Is a theater director like a rabbi?


LOS ANGELES, March 5 (JTA) — A few weeks ago, Gordon Davidson stood up in the Gershwin Theatre on New York’s Broadway and, amid the plaudits of his peers, was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, in recognition of his lifetime achievement in the American theater.

As speakers lauded his 33-year tenure as the first and only artistic director of the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, Davidson might have flashed back to his very first production of the group, which nearly spelled the end of his career.

For the inaugural drama of the new theatrical venture, the young Davidson decided to stage, and direct himself, “The Devils,” John Whiting’s tale of a libertine priest, a nun and their sexual fantasies.

The Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese and Davidson’s bosses at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors were suitably outraged and demanded the director’s scalp.

It was only through the intercession of Buffy Chandler, then the grande dame of Los Angeles society and culture, aided by Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, that Davidson and the theater group survived.

However, the supervisors slapped a tax on the theater and formed a committee to keep a watchful eye on the dangerous director.

Now nearing 67, the lean, handsome Davidson, with his distinctive shock of gray hair, thinks the lifetime achievement award may have been premature.

While he realizes that “the arc of life is getting shorter,” he has no thought of his retirement because “I still have a lifetime of work to do.”

Davidson grew up in a mixed Brooklyn neighborhood of “Jews, Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics and one Protestant,” as a member of a “prototypical American Jewish family.

“My grandfather was Orthodox, my father Conservative and I’m Reform,” he recalls, sitting in his modest, if not scruffy, office, formerly the administrative center of the Los Angeles County morgue, which is cluttered with scripts, books and newspapers.

He arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 as the new managing director of the UCLA Theatre Group, which metamorphosed into the Center Theatre Group three years later.

By most measures, Davidson’s tenure has been a success. The Taper Forum has spawned laboratories and programs to encourage theater appreciation and new talent among the city’s diverse Latino, black, Asian, disabled and high school populations.

The Taper’s trophy cabinet holds a 1977 special Tony for theatrical excellence. In the early 1990s, the Taper won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for “The Kentucky Cycle” and “Angels in America,” a first for plays produced outside New York. In fact in 1994, three out of four plays vying for the Tony were Taper productions.

In total, if Los Angeles has surmounted the East Coast perception as a cultural wasteland for theater, much of the credit goes to Davidson.

Yet, he is far from satisfied with the state of his art in Los Angeles, or, for that matter, in New York.

Even the lodestar of the American theater, Broadway, is dimming. “Do you realize,” Davidson says in a horror-stricken voice, “that there is not a single new American play now on Broadway?”

Davidson likes the metaphor of the theater as the communal storyteller, drawing in listeners around the tribal camp fire, but, he adds, “We’re in a somewhat desperate struggle to keep alive the flame.”

There are multiple causes underlying the struggle. “When I started out in the ’60s, women stayed mostly at home, so if we sold them subscriptions or tickets, they brought their husbands along,” he says. “Now most women are working, everybody is busy, they just can’t commit two or three nights a week for the theater, the philharmonic, the opera.”

On top of that, cable channels continue to proliferate, there are the movies, plus a sharp drop in government support for the arts.

Along with every other theater, symphony or opera director, Davidson worries about the graying of his mainly elderly, white and middle class audience.

“It’s my job to attract a younger and more diverse audience, but it’s not easy,” says Davidson, “Some of my steady subscribers complain that I’m trying to shove politically and ethnically correct plays down their throats.”

Since the solid core his audience is Jewish, some of the loudest complaints come from that sector.

“Every group wants to see itself reflected on the stage, but it doesn’t work that way,” observes Davidson. “The best plays may be about a specific group — like the current ‘Jitney,’ by black playwright August Wilson — but it evokes universal identification.”

Pondering the role of the artistic director toward his audience, Davidson likens it to the relationship between a rabbi and his congregation.

“In some ways, both the rabbi and the director deliver sermons,” he says. “Sometimes a rabbi has to ask disturbing questions which his audience may not want to hear. The artist has the same function.”

Currently, no Jewish-themed plays are on the horizon, although there are some future possibilities. One is “The Mad Dancer” by Yehuda Hyman, which deals with mysticism and Jewish identity.

Davidson also speaks highly of a book by Pete Hamill, “Snow in August,” which revolves around a Catholic boy growing up in Brooklyn and his relationship to a rabbi.

One of Davidson’s unfulfilled ambitions is to do a play on the Israeli- Arab conflict. “I’m always open to anything from Israel, but I haven’t found anything that would speak to an American audience,” he says.

“In general, audiences seem less and less interested in ‘issue’ plays, as they were during the civil rights struggle. That’s not where people’s heads are now.”

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