A personal message to you from Artistic Director Stephen Sachs.
Donate Here or text “FOUNTAIN” to 243725.
A personal message to you from Artistic Director Stephen Sachs.
Donate Here or text “FOUNTAIN” to 243725.
By Stephen Sachs
If Los Angeles had a Mount Rushmore, the visage of Gordon Davidson would be on it. Such a monument to the City of the Angels would include many faces, from a variety of disciplines. Politics, the arts, architecture, sports, business. With names like Mulholland, Chandler, Griffith, Bradley, Getty, O’Malley, Wright, Disney. And the name Gordon Davidson.
Starting in 1967 with the launching of the Music Center and the Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson’s 38-year leadership of Center Theatre Group made him not only the Founding Father of Los Angeles theatre but one of the most influential artistic leaders in the city’s history. He planted the theatre flag in the sand for Los Angeles and put our city on the theatrical map.
With Gordon’s passing, and the loss of Arena Stage’s Zelda Fichandler this summer, the generation of bold visionaries who created, established and fought for the ideal of non-profit theater in this country, upon which all of us follow, are exiting.
For me, as a theatre artist growing up in Los Angeles, with a dream of some day creating my own theatre company, Gordon’s light was inspiring and his shadow monumental. But working with him and getting to know him revealed the kind, generous and supportive man he was. If you were a passionate theatre person, he was always on your side.
Gordon first influenced the course of my artistic life when he cast me in the world premiere of Tales from Hollywood, a new play by Christopher Hampton at the Mark Taper Forum in 1982 starring Paul Sorvino. I was twenty-three. It was my first acting job in the professional theater. I got my Equity card thanks to Gordon Davidson.
Gordon commissioned Christopher to write the play inspired by the history of Gordon and Judi Davidson’s home on Mabery Road in Santa Monica Canyon . The 1929 house once belonged to Austrian actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel. It became a meeting place in the 1940’s for German exiles during the war, including Bertolt Brecht, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas and Heinrich Mann. Greta Garbo and Albert Einstein would visit. Famous actors, writers, and filmmakers of the era would gather each week for a Sunday salon in the house to eat, drink and argue politics and art. During the run of Tales From Hollywood, Gordon and Judi hosted a company party at their home where we all enjoyed an afternoon gathering and experienced the stimulating atmosphere of the notable house firsthand. The home not only held the history of the celebrated émigrés who met there years ago. It also displayed proof of the remarkable career of the man who lived there now. Among the family photos on the walls hung posters, playbills, and backstage photographs from Gordon’s extraordinary life in the theatre. I remember the framed drawing of Gordon by Al Hirschfeld in particular.
As a young actor who grew up in Los Angeles, standing on the stage of the Mark Taper Forum in my first professional production was exhilarating. Like stepping into a dream. The Mark Taper Forum was my Mecca. The epicenter of LA Theater. For me and most actors in Los Angeles, to be working at the Taper was like passing through the portal of professional and artistic arrival. It was where you wanted to be, you needed to be. And that was all because of Gordon.
I loved being there. Not just on stage. All of it. The rehearsal rooms, the offices, the circular backstage hallway that curved around the playing area. The walls decorated with posters from Taper productions, each signed by the actors, many now famous and admired. My young hand trembled when I added my simple signature to our wall poster for Tales from Hollywood.
In the Taper hallways I would stare at the framed photographs from the 1979 world premiere of Children of Lesser God, created and performed on the Taper stage just three years before my arrival there. In the photos there was Gordon, directing John Rubinstein and Phyllis Frelich in that ground-breaking production which showed the world the power and beauty of American Sign Language on stage. Though my own commitment and contribution to deaf theatre in Los Angeles would be years away, a seed had been planted.
That same 1981-82 season at the Taper, just seven months before I appeared there, the newest play by Athol Fugard, A Lesson from Aloes, had been staged. I did not meet Athol that year, but our paths would cross nearly two decades later and an artistic partnership would be formed that would change my life. By way of Gordon Davidson and the Mark Taper Forum.
I savored my time at the Taper. I would sit in the empty arena, watching Gordon direct his company in the home he had fathered, and dream of someday creating a theatre home of my own.
