It worked like gangbusters in that people who had never come to the theater came," Davidson says. "We were green at it, but we were aggressive. There was an artistic impulse and a civic and cultural communal impulse."
Other notable early successes also focused on topical issues: "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," produced in 1968, is the story of the physicist who pioneered the development of the atomic bomb. "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," seen at the Taper in 1971, portrayed a courtroom drama about a Vietnam War protest.
Indeed, Davidson's idea of cultural diversity has never been limited to race.
"We repeated (the "Zoot Suit" success) in a different way when we did 'Children of a Lesser God' (with hearing-impaired characters)," he says. "I don't think (this issue is) all about color, though it's clearly predominantly about color. The earliest attempts at diversity had to do with women."
But choices in plays are not all that has made the Taper an experiment in multiculturalism: Davidson has also been a longtime proponent of non-traditional casting--the use of non-white actors in traditionally "white" roles in classical works--as made popular by Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival.
"I had Lou Gossett playing (Chekhov's) Vershinin," Davidson says. "I didn't think that was such a big deal, but the audience did."