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Fall Preview / The Arts | How I Chose My Season

Making Choices in 'the Shadows of Sept. 11'

Gordon Davidson / Mark Taper Forum

September 15, 2002|GORDON DAVIDSON

Sometime in late spring, the mailings start to arrive: season announcements from area theaters, providing a range of shows for nearly every taste. Usually there's a familiar name on the roster--maybe a playwright or a production, an actor or a director. Often there's a world premiere or a local premiere. Occasionally, there's a classic. Always there are surprises. For some venues, the season has already started; for others, September marks the beginning of the year. In scanning the rosters, many people wonder how these shows were selected. Is there a magical formula involved in putting together a season? We asked the decision-makers at five theaters to share how they made selections.

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It might appear from time to time that I throw darts or consult a Ouija board to select the plays that make up any given season at the Mark Taper Forum. But in reality, the selection process is a complex, shifting and, for me, utterly appealing and addictive puzzle that one can assemble only after reading, seeing, discussing and putting into development a great number of plays. I live and breathe theater on a 24-hour basis throughout the year, and eventually the pieces begin falling into place.

The planning of this season, the 36th season at the Music Center, commenced in the shadows of Sept. 11. I've always believed in the theater as a communal space for artists and audiences to come together and assert our humanity, but never more so than in this last year, and I'm sure this affected my choices.

The first question I always ask is, where does my heart, my head and my view of the world take me? I then share this with the staff, and we ask: Can this be communicated to an audience?

For compelling reasons, I initially picked as the opening play Tony Kushner's amazing "Homebody/Kabul." But after some reflection, I thought we might serve Tony better by giving him the time he requested to work further on the piece. So in late July, I decided to postpone the play to the next season, and the scramble was on to pick a replacement.

Because of the quality of "Homebody/Kabul," the replacement had to have some grit and size and a bigger theme than a nice and comfortable four-character play. "Nickel and Dimed" fits the bill with its insistence that we understand the problems of the working poor and that we ask our predominantly middle-class audience what can be done to help. And "Nickel and Dimed" has a fortuitous connection with "Living Out," which deals with child care and nannies and the dependence of the affluent on the working class.

Both "Living Out" and "Chavez Ravine" are products of our commissioning and new play development programs and tell important Los Angeles stories. The irony of "Chavez Ravine" is that I was born in the shadow of Ebbets Field, I am a lifelong fan, and I thought the Dodgers had betrayed Brooklyn by leaving. So what did I do? I followed them out here. And now I want to tell the true story of Chavez Ravine and how a failed urban housing project dislocated a community long before the Dodgers ever thought of coming into the neighborhood. The Dodgers today represent the kind of diversity--players and fans--that mirrors our dreams for the theater.

"Big River" was a natural choice, given my history with "Children of a Lesser God." With such a glorious combination of folk tale, Broadway musical, and the originality of signing as language and visual poetry, I knew I had to find a way to include it, especially as a co-production with local Deaf West Theatre.

With "Ten Unknowns" and "Gem of the Ocean," I'm choosing our history with the writers. We have a valued ongoing relationship with Jon Robin Baitz and August Wilson. I'm attracted to Baitz's "Ten Unknowns" because the play says something about art and the artist's struggle for recognition. I'm intrigued by "Gem of the Ocean" because, after presenting five of the plays in Wilson's journey through the 20th century, I can't wait to witness what will be the first chapter of this cycle--how it all began!

The choices are made. All of these plays are in some stage of development, and it's exciting to be part of the process. Also built into the season is a greater degree of diversity approaching more what I consider an ideal relationship with our community.

I can't predict if it will be a successful season. The puzzle is never finished until we include the crucial component: our audience. But I think there are enough qualities of entertainment, history, and social and cultural imperatives that we have a shot at it. And that's what makes the choices worthwhile.

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Gordon Davidson is artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum.

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