When I finally opened the Fountain Theatre with my colleague Deborah Lawlor in 1990, Gordon and the Taper were entering a renewed phase of artistic achievement with the premieres of Jelly’s Last Jam, The Kentucky Cycle, Angels in America, and Twilight: Los Angeles. The Taper was riding a crest of award-winning national acclaim under Gordon’s unending passion, guidance and leadership.
Meanwhile, on Fountain Avenue, our modest theatre company was blossoming. In 2000, Athol Fugard surprised all of us by arriving one night to see our work. He offered me his new play, Exits and Entrances, in 2004 and a 12-year artistic partnership began that continues to this day. Gordon attended our world premiere production of Exits and Entrances and was beaming like a pleased uncle. So caring and supportive.
The last time I spoke with Gordon was a brief hello at the memorial service for Phyllis Frelich held at the Taper two years ago. By this time, I knew Phyllis well and had worked with her many times. She was a founding member of Deaf West Theatre, which we launched at the Fountain in 1991. Her memorial at the Taper was a gathering of the many deaf and hearing artists and friends in the community who knew and loved Phyllis. And a bittersweet reunion of the core team that had created Children of a Lesser God on that very stage: John Rubinstein, Mark Medoff, Robert Steinberg, and, of course, Gordon Davidson. Although eighty-one and moving more delicately, Gordon spoke passionately from the stage he once led about the power of theatre as a vehicle for human connection and a trigger for social change. Theatre still fervently mattered to him. Like a wise elder preaching from the pulpit, Gordon still believed.
And now he is gone. But not really. Because the hundreds of new plays he helped create, develop and produce over nearly four decades will endure forever. And the hundreds of thousands of lives he has impacted will be forever changed. Including one Artistic Director on Fountain Avenue.
The intimate Fountain Theatre is a fraction of the Taper’s size and budget. But that doesn’t matter. The words of Gordon Davidson continue to inspire and remind me that “the great thing about the theatre is that it’s dealing with the art of the possible. What’s possible is not limited by money, but by imagination, and vision.”
Gordon had the vision to see what was possible. The city, and ourselves, are forever richer for it.
Stephen Sachs is the founding Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
My Name is Asher Lev Feb 15 – April 19 (323) 663-1525 MORE
by Curt Columbus
What makes an artistic home?
An artistic home is a place where an artist can find nurture and take risk. It is a place where one can receive blunt, intense, but constructive critique, as well as new and generative ideas, generously given, wonderfully liberating, and immensely creative. Artistic home does not develop over a matter of weeks but takes years and years to take root inside the artists involved. Therefore, institutions must commit to making an artistic home a lasting place with multiple returns. This development requires casual and random contact over food, in hallways, or sometimes on the playing field (softball, anyone?). An artistic home, a true one, is always made richer and livelier by the presence of children and their incredible, life-affirming chaos. These can and should be the children of the artists involved, as well as the local community’s children, who are inevitably and inexorably drawn to any place that explores artistic potential. Like all homes, an artistic home can be filled with conflict, but at the end of the day, love is the overriding and overarching quality. (We may argue passionately, but we all kiss good night).
How can one create and/or build an artistic home for others?
Well, the real answer to that question is surprisingly simple. You create an artistic home by putting the needs of your artist collaborators ahead of your own needs or the needs of your institution, and you and your institution have to keep doing it over a long stretch of time. You commit to artists, you support their failures as well as their successes, and you put the people first, not their fame, nor their prestige, nor any other passing fad. Like family members, you love your artists for their flaws, as well as for their talents, encouraging the latter and addressing the former. You create an artistic home by playing the long game, not the short bet.
What is the artistic home of the future?
As artistic director of one of the last, long-standing resident acting companies in the American Theater, of course I am going to say a resident company! But, actually, I fervently and absolutely believe that it is true—I feel that we are returning to the resident company model in this country, for the same reason that the local foods movement and the locally made movement are starting to take hold in the United States. Resident artists feel the commitment of a community, which makes them more deeply connected to that community, which produces better art for the people in that community, and therefore, for the entire world. Resident artists are teachers, community organizers, fundraisers, and political advocates—all things that hired guns cannot do on any deeply felt or deeply understood level. I have several resident artists in my company who have been here for over forty years, and their impact in our community is profound. In fact, with one exception, all of our resident artists have been here for over a decade.
