LA Stage, September/October 2004

 

David Sefton: Challenging His Audience

 

BY ROB KENDT

David Sefton knocks wood a lot. At least, that's what he did repeatedly in a recent interview in his cushy corner office inside Royce Hall, the cavernous theatre on the UCLA campus which is headquarters of UCLA Live, an eclectic season of music, dance, spoken word and theatre Sefton has programmed since 2000.

 

It's not the music or the spoken word events he has to worry about: Figuratively speaking, he can take a performer like Laurie Anderson (scheduled for a new work in November) or an author like David Sedaris, who appeared recently, to the bank.

 

But the program he's most passionate about, to hear him tell it, is UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival, which allows him to expose L.A. audiences to world-class, cutting-edge companies who've seldom or never alighted here, let alone in the States at all. And while he's been encouraged by the enthusiastic audience response--selling tickets has been a "non-stumbling block," as he puts it--it remains a "labor of love" that keeps him on the road looking for shows through the summer and quasi-producing/presenting the rest of the year.

 

The festival also represents UCLA Live's biggest risk. "We lose money on every single thing we do in the theatre festival--sometimes scary amounts of money," Sefton confesses with wide-eyed marvel. A lively, bespectacled Englishman who still looks a lot like the hipster music critic he once was, Sefton is frank and funny--at least a quarter of our interview was "off the record, firmly"--and it's easy to imagine how his presence has galvanized subscribers, board members and audiences since his arrival in the fall of 2000.

 

Indeed, if international theatre is UCLA Live's loss leader, it seems to have been a gamble that's paid off: Donor levels and membership in the program's Royce Center Circle have consistently risen since his arrival.

 

That Sefton is still here may actually be a bigger deal for Los Angeles performing arts than his coming here, after 15 years programming and presenting in London. It's not that L.A. has been without longstanding performing arts institutions, from local theatre companies big and small to commercial theatrical presenters, orchestras, dance companies and miscellaneous nonprofits representing the staggering cultural diversity that's already here. But as Sefton enters his fourth year and his third season at UCLA Live, it has become clear that his organization's longterm commitment to presenting the best international live performance, particularly world theatre and dance, is something Los Angeles didn't even know it needed.

 

"The funniest response to the theatre festival was when the second one came out, because there was a genuine sense from the people of Los Angeles that something like this didn't happen twice," says Sefton, bemused. "The idea of something which recurred--really, that's a new concept for the audiences in this town. That actually, yes, we did one, we're gonna do another one next year and there'll be one the year after that, as well.

 

"Sustainability is the biggest problem in this town--it's the biggest problem in the arts, period, in the world--but actually building a reputation for being the place where you look for interesting international work. That wasn't here, with the obvious exceptions: there were the Olympics, there was Peter. But those are blips, exceptions rather than the rule."

 

By "the Olympics" and "Peter," Sefton refers to the period when Robert Fitzpatrick programmed an international arts festival for L.A.'s 1984 Olympics, which turned into 1987's Los Angeles Festival. Director Peter Sellars took over the remaining installments in 1990 and 1993, after which funding dried up.

 

Another reference point Sefton hears a lot comes from the same period: the short-lived Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown, especially the ground-breaking work Reza Abdoh staged there. "Particularly the first season, the word that most people used to me about my program and about themselves as an audience was hunger," Sefton recalls. "They would keep saying, ‘We're hungry for this,' or ‘This town is hungry for this.' It came up again and again with dozens of people who clearly associated this with a need that wasn't being met. I've gotten into so much trouble saying this in the past, but hey: There's great tiny experimental theatre, places like Highways that have been going forever doing what they do. There's an awful lot of theatre in this town but it's kind of already doing what it does. I see no need to pull the Actors' Gang out of their space. What's the point? What can we do which differs from other things that are happening?

 

"There seemed to be a huge gap in terms of, like, major, grandstanding international theatre, which just wasn't coming here before. You look at the companies we've done for the first time: Theatre Complicité, Robert Wilson--for Christ's sake, no one had ever staged Wilson in L.A. before! You look at names like that, which really have been done in most major cities on the planet--there's a lot of that work that hasn't been seen here."

 

This year's season boasts the West Coast debuts of two British companies--the Royal Court with Sarah Kane's intense 4:48 Psychosis, and Cheek By Jowl with its modern Othello--as well as Flow  by Will Power, a solo act from New York; a theatre piece from Russian Georgia featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov titled Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient; and a Nicaraguan company, El Teatro Justo Rufino Garay, with the expressionistic La Case de Rigoberto Mira al Sur--the first "purely Latin American" production, Sefton says, since he began programming UCLA Live.

 

There's another first in the season: osseus labyrint will present a commissioned site-specific work, Modern Prometheus, LLC. It's the first L.A.-based company Sefton has programmed. "If you wanna give 'em a box, it's performance art," Sefton says of the group. "They do things like make pieces in the storm drains, or hanging off electricity pylons." If L.A. theatregoers haven't heard of the company, it's because they haven't worked much in their hometown. What's it going to be like, then? "I have absolutely no idea," Sefton says. All he knows is that the company has told him it's "like a cross between Frankenstein and Willy Wonka," and that certain of its electrical elements have necessitated the first "pacemaker warning" of Sefton's presenting career.

 

This state of highly engaged uncertainty may sum up Sefton's aesthetic. "I like to be stretched, personally," Sefton says. "I like to sit in an audience and go, ‘I have absolutely no f---ing idea what's going on, but I know it's interesting.' To feel like you've got to reach for something, and you're being taken somewhere you're not entirely sure, A, you wanna go there, and B, where you're going in the first place. Something like [Italy's Societas Raffaello] Sanzio--when I first saw Genesi--from the museum of sleep, I sat in the audience and thought, I've never seen anything like this on a stage before in my life. And how often do you think that?"

 

On the other hand, he's also glad to have the freedom to program in the other direction--as with last season's triumphant appearance by London's Globe Theatre, whose all-male Elizabethan version of Twelfth Night reinvigorated the play in exciting ways. "I think sometimes Joe [Melillio, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music] feels a little constricted that his festival is called ‘Next Wave,' " says Sefton of the festival his is most often compared to. "I'm really glad I didn't call this a ‘contemporary' theatre festival or anything that implied it had to radical and avant-garde--the Wave After Next. I really like that I can go where I like."

 

Indeed, his L.A. audience has happily confounded his prejudices, he reports. "One of the things I really like is that some of the oldest audience members I have are also some of the most liberal attenders," Sefton says. "I have members of my audience who are in their 80s who will come to all the weird shit and love it.

 

"The radical is not new to them; they've done it. They get the references. They were here in the radical '40s. The husband of my former board president was a friend of Eugene Ionesco's, and he loves to find new things to freak me out with every time I see him."

 

To surprise and challenge an audience is one thing. To have an audience that returns the favor, as David Sefton has found, is a gift to be cherished.