Tag Archives: Zelda Fichandler

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. 

Theatre: Entertainment or art? Can it be both and still be challenging and relevant?

zelda-fichandler

Zelda Fichandler (1924-2016)

by Howard Shalwitz

The loss of my friend and colleague Zelda Fichandler, the legendary founder of Arena Stage, has got me thinking about the role of theatre in our society.

Over the past decade, I had a few cherished opportunities to compare notes with Zelda about the founding of our respective theatres. As different as Arena Stage and Woolly Mammoth are, there’s one word that always came up for both of us: art. Here’s a quote from Bob Levey’s obituary of Zelda in the Washington Post:

“From the start, Mrs. Fichandler wanted… to reverse what she called, with characteristic dramatic flourish, ‘the contraction and imminent death of the art of the theater.”

And here’s a quote from Woolly Mammoth’s founding manifesto that I wrote with Roger Brady in 1978:

“Among all the art forms, theatre is the one which is least often taken seriously as a form of art… [and] it should be so taken. That is the long and short of what we propose.”

What do we mean when we proclaim that theatre is “art” rather than “entertainment?” We certainly don’t mean that theatre shouldn’t entertain, shouldn’t captivate audiences with diversion and delight and amazement. The survival of our theatres depends on this. The difference lies in what we ask our audiences to do when they’re in our theatres.

When we set out to entertain, we ask our audiences to sit back, relax, and enjoy themselves on terms they already understand. When we set out to make art, we ask our audiences to sit forward, to encounter something different, and to meet the artists halfway in figuring out how it works and what it means. Entertainment nestles us comfortably inside the lives we already lead. Art challenges us to stand outside our own experience and look at our lives and our world in new ways.

Art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Every play, every production, has elements of both. But in our conversations, Zelda was concerned that theatres across America were tipping too far toward entertainment and away from art. Some of the reasons are obvious: competition for ticket sales, pressure from new forms of diversion, loss of arts education in our schools, shrinking government support.

However, Zelda saw a potentially deeper problem. A couple of years ago, she asked a question I’ll never forget: “What’s happened to the arrogance of the artist in our country?” She talked about path-breaking playwrights like Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill, and August Wilson, who boldly expanded the stylistic framework and political range of our theatre, and European stage directors like Liviu Ciulei and Lucien Pintilie, whose experimental approaches completely changed the way we look at classic works.

The forward motion of theatre as an art form depends on playwrights, directors, designers, and actors with the arrogance, the chutzpah, to try things that are different. It also depends on audiences who have the confidence to meet them with openness, empathy, and a spirit of inquiry. When we wrestle with the play itself, then we’re led to wrestle with what the play is about, what it’s saying, why it matters. This is what gives the art form of theatre its relevance in relation to the pressing questions our society is facing.

Howard Shalwitz is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. 

Nonprofit Theater as Public Service: How Should We Define Profit and Loss?

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

Something profound happened on the first Tuesday in November, something I’m still trying to digest fully. To my mind the election results represent a victory of love over hate, of human dignity over market forces, of public service over private gain. Those who spewed hate toward women weren’t reelected. Those who insisted on heteronormativity as the only way were defeated handily, and those who spouted the rights of the wealthy to buy elections for the sake of perpetuating the private markets of their personal fortunes were sent packing. On that Tuesday, at least for a moment, we redefined public service as something meant to benefit everyone, not just the few.

John Adams

John Adams

John Adams wrote in a letter to his son, “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or another. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.” Most of us would agree, though deeply flawed, our Founding Fathers were wise men who created a frame for a political system that in many ways has served us well.

I feel and see more deeply the cost of a commitment to public service. The long view of history reminds me that the $4.2 billion we spent on this last election is recent history. And it also makes me ask: Are too many honest men and women refusing public service, making room for too many politicians driven by ego and the desire for personal gain? And because this is what I do for a living, it makes me think about the history of the regional theater movement—about our leaders, past and present. And I ask: How do we currently as a field define our relationship to public service? We take a tax break, and like churches and libraries, we offer something of value to the public. When we say we choose to make our art in the context of nonprofit theater, we embrace a form of public service—not for the sake of glamorous careers that include arriving in limos to the Tony awards and sipping champagne with the stars. I intentionally chose to work inside nonprofit theater because I had a deep desire to effect change in the world. But somewhere along the historical path of the nonprofit theater movement, public service to artists and a community ran head long into private desires for personal success. Like our political milieu the public good has gotten confused with private desires.