Carbon footprint is smaller if people live where they make art; larger institutional investment goes directly to artists over time, not just to administrators and support businesses; artists can make work that speaks directly to their communities, which deepens the democratic urge and its expression; and communities will have a passionately held belief in the artists in their midst, making them better places to work, to invest, and to live.
Curt Columbus joined Trinity Rep in Rhode Island as artistic director in January 2006. His directing credits for Trinity include Merchant of Venice, His Girl Friday, Camelot, Cabaret, The Odd Couple, The Secret Rapture, The Receptionist, A Christmas Carol, Memory House, Blithe Spirit, Cherry Orchard, and the world premiere of Stephen Thorne’s …Poe. His plays Paris by Night, The Dreams of Antigone, and Sparrow Grass premiered at Trinity. His adaptation of Crime and Punishment (with Marilyn Campbell) is published by Dramatists’ Play Service. Curt’s translations of Chekhov’s plays are published by Ivan R. Dee, Chekhov: The Four Major Plays. The Dreams of Antigone is published by Broadway Play Publishing. Curt lives in Pawtucket with his partner, Nathan Watson.
Art and commerce can make strange bedfellows in the world of nonprofit theater, especially in hard times. Can a theatre risk producing new work and still keep its doors open? When should a theatre sell its soul to please audiences? Can a theatre focus too fearfully on the spreadsheet’s bottom line and violate the bottom line of its artistic mission and the leader who guides it?
The question can be asked right here in Los Angeles. Sheldon Epps has had to program the Pasadena Playhouse with commercial, crowd-pleasing fare to lift the company out of bankruptcy. But, at least, Sheldon remains at the helm. That’s not always the case.
Jeff Zinn has stepped down after 23 years as Artistic Director at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Among others, one reason seemed clear: the Board decided that the cutting-edge new work that Zinn championed — and was at the core of WHAT’s artistic mission — could no longer financially support the organization and its gorgeous (and expensive) new state-of-the-art 220 seat theatre. You gotta fill seats.
Olney Theatre Center’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa knows that for sure. He has led the Maryland landmark since 1994 and directed shows there well before that. On Petosa’s watch, the sprawling 14-acre campus north of Washington DC has built a new mainstage, an intimate theater lab, and an outdoor amphitheater for summer Shakespeare.
As Olney’s artistic leader, Petosa has confronted both financial and artistic struggles. In 2010, the theater faced a $6 million debt and a 5 percent drop in subscriptions. Olney added more revivals of family-friendly shows instead of the more cutting edge theater Petosa favored. The overall tone of season 2011 at Olney has been demonstrably tried, true — and commercial. The strategy seems to be working, but for Petosa, the artistic challenges lie elsewhere.
It has just been announced that he will step down as artistic director at the end of this year.
“I think sometimes personal artistic ambitions and institutional artistic ambitions don’t necessarily meet,” he says.
The sad truth gets sadder: The family-friendly programming at Olney is not viewed by the theater’s board or its audiences as an “unconscionable compromise,” says Petosa. Indeed, they “seem to be responding to these programming ideas with enthusiasm and passion.”
This is what scares us.
Joy Zinoman, a longtime colleague and friend, says Petosa is “a beloved figure as a director — high energy, very warm, very positive; filled with ideas.”
But Zinoman, who stepped down herself in 2010 after 35 years as founding artistic director at Studio Theatre in Washington, questions the road that Petosa and Olney have taken. “Jim is not a person who just wants to do commercial work. In his heart, I don’t think he’s that at all. I would myself not agree that the way to attract an audience is to do that kind of work.”
Even in a bad economy?
“Even so,” she says. “I believe that it is possible to lead an audience. You have to lead an audience and just doing ‘The Sound of Music’ again, or ‘The Christmas Carol’ again, I’m not sure that’s the way to build a theater. I mean, it might solve your problem in the moment, but it’s not going to get you anywhere.”