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AN L.A. EXPERIMENT IN THEATER : The Evolution of a Repertory Company and Its Artistic Director

He had come out from New York, a tall, lanky young man with the shoulders of a halfback and an unruly shock of hair. John Houseman had brought him out to help stage “King Lear” with Morris Carnovsky and aid in its transference from the cozy confines of Schoenberg Hall at UCLA (where its run was sold out before it opened) to the open-air Pilgrimage (later John Anson Ford) Theater in the Hollywood Hills.

What a “Lear” that was, with Carnovsky roaming the hillside crying out against the elements and the Hollywood Freeway! It was Houseman’s farewell to the UCLA Theater Group, and when he left for Paris, he recommended that his young assistant, Gordon Davidson, replace him as artistic director.

Those were exciting times at the Theater Group, watching Davidson’s superb production of “The Deputy” while Watts burned, the terror onstage matched by the terror off. It was largely a contemporary repertory of plays, some good, others not, but all sell-outs--"The Birthday Party,” “The Man With a Flower in His Mouth,” “Someday I’ll Sing for You"--while on Bunker Hill, only a few miles away by freeway but as remote as the moon from the campus, the Music Center theaters were being completed, including the squat, intimate Mark Taper Forum.

There was much discussion as to what the small Forum had been created for--chamber music, recitals, lectures. But foremost was the idea of an experimental theater. And with the national reputation the UCLA Theater group had achieved, it was natural that it should be moved off the campus to occupy this central arena of the new facility.

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There was no group, there was only an idea, a reputation, a loyal audience (but who knew if it would follow the theater downtown?)--and Davidson and his small staff. There was some hesitancy about Davidson--too young, too inexperienced.

His youth, 33, may have been a valid objection, but inexperience? He was the son of a distinguished professor of drama at Brooklyn College; he appeared on Broadway as one of the child actors in “Watch on the Rhine”; he was gofer, stage manager and assistant director on various Houseman projects, notably the Shakespearean Festival at Stratford, Conn., and he had been Martha Graham’s stage manager, including her season in Israel.

With some reluctance, he was appointed artistic director, and almost lost his job with his first production.

I think Davidson wanted to define the Mark Taper Forum with that first production, to proclaim it at the outset a bold and abrasive theater, one to stimulate the mind and the emotions of ideas and concepts relative to modern man, a theater not to titillate but to engage. Whether the choice of John Whiting’s “The Devils” as the premiere production was a wise one is questionable, but it was certainly a bold and abrasive one.

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Adapted from Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudon,” the play is an investigation of the nature of good and evil and their relationship to each other in the case of a libertine priest in a French community in 1632 accused by the Ursuline nuns of luring them into traffic with Satan. Whiting’s play is a series of darkly textured (but curiously uninvolving) scenes leading up to the burning of the lecherous priest at the stake.

With a cast headed by Frank Langella as the priest, Joyce Ebert and Ed Flanders, Davidson’s production opened on April 6, 1967, with all the searchlit fanfare of a Hollywood premiere. But this was no college audience; it was one more accustomed to Civic Light Opera productions, and many were outraged by what they saw.

There was a stormy protest against the use of county facilities for such goings-on, and Davidson was widely denounced. But the play actually drew good audiences, including many who found their way in from Westwood.

I remember Davidson during that production. The pressures had reduced him literally to a wraith of a man. He had time to lick his wounds, however, because the second play of the season was an outside production. It was the world premiere of Romulus Linney’s “The Sorrows of Frederick,” a massive, multimedia drama of Frederick the Great, staged by Albert Marre with an ineffective film production on a cyclorama screen in the background.

But it gave Davidson and his staff, including director Ed Parone, a chance to develop one of the strongest elements of the Mark Taper Forum: the launching on Monday night of the New Theatre for Now program of experimental plays and works-in-progress. Beginning with what Parone called a “collision course” of brief playlets by experimental authors along with John Guare’s wild comic strip of a Vietnam satire, “Muzeeka,” the Monday-night experiment had a knowledgeable and deeply involved audience that often stayed hours after the plays to debate their value. At its forefront were the playwrights, directors and actors.

But it was not “The Devils” nor Davidson’s second production that first season, Durrenmatt’s “The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi,” that defined the Mark Taper Forum. It was the final play of the season--a new play by Oliver Hailey, “Who’s Happy Now?”. With Warren Oates and Betty Garrett heading the cast, this was a new play in the American grain. It led such other new American dramas as “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” “The Shadow Box” and “Children of a Lesser God.”

With “Who’s Happy Now?,” one knew this was not simply a house in which to show plays--a theater was born.


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