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A life in the theater

George Burns Visiting Artist Gordon Davidson discusses his life under the lights. (Photo/Stacey Wang)

Before the Music Center of Los Angeles County and the Center Theatre Group (CTG) became one of the largest and most highly regarded performing arts destinations in the country, Gordon Davidson remembered a time when downtown wasn’t as vibrant and treasured as it is today.

“It was possible to drive from Westwood to downtown in 15 minutes. I used to be able to finish my office work at 6 p.m. and get in the car and drive home, have dinner with my wife and two kids, read them a story, sing a song, kiss them goodnight and go back in time for an 8 p.m. curtain,” said Davidson, the George Burns Visiting Artist at the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

In the 1960s, downtown LA was powered by the manufacturing and financial world. Angelenos didn’t live “in the city” and the Music Center was just a stand-alone complex among tall structures.

“There were very few theaters that had year-round activity. The theater scene, as I encountered it, consisted mostly of small storefront theaters with actors who performed showcase productions,” the founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum recalled.

“Everything west of St. Louis seemed like a big flat nothing,” said Eric Trules, associate professor of theater practice. “And that’s what people thought of the culture of Los Angeles when Gordon arrived.”

Davidson and Trules are currently teaching a directed research class this semester after co-teaching “A Life in the Theater with Gordon Davidson” during the fall.

“I must say I didn’t know what I was going to encounter because I didn’t know the students’ backgrounds and majors,” Davidson said about the first class. “I just said I would go in open to what comes. I’m very pleased, especially with their intelligence and enthusiasm. They are smart and determined and that makes me feel good and challenged.”

He added: “I like that the students just call me ‘Gordon.’ ”

The fall course delved into the contemporary history of Los Angeles theater and Davidson’s role in its development, specifically his legacy at CTG, where he led the Mark Taper Forum for 38 years and the Ahmanson Theatre for 16 years. The class also examined Davidson’s creation of an identity for a cohesive, lively and distinctive Los Angeles theater.

Davidson, Visiting Professor of Theater Practice, has worked with theatrical luminaries Martha Graham, Leonard Bernstein, Tony Kushner and Al Pacino, among others. He has been critically acclaimed on both coasts for his creation of LA’s most prominent regional theater and for his direction since the 1960s. He has garnered the most prestigious prizes in theater — including Tony, Drama Desk, Obie, Ovation and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards.

During his career, Davidson has sought to find and develop plays that dared to ask probing questions. It was this social consciousness, sense of the political moment and responsibility to the community that led to four successful decades of success on the boards.

“I did a lot of things that were crazy. I didn’t do them to be crazy. I knew there was risk involved, but it seemed to me that the value superseded the risk,” he said. “That’s what made it worthwhile and a great satisfaction.”

In 1976, Davidson won a Tony Award for his direction of The Shadow Box. It was the first play that premiered at the Mark Taper Forum to win a Pulitzer Prize. Subsequently, Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle, two other plays that originated at the Taper, were awarded Pulitzers.

Davidson also commissioned Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff, the first play to bring signing as a language to the stage. The production, which earned two LA Drama Critics Circle awards, later went on to Broadway, and Davidson was nominated for Tony and Drama Desk awards for his direction.

“I did those plays not to get to Broadway. It didn’t even enter my mind … it was to say something about the lives being lived by citizens in an ‘unheard’ community and to change the conventional perceptions of that community,” he said.

“Theater was the place to do it.”

Before finding his life’s passion in the theater, Davidson intended to pursue electrical engineering as an occupation. The New York native, who studied at Cornell University under a five-year work/study program, was on his way to building a successful career in science, but an assignment to design guidance missile systems at a naval ordinance plant deterred him from continuing.

For relief, he took a night job as an usher at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, which made him rethink his life goals. He returned to Cornell, switched to liberal arts with a major in theater and went on to Western Reserve University for his MA.

After serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Dix, he began work in the theater, starting with a position as apprentice stage manager at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy in Stratford, Conn., and rising in two years to assistant stage manager and production stage manager. He then moved into various jobs on Broadway and off-Broadway, where he began directing in summer and winter stock.

In 1964, actor/director/producer John Houseman, Davidson’s lifelong mentor, hired him to work as assistant director for a production of King Lear at The Theatre Group at UCLA. That led to the position of managing director when Houseman departed for Paris to write three volumes of his memoir.

“From this position at UCLA, I received an offer from Mrs. Dorothy Buffum Chandler to lead the new 750-seat thrust stage gem of a theater space — the Mark Taper Forum.

Davidson opened the Taper with playwright John Whiting’s controversial production of The Devils, and he continued his legacy for almost 40 years, giving voice to the unheard and under-represented populations of Los Angeles and helping to further the discussion and expansion of ideas that shaped the city.

“I’ve committed myself to a life in the theater,” he said, “because it is the best way I know of telling our stories and preserving our culture and our humanity — the hard, difficult, confrontational and bold enlightening truths.

“And yet, I will admit, when the theater erupts with the joy of laughter and celebration — driving out ‘pain, misery and social injustice,’ which a subscriber once accused me of favoring in my programming — I am truly a very happy man, because as tough as a life in the theater can be, I can tell you that I have based by my life’s work in believing in the art of the possible and I always look forward to the future.”

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