A door closes, another opens

Special to The Times

The recent announcement that Robert Egan will be leaving the Mark Taper Forum at the end of the season and returning to Seattle, whence he came 18 years ago, has been news in the theater here, though what kind of news is not altogether clear. It's hard not to see Egan's departure as one of those signposts thrust into the shaky earth we stand on, marking off a two-decade section of our journey toward the notion of theater in Los Angeles. Do people go back to Seattle? Evidently yes.

Egan arrived in Los Angeles in 1984, at the age of 34, fresh from the Seattle Repertory Theater, where he had been second chair to artistic director Daniel Sullivan, the man who would go on to fame directing Broadway hits like "The Heidi Chronicles" and "Proof." Egan took a similar post at the Taper, becoming artistic director Gordon Davidson's right-hand man, charged with developing new plays and playwrights.

That he didn't get the top job in the end or leave for an artistic director's position before now has been a matter for continuing discussion when his name comes up. One local director with an inside knowledge of the Taper told me, "Everyone I know has always assumed he wouldn't get it, while he assumed he would."

True or not, the statement points to a career that can be measured in different ways. Not everyone around the Taper liked or admired Egan. The nature of being a director who, in his particular job, was something of a gatekeeper to the city's main stage, is likely to attract a certain amount of disaffection, rivalry and scorn.

But he also had his champions. And from the distance of an observer, I guess I was one of them, having been impressed by the high quality of his work with contemporary British playwrights. His productions of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" (1997) and David Hare's "Skylight" (1997), for example, were stunning, I thought, as was his staging of the world premiere of Jon Robin Baitz's apartheid drama "The Film Society" at the Los Angeles Theater Center back in 1987.

Among his other notable productions were John Steppling's "The Dream Coast" (1986); Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," with Kelsey Grammer in 1985; and the West Coast premiere of "The Guys," Anne Nelson's duet for fireman and journalist, with Tim Robbins and Helen Hunt, at the Actors' Gang last summer.

When I heard he was leaving to become artistic director of Seattle's ACT (A Contemporary Theater), I thought back to an interview I did with him when he arrived at the Taper all those years ago in which he explained that the actors, writers and other theater people living in Seattle were quite happy to be there -- and not just biding their time until they could get to New York or Los Angeles. "A lot of the actors there have been to New York and Los Angeles," he said. "And that's why they're in Seattle." What a concept.

Oxford shaped him

I knew something of his talent because I had been to Seattle and seen his production of Christopher Hampton's "Savages," another play by one of those angry, intellectual young Brits for whom he had an affinity. It was an eye-opening evening of anti-imperialist theater that sticks in my mind yet.

"Europe got Freud and Marx, and we got Freud," Egan said in that interview, explaining why political playwrights were more numerous in England than America. He seemed to want to help change that.

The headline on the story I wrote about him in the Herald Examiner, in fact, read: "Will Robert Egan Electrify the Taper?"

I take it he did not, although what stage director in Los Angeles could live up to that verb? His own ideas of theater were shaped by the postgraduate years he spent after Boston College at Oxford, where he was nudged toward the political ramparts by the "life-affirming rage" he found in the confrontational work of Hare and his contemporaries.

"Theater was a political act at Oxford," he said, recalling the plays of Hare, Trevor Griffiths, Edward Bond and John Arden, British writers who were, in Egan's words, examining "the relationship between individuals and the social world they live in." That would be his goal as well.

But like many a left-leaning American working in the milieu of the upper middle class, Egan was dogged by the charge that he was having it both ways, talking a good game of radical politics while living a life of high-end American affluence. Some at the theater called him "the Brentwood Marxist," a reference to the expensive home he shared with television and stage actress Kate Mulgrew until their marriage came apart in the early 1990s.

"There are contradictions in capitalist society," he said on this subject recently when we met for breakfast at a cafe in the Palisades to talk about his imminent departure. "People have to be honest about contradictions. Then interesting conversations can take place. We live in Contradictionland."

I'm not sure that exhausts the topic, but one thing to be said in his favor is that unlike many a stage director, he didn't disappear into the lucrative assembly line of television. Like almost everyone in the theater here, Egan flirted with Hollywood, directing episodes of "Frasier" (which is set in Seattle) and taking meetings on film development deals. But he stuck to the theater as the place that really mattered to him.

His most important work, some believe, was not what he directed on the main stage, but what he helped nurture away from it, as administrator of the New Work Festival from its inception in 1988.

