Downtown News

Sept. 13, 2004



Exit Stage Right

Theater Head Reflects on Nearly Four Decades in Downtown



by Rob Kendt

Contributing Writer

"I've been trying to get my arms around this city for 40 years," Gordon Davidson said recently from his cluttered yet somehow airy, inviting office on the southeast side of the Taper annex. This month he embarks on his final season, a rich, tumultuous, influential tenure at the helm of one of America's leading regional theaters at the Center Theatre Group.


A former stage manager turned director, Davidson came from New York in the mid-1960s to lead a UCLA-based theater group called, naturally, the Theatre Group. By 1967, the cultural mavens of Downtown had anointed him the head of their brand new Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, and the Center Theatre Group was born.


Davidson put the young theater on the map with politically charged productions like The Trial of the Catonsville Nine and In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, such L.A.-specific watersheds as Zoot Suit, and Tony winners Children of a Lesser God and The Shadow Box.


When, in 1989, he also took the helm of the much larger Ahmanson Theatre, his focus began to shift from directing to producing. While the Taper continued to have world-beating successes--the one-two-three punch of The Kentucky Cycle, Angels in America and the L.A. riot-themed Twilight essentially made the Taper America's leading theater in the early 1990s--Davidson's vision has often seemed to be stretched a bit thin in the past decade. The Ahmanson has essentially become a top-flight Broadway and West End importer.


That may be why he's so excited about his newest project, the realization of a long-held dream to find a second stage on the Westside. The Kirk Douglas Theater will open in Culver City in October with a season of plays developed and nurtured through the Taper's development process.


It's partly the consummation of that dream that convinced Davidson it was time to move on. But, as he recently told Los Angeles Downtown News, there was also a personal motivation.


"There's some math I did two years ago, about the time I came to the decision that I needed to finish this chapter," he said. "In the first 25 years of the Taper, I directed over 30 mainstage productions. And since I took on the Ahmanson, I had directed four plays."


He's directed a few since that calculation, but the point is well taken, and it follows the all-too-familiar arc of many a creative career: The competent artist is eventually kicked upstairs to manage, administrate and curate rather than make art.


"That's not when I came into the business to do," he explained, gesturing around his office at piles of messages, scripts and correspondence. "The Ahmanson is a real challenge. It's gotten hard. Broadway's changed. [Producer] Cameron Mackintosh played a big role in it, because he was very productive, and he's now not as productive."


Indeed, when Davidson took over the Ahmanson from Robert Fryer, Mackintosh's Phantom of the Opera was beginning what would be a four-year run there. That drove the Ahmanson subscription season to Hollywood's more intimate Doolittle Theatre, essentially deferring the challenge of filling the ample Ahmanson seats show after show, season after season.


Davidson will leave his successor, Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Michael Ritchie, in charge of three theaters, and he said he wants the transition to be "the smoothest ever." He's particularly keen to insure that the link between the Taper and the Douglas is clear: Though some Westsiders have expressed relief that the Douglas opening means they won't have to come Downtown anymore, Davidson hopes L.A. theatergoers will continue to include both theaters in their plans. Still, as a longtime Westside resident himself, he understands the complaints.


"I thought [Dorothy] Chandler was very smart to position this Center at the hub of these freeways: the Hollywood, Santa Monica, the 5," he said. "And those freeways you could travel in those days. I used to go home at 6 p.m. to my family in Westwood, have dinner with the kids, read them a story, and get back here in time for an 8 o'clock curtain. Now you'd be lucky to make it one way."


That's partly what he means about the challenge of getting "his arms around this city." Among his unrealized projects, he said, is a play about the history of L.A.'s former Red Cars, and why they were "allowed to be destroyed" in the 1950s. Indeed, the often-buried history of L.A. hits close to home for Davidson.


"I wasn't here when Bunker Hill was here, but the image I have is of lovely Victorian homes," Davidson said of the neighborhood that was razed in the '60s to erect the skyline we now know. "People lived here and went down into the city, down the hill to the Finance District. But somewhere it all went to seed. And that was a time when it was search and destroy, tear it down and start all over again. I think it's one of the diseases that has plagued this city specifically, because it doesn't know its historical buildings.


"I firmly believe that if this whole thing, including the county buildings, had been built 10 years later, in the '70s, when cities began to think about refurbishing and reimagining Downtowns, I bet they would have figured out a way to have the houses and this Center. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"


A tribute to that forgotten Bunker Hill history formed the moving closing image of Culture Clash's Chavez Ravine, itself a memorial for the vibrant community that was erased to create another L.A. landmark, Dodger Stadium. Of course, like that ballpark, the Music Center and Taper have since become historical monuments themselves. Davidson seems hopeful that the cultural momentum he's helped build won't be summarily neglected.


"There is a growing awareness that somehow maybe this could be a cultural hub," Davidson said. This is not a dream he's never heard articulated before, of course: "It's interesting, because that's the way I would have described it, even way back in '67." Since then, Davidson has seen ambitious plans to link Downtown redevelopment to arts activity come and go, particularly at Spring Street's Los Angeles Theater Center, which flamed out in 1991 (though sporadic shows continue there).


Have these regular rediscoveries of Downtown's possibilities, followed by disappointing retrenchments, made him at all skeptical that they'll ever materialize?


"I'm more hopeful," he said, then qualified, "but the numbers are astronomical. That's why I like [businessman and philanthropist] Eli Broad's argument that culture actually contributes to the economics of the city. I don't remember hearing that in the '60s. Then it was more about, it's important that a city have this culture, but they didn't relate it to [an economic] benefit. If it's true, that's fine.


"They've got great hopes for Grand Avenue, they've widened the street in the hopes that one day it will be a ‘boulevard,' " Davidson continued, pronouncing that last word with posh emphasis.


If he smiles a bit at this Grand ambition, it may be because he's witnessed many similar projects flame and burn out in his time. He's clearly gratified by Disney Hall's realization, and there is palpable evidence that theater- and concertgoers aren't simply running in and out of Downtown: The lively outdoor bar-and-restaurant traffic on the Music Center plaza, for instance, is a relatively recent development that reflects a growing sense of nightlife destination.


He also smiles, probably, because he himself has had similar dreams for his theater and for the city he's called home for four decades. The best thing you can say about Gordon Davidson's extraordinary run at the Center Theatre Group is that for all the projects he wished he'd gotten off the ground--including some he'll now be free to pursue on his own--he did in fact realize many of those dreams, and shared them with a gratified, responsive audience.


When he says he thinks the Grand Avenue master plan is probably "a long way off, mainly because people don't live here," he's selling himself a little short. In a spread-out metropolis dominated by another entertainment medium, Davidson and his theaters have "lived here" longer than any other performing arts institution in Los Angeles.


And if Davidson feels he's never quite gotten his arms all the way around L.A., in all its staggering breadth and diversity, the opposite certainly isn't true. This often forgetful city has embraced Davidson, and we'll be sorry to let him go.