In both editing the report, In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector by Diane Ragsdalejust released by The Center for the Theater Commons, and attending the convening that the report covers, I have a deeper understanding of the movement of history in our field from a purer sense of public service to a market-driven desire to both serve and survive. These historical shifts in mission and purpose aren’t simple, and they don’t happen over night. We didn’t go from John Adams to Mitt Romney without struggles of every kind. But if you are invested in the future of the nonprofit theater movement, I suggest you read this report closely (you can download it for free), because it will place you in the thick of history whose next chapter will be written by the readers of HowlRound, among others.

Oskar Eustis

Oskar Eustis

The meeting this report covers was, from my vantage point, remarkable. The participants are public servants struggling with increased market pressures—how to make a public good in the face of enormous obstacles. The report covers a historical shift from the very opening conversation between Rocco Landesman and Gregory Mosher, and that shift is more deeply explored in the second chapter in the conversation between Oskar Eustis and Robert Brustein. Eustis frames the very question that the report explores:

What strikes me as you talk Bob is that . . . everything you’re talking about is about being part of a larger history that stems back really to that beach in Provincetown in 1920 through to the present. And you talk about being engaged in the training and the discussion and the creation at all at once so that, in a way, you are creating a world of values that is separate. And that world of values is part of a larger history; but we haven’t talked about profit or commerce in any of this really. And I think that one of the difficult things is: Where do you find an alternative set of values in the world—where you can live inside an alternative set of conversations about “profit and loss”?

Tony Taccone

Tony Taccone

In pondering this question we must consider the history of our own movement. We must consider the values and the words of the founders of this movement like Robert Brustein and Zelda Fichandler who are still around and able to guide us—and not just when it’s to our advantage to do so, but even when that looking back questions our practices in the moment. The group of twenty-six nonprofit theater representatives, commercial producers, and artists that gathered for this conversation did exactly that. And in the looking backwards and forwards, all of us in that room felt perplexed about where the nonprofit theater movement stands now. We asked ourselves how we had gotten from there to here and most of the nonprofit participants, as you will read, were not convinced that here was what our founders meant when they argued that nonprofit status made sense for the theater. In one of the many honest and soul-searching moments in the report, Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Rep, tries to make sense of how we came to this moment in our history:

And so we’re trying to describe what happened to us. And trying to exercise a little bit of consciousness about where we want to go. Is there a creative progressive place we can go together as a community, as a culture? Because individualism, fame, money, materialism lead one another to an iceberg. But we all kind of need and want those things too; so it’s a really tricky road.

And so I sit here post-election pondering multiple American histories, the histories of presidents, and Constitutions, and theater movements. And I don’t want to argue that things should be as they once were. We don’t look back in order to go back, but rather to better choose what going forward looks like. I’m so grateful for the evolution of thought that has created the possibilities for new stories, not the least of which is my new story as a legally married person. But in this post-election bliss for many of us, it makes sense for us consider why we value public service, and why we’ve chosen a life in the nonprofit theater. Have we done it to succeed on personal terms or do we make art to make the world better?

Polly Carl is the director of the Center for the Theater Commons at Emerson College, and the editor of the online journal HowlRound

Theatre: The Gift of Transcendance, Not Transactions

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude.  – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

For months my life has been overwhelmed by a series of mundane transactions of various complexity usually costing me buckets of money. If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.

Money Trumps Love

During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.

