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L.A. Theater Scene's 'Moses' Will Bow Out

Arts: Gordon Davidson's long Ahmanson and Taper tenure netted respect, awards.

June 28, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS and DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gordon Davidson, a shrewd showman from Brooklyn who grabbed the reins of Southern California's theater community amid the tumult of the late 1960s, then stayed to guide the Mark Taper Forum to national prominence and take over the Ahmanson Theatre, will step down from his top job at the Center Theatre Group in 2 1/2 years.

That move, to be announced today, signals the close of an era of profound change in American theater. While Davidson, 69, was building his organization into a cultural force and voice for diversity in Los Angeles, he was also marching at the forefront of a regional theater movement that broke New York's virtual monopoly on serious theater in America.

If the transition goes according to plan, his successor will inherit an enterprise with 65,000 subscribers; an annual budget of more than $40 million; a new third stage to complement the Taper and Ahmanson; and a legacy of inclusive programming that has given voice to Latinos with 1978's "Zoot Suit," the deaf with 1979's "Children of a Lesser God," gays with 1992's "Angels in America," and Asian Americans with last year's reworking of "Flower Drum Song."

Davidson, who sidestepped the word "retirement," called the decision "a moment in which we acknowledge a change is going to happen." He stressed that "I've still got 2 1/2 years to run this theater. Then we can stop and evaluate what's good and what's bad."

Davidson and Richard Kagan, president of the CTG board, said they hammered out details at a private meeting May 26. A transition committee will be formed within the next month, Kagan said, and an executive-search firm will be hired shortly thereafter. Current staffers, including Taper Producing Director Robert Egan and Associate Artistic Director Corey Madden, will be among those considered in an international search, Kagan said.

For the theater community, Davidson's disclosure means that for the first time in 35 years, theatrical life in Los Angeles may not be dominated by the silver-haired impresario whom Time magazine once labeled "the reigning godfather of the American regional theater movement." That prospect cheers some critics, who suggest that as his reign lengthened, Davidson didn't cultivate enough creativity in his own backyard and worried too much about exporting shows to Broadway.

"He was the Moses of theater in Los Angeles. Now, is he still the Moses? No. Now we have a lot of active theaters, and each theater has its own voice. Now there are a lot of people here," said Gil Cates, a friend and producing director at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

Citing Davidson's sense of history and respect for the spoken word, Cates said Davidson "made a national presence not only for himself, but for Los Angeles theater. That's the best part of it. The question now is: Where do we go from here?"

Davidson has served as artistic director at the 745-seat Mark Taper Forum since it opened in 1967, and since 1989 has also handled duties as artistic director-producer at the 2,100-seat Ahmanson Theatre. He has staged premieres of work from many of the country's most celebrated playwrights, including Tony Kushner, Anna Deavere Smith, George C. Wolfe and Jon Robin Baitz, and sent more than 35 productions to Broadway.

Along the way, Davidson became one of the highest-paid arts administrators in the U.S.--drawing $337,000 yearly, according to the CTG's 2000 tax filings.

Collectively, Davidson's productions have earned 18 Tony Awards and three Pulitzers, including back-to-back Pulitzers in 1992 and 1993 for Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle" and the first installment of Kushner's "Angels in America." The Pulitzers were the first awarded to plays produced outside New York.

But Davidson's greatest achievement, former associate artistic director Oskar Eustis suggested, may be simply that "he has managed to make serious theater in the eye of the celebrity hurricane."

Eustis, who worked as associate artistic director for Davidson from 1989 to 1994 before becoming artistic director of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., said, "What Gordon has done consistently is stand for the idea that a serious American theater has to be a theater of inclusion, and that we have to bring everybody into the tent."

Eustis added: "He's gone out of fashion, and I hope very much that it's an ethos that's coming back into fashion."

Although the Taper and Ahmanson theaters both belong to the Center Theatre Group and are neighbors in downtown's Music Center, they follow different missions.

The Ahmanson has served most often as presenter of road productions born elsewhere. The Taper has built a reputation for nurturing new works and sending promising shows to Broadway.

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