Appreciation: Diana Gibson, mercurial mentor on L.A.’s stage scene, dies at 69
If there’s a great theater lobby in the sky, Diana Gibson, a vivid and sometimes harsh presence on L.A.’s small-theater scene for more than 30 years, arrived there July 17 after her death at age 69 from lingering ailments and pneumonia at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Gibson was subscription manager for 15 years at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where artistic director Stephen Sachs took comfort in the thought that, if heaven had a lobby for newly arrived thespians, Gibson must have found a kindred spirit.
“She and Elaine Strich both passed on the same day, and I thought, ‘Isn’t that appropriate?’ ” Sachs said. “Here are two great broads of the theater, and they passed on the same afternoon and they were both cut of the same cloth” -- crusty, outspoken and memorable.
“She was definitely a character and had a blunt, abrupt kind of acerbic sense of humor,” Sachs said. “She was a force to be reckoned with, and sometimes a character to be handled.”
Gibson’s contribution to L.A. theater after earning master’s degrees at USC in painting and drama was divided in two: the years on the Fountain’s business-support team, preceded by a creatively fruitful but sometimes contentious decade as the artistic director and producer at the Cast Theatres in Hollywood.
The Fountain’s plans for a celebration of Gibson’s life included setting up on its stage the subscription table that was her lobby perch for every performance, where she would banter with the subscribers who often became her friends and coax others to fork over for one of the Fountain’s membership passes, good for any four performances. On Gibson’s table at the remembrance ceremony, Sachs said, her friends at the theater would place a pack of cigarettes and a glass of wine, as in life -- the better to evoke its missing occupant, who brandished both.
If Justin Tanner’s muse answers his wishes, Gibson will indeed be remembered. He hopes to resurrect her onstage in a play that tells of their eight artistically rewarding but tension-fraught years together in the 1990s -- Tanner as the playwriting boy wonder of the L.A. small theater scene, and Gibson as a highly critical and sometimes brutal honer of his edgy, irreverent comedies.
Tanner recalled Gibson as a taskmaster who never praised but aggressivley tore apart his scripts, inflicting pain but turning him into a better playwright than he probably would have been without the tough love.
“My voice was refined and created through her,” he said. Of the 23 plays Tanner has written, nearly half -- 11 over an eight year span -- were shaped and launched by Gibson at the Cast. “People would be lined up around the block,” he recalled, and by the mid-’90s Gibson had decided that the most efficient and financially sound way to run the Cast would be to present all Tanner, all the time.
“I was malleable at first and I think it was a control thing” on Gibson’s part, he recalled. “I was 23 or 24 when we started, and I wanted to drink and have fun. She felt the only way to turn me into a real artist was tough love, to beat me into shape. And she did.”
Tanner recognized an admirable impulse behind the aggressive tactics. Convinced that most cultural output was dross, Gibson was on a mission to battle mediocrity. “She used to say, ‘We’re on the front lines,’ ” the playwright recalled. “But she put terror in almost everyone who met her. She had an absolutely volcanic temper. She was an imposing human being.”
Despite the tumult, their partnership yielded the long-running late-night show “Zombie Attack!” as well as “Pot Mom” and “The Tent Show,” among others. Mark Ruffalo and French Stewart were unknowns when cast at the Cast in Tanner plays. Laurie Metcalf was a famous recruit playing the title role in a special run of “Pot Mom,” staged as a high-priced benefit for the theater.
During her time at USC, Gibson toured Europe and Britain in the late ’60s with student troupes. She emerged in the late ’70s as an aspiring L.A. playwright in small theaters. But Los Angeles Times reviewers were not kind, dismissing as unfocused a rock-musical takeoff on “Cinderella” that she wrote. A 1983 evening of her one-act plays at the MET Theatre elicited a critic’s complaint that “when they aren’t trifles … they are too much in love with their own tricks.”
But Ted Schmitt, the respected artistic director and proprietor of the Cast Theatres (two stages, with 65 and 99 seats), saw enough in Gibson to make her the company’s literary manager and dramaturge in 1984. With his death from AIDS in 1990, Gibson took charge and soon the Tanner era had arrived.
But things turned ugly as it wound down.
“In 1999 I did a reading for her, and after the play reading she said, “Well, there’s one good line out of the whole play,’ ” Tanner recalled. “I thought, `I don’t want to do this anymore.’ ” He and his close creative collaborator Andy Daley also had been active in helping to run the Cast’s offstage operations on a shoestring budget, and they gave Gibson an ultimatum: If she didn’t leave, they would. She left and found a different footing at the Fountain.
“We did not speak for 15 years,” Tanner said. “The damage we did in the volatile [final] period at the theater was scorched earth. I’ve never been as brutal, and never been treated as brutally.”
But at the Fountain, Sachs said, Gibson became like a blustery but beloved aunt. “She got real pleasure from interacting with people. She told me many times how much our subscribers meant to her,” and many of them became her friends.
Gibson’s days of artistic command were done. While she freely would state her opinion about artistic matters at staff meetings, Sachs said, she had no real say in what plays were chosen or how they were staged. She accepted that change with no discernible chagrin.
“One of the things I found most admirable about her was she was able to step away from a leadership position at the Cast Theatre and come over here and really start over and make [a very different circumstance] her own,” Sachs said. “It took a lot of humility and perseverance, and she really succeeded in that.”
A year ago, Tanner, who occasionally has acted, answered an invitation to audition for a part in the Fountain’s revival of Larry Kramer’s 1980s AIDS drama, “The Normal Heart.”
As he walked into the Fountain one day, somebody simultaneously descended the staircase next to the theater entrance. It was Gibson, who in recent years had lived in an apartment upstairs from the Fountain.
“We threw our arms around each other and it was really sweet,” Tanner said. “I love her, but having said that, I did not run to see her again” during the ensuing year. Still, he said, the memory of that brief embrace and pleasant talk means a lot to him, especially now.
“I didn’t get the part, but it didn’t matter because I got to see her again. If I hadn’t, I would be feeling really [awful] right now.”
Gibson is survived by her sister, Julie Gibson Josephson, and Josephson’s husband, Steve, and their daughter, Kira Moore Josephson. The Fountain Theatre has established the Diana Gibson Subscriber Fund in her memory; donations will go toward subscriptions for low-income students and seniors.
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