From the transcendent to the ugly. I was working on a play I was wildly passionate about, one that I wanted to see produced—a play that I believed to be sublime, transcendent, my reason for getting up in the morning these last fifteen years. There were a million issues surrounding this play, as there always are about every play. Multiple producers were interested in producing it, multiple agents were involved in figuring the rights and the royalties and the production path. This is typical. The further the play developed, the more clear the possibility that we had a “hit” on our hands. Because I work in the not-for-profit theater, always in a role that is advocating for the artists and the work, I didn’t have any financial stake in the play. I just loved it. I loved the characters, the language, the story—it was the best of what is possible in the theater, the best of what is possible in my work. I sat in rehearsals and listened and gave hardly any notes and got a little weepy from time to time and talked to the playwright and the director and colleagues. I was so in love with this process. But as the stakes were raised—the money, the players—I could see things beginning to unravel. I became privy to lies and deceit and I became obsessed with saving the integrity of the process that I had been charged to help oversee. We all say we are in it for higher purposes, but even in the theater, money trumps soul, and destroys love. I called one of the agents who was spreading particularly heinous lies (and let me clarify he wasn’t the only one lying, the lies were abundant from all camps). I was calm, trying to clarify the truth, intent on protecting what I thought were the interests of the writers. He actually said to me, “Who do you think you are calling me? I don’t give a rat’s ass about you and your version of the truth. For all I care you could die and it wouldn’t matter to me or this play.”

I walked back to the apartment where I was staying. I got a haircut along the way. I took a shower. I threw away the clothes I was wearing. I bought a new traveling hat. I thought about getting a new tattoo. I moved my flight to leave a day early, and went home. I walked away from that project for good and I walked away from making theater under those conditions.

I didn’t say I wasn’t dramatic.

Gathering Inspiration

In exploring the roots of the righteousness that informs my sense of theater making, I think it’s important for me to share some of the values that have shaped my thinking—to make sense of why an agent wishing my death doesn’t align with what I seek in my career. It’s important to note here, that it’s easier to walk away from something when you know what that something is. I’ve been very lucky, and yes, I mean lucky to have worked at the top of this field, with some of the best companies and best theater makers in the country. I’ve also spent significant time working with small companies, young artists, the uncertain, and the unknown. And I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s my failing, that I’m unwilling to make theater at all costs, and at the expense of basic human kindness and courtesy.

My instincts about where the arts live in relationship to culture come from my childhood. Art saved me. It gave me hope and purpose. I grew up in a family of very little financial and consequently cultural means in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the specific things that saved me; the handful of books my parents had on hand in the house that included a very old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the full collection of the Hardy Boys series and the Little House on the Prairie boxed set, plus National Geographics that my grandparents gave us when they finished reading them. The Public Library saved me. By the time I entered high school I had read every novel Charles Dickens had written, all of the Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath—well you get the gist. My public library card was my ticket from there to here. I did not attend theater in high school except for our high school productions. We not only couldn’t afford to attend theater, but cultural engagement wasn’t something of value in my family, economic survival was always front and center.

Zelda Fichandler

When I came to the theater, and I should specify, to the not-for-profit theater, I was instantly moved by what I began to read of its history. The vision of our founders expressed perfectly why theater and the arts in general mattered to me. Listen to these words from a recent address given by Zelda Fichandler, the founding artistic director of Arena Stage in DC:

What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.

The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.

Yes! The idea that theater should “start serving the revelation and shaping the process of living”—I say again yes! The idea that artists wanted to build a life, not a hit-or-miss, from this moment to that moment, career in theater. These are the ideas and values I can commit to. The not-for-profit theater was about merging art and life. The ideas of our founders were so bold, so aspirational. And the dream was not a dream of selling tickets and making money. Nobody left New York to get rich. They left New York to seek meaning and build a life around what they loved most.

Zelda again:

Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became like them, an instrument of civilization.

Going to Church

In restoring theater to itself, as Zelda implores, we must find ways to distinguish the parts of it that live in the market and the parts that belong to all of us.

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde, again from his book, The Gift, differentiates the church, or the university, or the museum, from the market:

It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of the commodity leaves no necessary connection.

Harold Clurman in his book, The Fervent Years, about the formation of the Group Theatre puts it in terms of our relationship with our audience:

When the audience feels it is really at one with the theatre, when audience and theatre-people can feel they are both the answer to one another, and that both may act as leaders to one another, there we have the Theatre in the truest form. To create such a theatre is our real purpose. (p.72)

Fichandler, Hyde, and Clurman give me clarity. They help me understand why the transactions that got us here today: filling up the tank, buying a cup of coffee, paying our bills, may have proved satisfying but they weren’t our reason for getting up this morning. We got up this morning because we believe in the bond of community, the bond that we form with our collaborators and the bond that is our communion with each other and with the audience. Continue reading