"To me, that was Bob's big contribution to the life of the Taper," said Oskar Eustis, a former Taper staff director who left in 1994 to run the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. "Bob's a terrifically talented director, but it was what he did with the New Work Festival that stands out. He gave a lot of local theater artists the sense that they could have a life in Los Angeles. He was very egalitarian, very inclusive."

A few New Work Festival shows -- Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle" and 1989's "Stand-Up Tragedy" -- became famous. Most did not. "Many things didn't go on," said Eustis, who directed "Angels in America," along with Tony Taccone in 1992, "but that's the nature of experiments."

Egan said he has had previous offers to run theaters elsewhere but turned them down because they would have taken him away from the West Coast, which he prefers to the other coast. Plus, he wanted to wait until both his sons finished high school, which will finally happen this year.

"I think the time that Gordon could have named me as his successor has passed," Egan, who is now 52, said at breakfast. "The board is still working out what sort of leadership they want to employ" to administer the Taper and the larger Ahmanson, which were once separate but are now a joint nonprofit venture that could again have separate artistic directors after Davidson leaves. "My interest has always been to run the Mark Taper Forum. I would have loved to have had a chance to do that, but I can't wait around for three years to see if that might happen."

There was no bitterness in his voice as he said this. Indeed, for someone who in college was a member of the Union of Radical Political Economists and remains committed to challenging the unexamined American status quo on the stage, Egan conducts himself in public with the disarming charm of a practiced diplomat.

"I think after 18 years in L.A., going up to Seattle will be a kind of head-clearing," he said. "I feel like I'm going to get back to my roots in some important way."

Returning to 'a theater town'

When Egan starts at ACT in the late spring, he will be replacing Gordon Edelstein, who returned to the East Coast to take over the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn. ACT has four stages in a new downtown location, including two 400-seat theaters. It has an annual budget of about $6 million (roughly half that of the Taper) and is one of four major theaters in Seattle, a group of Equity houses that includes the Seattle Rep, the Intiman and the Empty Space. Among his first endeavors will be directing a new play by Baitz.

"Seattle is profoundly a theater town. I think people feel that without their theater, life would be less in that city."

Left unsaid is that the same is not true of Los Angeles. But Egan backs away from beating L.A. with that stick. Instead, he leaps to the defense of Los Angeles theater while acknowledging the obstacles in its path. "In Los Angeles, one gets the impression the dominant cultural sensibility is disseminated through film and television and that if people are looking for a theatrical experience they'll go to New York or London. And that is wrong. Amazing careers and artists have started here and great plays that went on to hit the national scene. Some people in Hollywood don't realize that.

"But I think theater is becoming more of a force. The Taper is finally getting a permanent second stage in Culver City, and it's great to see the Geffen expanding. South Coast has been amazing, the number of plays and writers they've developed. You've got this next generation of theater artists now -- Luis Alfaro, Chay Yew, John Belluso, Jessica Goldberg, Annie Weisman -- people who have what I call an L.A. sensibility in terms of how they work a play formally. And there's a lot more diversity.

"What's happening in terms of class and race, the experiment that is Los Angeles, boy, I tell you I will miss that. But I won't give it up because I'm going to get those artists up to Seattle. There's a perspective that's forming here about where this country's going that's important."

Egan is such an able spokesman for the importance of new plays and playwrights, one can't help but wonder that he never got the chance to run his own theater in Los Angeles. But he's not complaining. "It's been great," he said about working alongside Gordon Davidson for nearly two decades. "There's a changing of the guard now that after 36 years, Gordon has announced he's stepping down. So it's a very interesting time for L.A. and where theater goes from here."

Some of it, we already know, is headed to Puget Sound.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Some worked, some didn't

Like any director, Robert Egan has had his share of successes and misfires. Here are a few, based on Times reviews and other sources:

Hits

Play: "The Guys," (2002)

Playwright: Anne Nelson

Venue: Actors' Gang

Play: "Skylight" (1997)

Playwright: David Hare

Venue: Mark Taper Forum

Play: "Arcadia" (1997)

Playwright: Tom Stoppard

Venue: Mark Taper Forum

Play: "The Film Society" (1987)

Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz

Venue: Los Angeles Theatre Center

*

Misses

Play: "Closer" (2000)

Playwright: Patrick Marber

Venue: Mark Taper Forum

Play: "The Poison Tree" (2000)

Playwright: Robert Glaudini

Venue: Mark Taper Forum

Play: "Richard II" (1992)

Playwright: Shakespeare

Venue: Mark Taper Forum

Play: "Sansei" (1989)

Playwright: Hiroshima and Egan

Venue: Mark Taper Forum

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°