Tag Archives: Bertolt Brecht

Gordon Davidson: An inspiration

gordon-davidson

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-house

The house on Mabery Road

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.

gordon-davidson-hirschfield

Drawing by Hirschfeld

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.

athol-gordon-me

Gordon Davidson, Athol Fugard, Stephen Sachs, at Fountain Theatre, 2004

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. 

Fewer Guns in Plays after Sandy Hook?

ap_newtown_sandy_hook_school_Sign_balloons_thg_121215_wg

by Tammy Ryan

Playwright Tammy Ryan

Playwright Tammy Ryan

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I felt like I’d felt after 9/11: grief stricken, traumatized and voiceless. In all the categories I fall in: woman, mother, playwright, human being, the events of that day, remain unbearable. The blessing and the curse of the writer is her imagination. At every mention and at random moments of every day in those first few weeks, I would begin to imagine what occurred in those classrooms, what was waiting for the first responders, and for those children’s parents. Even now, I have to harden my heart to put these words onto paper. While I avoided most of the news on cable, I did venture onto Facebook where I discovered some of my “friends” were anti gun control. I do not understand this position, so I started reading (and posting) all the articles I could find on gun legislation. I read some very cogent, practical and common sense articles like New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s, op-ed. Then I read Porochista Khakpour’s essay, “Why Did Nancy Lanza Love Guns?” In it, she describes her personal journey of love and obsession and ultimately rejection of guns: guns made her feel safe, guns made her feel powerful, guns were sexy, guns were fun.

I met Khakpour when we were both fellows at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008. I see her standing at the podium, tall and beautiful, throwing back her long dark hair as she read from her novel with a mischievous and joyful spirit, and now I can imagine her shooting a gun.

I have never owned a gun, never touched a gun, never even ever seen a real gun. I don’t share Khakpour’s obsession, but the characters in my plays do. Not in all of them—just the most successful ones, the ones that have been sanctioned by the powers that be as “good,” the plays that receive professional development, multiple productions, get published, and win awards. In each one of those plays a character either, has a gun, shoots a gun, is threatened by a gun, threatens someone else with a gun, is afraid of guns or is somehow traumatized by the violence of a gun.

pig-smallThis is a deeply disturbing revelation for me for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t think of myself as writing about guns. I think I’m writing about family, communication, the power of forgiveness and healing. But the presence of guns in my writing is undeniable. In my first play Pig, written straight out of grad school, a troubled sailor goes AWOL and takes his family hostage. He shoots his neighbor’s dog (which was for audiences the most disturbing thing that happens) shoots his uncle and them himself. (note: I called it a comedy, okay, a black comedy)  At the first talkback an audience member expressed disbelief that I’d written this play. The moderator chimed in, “Seriously, you look like you’d write something like Mary Poppins, where did this come from?” To be fair, at the time, even at thirty, I did look like I was twelve years old, but I was offended by the implication that a woman, even a seemingly innocent young woman couldn’t write a play with what I then imagined as real world action in it. I wasn’t going to be put in that woman ghetto box, thank you very much. After giving birth to my first daughter, my plays began to evolve. I knew I’d write different kinds of plays from that point on, and no matter how dark I’d go, always strive to “reach for the light.” But, the guns kept coming back, emerging seemingly organically in play after play.

Now, I am not a careful planner of my career. My ideas show up like orphaned babies on my doorstep that cry out in the cold until I cave in and let them in. Besides guns, there is also a lot of war (often as backdrop): the First Gulf War, Bosnia, the Hundred Years War, Sudan, Iraq. Once early in my career, my mother asked me “Why don’t you write happy plays? I answered “I don’t choose these subjects,” I told her, “they choose me.” I do enforce some practical parameters, like maybe don’t put eleven characters in your plays unless you can double, but do I ever think, even subconsciously: better put a gun in your play if you want this one to get produced? Isn’t there always an exchange, a feedback loop between artist and potential producer? The fact remains that it is my most commercially successful plays that are the ones with the guns. Marsha Norman said something to this effect in her article “Not There Yet.” Says Norman, “People like the plays in which the women act like guys, talk like guys, wave guns around and threaten to kill each other…The critics have liked my “guy” plays—the ones with guns in them—and pretty much trashed the rest.”

I’m not advocating for self-censorship. I’m not saying never write about guns or violence, since writing about it is a way of standing up against it. As a student of mine said recently, “There are three hundred million guns in this country. We are clearly a gun culture. How can art not reflect that?” My husband is a good, gentle and kind man and his favorite movie is Pulp Fiction. Whenever it is on television (which is actually very often) he will stay up until two in the morning watching it again and again. “It’s funny,” he says. Is violence different when it’s combined with humor? Does it make it more palpable? Or does it desensitize? I once wanted to walk out of a production The Lieutenant of Inishman because I found the combination of butchery and comedy too much to take. Is it a matter of degree? I know I probably won’t stop writing about violence in my work despite these questions I have. In my current play, Soldier’s Heart, a mother points a gun at her own child. It’s integral to the action, to the theme and the whole point of the play. I’m not going to take that gun out of her hands. Despite Chekhov’s rule, though, the gun does not go off, so maybe that’s progress?

"The Lieutenant of Inishman"

“The Lieutenant of Inishman”

At Point Park University where I teach, the Cinema and Digital Arts Department has a “no weapons” policy for its Introduction to Screenwriting and early production classes. It is explained as a way of providing parameters for screenplay assignments, but it also addresses a “production and liability/risk management issue,” according to chair and screenwriter, Nelson Chipman. “With such prevalence of weapons in current fictional shows, reality, news and gaming we look for ways to help students create work that is more ingenuous, creative…tasked with creating a story without any weapons…students create more meaningful work, and actually get much more creative with violence and its repercussions.” My students balked at this rule at first and found myriad ways to hide all manner of weapons in their scripts, reminding me of a story a friend told me about her toddler, who faced with his mother’s strict no toy gun policy, bit his peanut butter sandwiches into the shape of pistols. But my insistence (points off for weapons) led them to discover that while guns can easily complicate a moment, create tension, lead to their climax, shock an audience, they are not necessary to good storytelling and in fact can limit the deep, surprising, complex and original conflicts that emerge in their work, finally. Without the guns, they were forced to imagine something new.

I read somewhere that after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Bertolt Brecht went back and revised the plays that came before. He felt it wasn’t the same world anymore, and that his plays, even the ones already written had to reflect that new reality. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary has done that to me, it’s altered my view of reality. I’m not Bertolt Brecht, so I won’t be revising those plays with guns in them, but going forward I’m going to be more mindful of what Brecht also said, “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The gift of imagination that the writer has been blessed with is sometimes a curse, but it can also be a tool. We as writers can reflect society or reshape it, but we also have the opportunity to more completely re-imagine it. And in that re-imagination, I believe, lies all of our hopes.

Tammy Ryan is a playwright. Her plays have been produced or developed at such theaters across the country. “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” was developed at the New Harmony Project and was a featured play at the National New Play Network and will be published by Dramatic Publishing Company this year.