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New Work, New Home

The Mark Taper Forum's long search for a second stage for emerging artists may be nearing fruition.

April 15, 2001|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Three men have been sent to Jamaica to spark an uprising of the slaves against the British, on behalf of the French. A master, a slave and a peasant morph into alter-identities, maneuvering about in a strikingly surreal world where the principles of colonialism hold sway as palpably as those of Marx and Freud. This is Heiner Muller's "The Task," staged by L. Kenneth Richardson.

Two young women hang out at a Southern California mall, where they run into a young con-man/hustler and his sidekick. Here in prefab paradise, these unmoored souls try, however fitfully, to connect. But the encounters only serve to lay bare the anomie of their purposeless lives. This is John Steppling's "The Thrill," directed by Robert Egan.

A repressed Mormon man and his drug-addled, sex-starved wife. Roy Cohn. A man dying of AIDS and his fearful Jewish intellectual lover. A flamboyant drag queen named Belize. These are some of the people caught up in a visionary vortex of American hypocrisy in Tony Kushner's "Millennium Approaches," a work-in-progress that would evolve into part of "Angels in America," staged by Oskar Eustis.

All of these were Mark Taper Forum productions. Yet loyal patrons of the round theater at the Music Center may be forgiven for not recognizing them. After all, these plays were not seen downtown. They were part of the Taper's "second stage" producing arm-known as the Taper, Too-at the John Anson Ford Theatre in the Hollywood Hills. And they were seen in the Taper, Too's heyday, roughly a decade ago.

What has become of such provocative fare? Because the Taper, unlike most theaters of comparable size and stature, doesn't have a second stage, such productions are without a home to call their own.

Most regional theaters have a second, and sometimes even third or fourth, space. These venues are usually smaller than the so-called main stage. They're typically used for work that is more experimental, or that demands a different physical environment, or is not yet ready for the challenges of a larger theater. Philosophically, it is also where the next generation of artists may be most easily nurtured, without the pressures of a large and often comparatively staid subscriber audience. In Southern California, for example, both South Coast Repertory and the La Jolla Playhouse have thriving primary and secondary stages.

But the Taper has instead borrowed various venues over the years or, since 1995, gone without one. Until last year.

Taper, Too was revived in 2000 at the Actors' Gang in Hollywood and is presenting its second season there through July 1. The season consists of four plays: Lynn Manning's "Weights," which closes today; Sunil Kuruvilla's "Rice Boy," opening April 25; Jessica Goldberg's "Good Thing," opening May 23; and John S. Walch's "The Circumference of a Squirrel," opening June 17.

But a borrowed venue has drawbacks. So, for decades, Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson has envisioned a permanent second space. And that dream appears closer than it has been in many years, with plans to convert the Culver Theater, a former movie house, moving toward realization.

Although this project has been on the drawing board for roughly four years, Davidson and his board have finally reached an important point: On April 2, the board voted to move ahead on an agreement with the Culver City Redevelopment Agency, which will provide the land and building to the Taper parent organization, the Center Theatre Group, via a long-term, low-cost lease. The agreement, which is expected to be finalized in June or July, would allow the next phase of design and fund-raising to proceed for the $7 million to $8 million facility.

No architect has yet been hired, but the design calls for a flexible 300-to 400-seat theater as well as a 99-seat black box venue. The facility would accommodate not only productions and workshops, but the Taper's young audiences program, Performing for Los Angeles Youth, known as P.L.A.Y.

"My dream is to have a permanent home where this work can be done," says Davidson, sitting in his Music Center Annex office filled with mementos and photos from his decades at the helm of both the 745-seat Taper and, since 1989, the 1,600-2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre. "This is very important to me, because I think it is part of my legacy.

"It's not about empire-building," Davidson says. "I'm just trying to create a home for artists and for audiences, and I think the variety of venues is important."

Much of the impetus behind the Taper's renewed push for a second space has to do with a generational shift affecting American theater. The Taper has been feeling increased internal pressures largely due to the presence of a number of artists who joined its staff in the past half-dozen years, as a result of infusions of multicultural grant money in the '90s.

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