Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of Los Angeles's Center Theatre Group, who led the company from 1967 to 2005, died on Oct. 2 at the age of 83.
“The rubber band broke,” he said. “Thank God!” I nodded my head, feigned understanding, and stared blankly at the mass of white hair and thick black eyebrows across the desk from me. He recognized my confusion, leaned closer to me, and to make me understand, repeated the same phrase—only louder.
“The rubber band broke! THANK GOD!”
Recognizing that he wasn’t getting through, Gordon Davidson explained to me his “rubber band theory.” When Gordon was a young stage manager/assistant director, he told me, he came to the theatre backwater of Los Angeles, planning to stay for a few months until the rubber band of reality snapped him back to the place where he and every other self-respecting theatre artist belonged: New York. “And if you are lucky, yours will break as well,” he concluded.
It was my first day of work in Los Angeles, the day that Gordon passed the torch to me as artistic director of Center Theatre Group. He didn’t just pass the torch, however; he shoved it into my hand. That day was a whirlwind of being hauled around the building by Gordon, introductions to every security guard and assistant, him grabbing actors in the hall to give a quiet note and a quick pat on the back. We visited the theatres and he spent hours pointing out the peculiarities of each and regaling me with stories of productions past.
But what I’m thinking about now, in a world that is suddenly without Gordon, is the story of that rubber band, and what it took for him to break it. The day Gordon lit the torch at Center Theatre Group, the regional theatre movement was just beginning in America. New York City was the only place in the country that was perceived to create serious new theatre. It would have been easy for Gordon to program seasons of classics created in New York or London under the banner of art, and bring “culture” to the masses of Los Angeles. Instead, he demanded that the people of this city sit up, take notice, listen (and react!) to new voices, diverse communities, and challenging ideas.
His inaugural show at the Mark Taper Forum, which he directed, was The Devils. It is a carnival-like story set in 1634 about the Catholic Church, carnal lust, witchery, heresy, torture, and public executions. It was no My Fair Lady. Opening night was filled with the cream of Los Angeles society, civic leaders, politicians, and Hollywood royalty. Their response was brutal. Gov. Ronald Reagan famously left at intermission. Letters to newspaper editors demanded that Gordon be removed from his position.
Yet wiser heads prevailed. A forum had been established in Los Angeles. A home for artists. A place for debate. A demand for conversation. Over the next 38 years, Gordon would continue to build up Center Theatre Group, and by extension Los Angeles, as a center for great and diverse theatre. He did it with Zoot Suit, the legendary Chicano play that brought Los Angeles history to life at the Taper, on Broadway, and in film. He did it with Children of a Lesser God and The Shadow Box, which he directed and which went on to win Tony Awards. He did it with Angels in America, which CTG played a key role in developing and premiering. He did it with the work of August Wilson and his American Century Cycle. And he did it with countless other works by artists including Jon Robin Baitz, Culture Clash, Athol Fugard, Marsha Norman, and Anna Deavere Smith.
Gordon remains with us because he galvanized both the city of Los Angeles as well as these artists and so many others around the world. Over these past few days they have flooded us with their remembrances of this man and the lasting impact he made on thetheatre. Here are just a few:
Sir Matthew Bourne, choreographer and artistic director, New Adventures
Twenty years ago, at great personal risk to his reputation and what amounted to a notable gamble for Center Theatre Group, Gordon brought my Swan Lake to Los Angeles on my company’s very first international tour. Its eventual success has rather overshadowed the initial risk, but it was typical of Gordon’s courage and belief in the power of theatre to surprise, challenge, even change the lives of audiences by introducing them to new genres, new ways of telling stories, and new experiences that had the daring to change his audience’s perceptions of what theatre could be.
Carole Rothman, artistic director, Second Stage Theatre
The first time I met Gordon, I was a young directing intern at Williamstown Theatre Festival assigned to meet him at his hotel. He began talking about what I was working on as a director and invited me to come to the Taper. It was a crucial time in my career as I watched him work as an artistic director. He had tons of enthusiasm and support for all the work and encouraged me to spend time in every department and be a sponge. I took him up on it at the same time as I was directing workshops there. From the beginning of Second Stage, Gordon took credit every time I saw him over the years for being the one who “started my career,” and I think he was right.
Diane Rodriguez, associate artistic director, Center Theatre Group
Gordon was always interested in political theatre and social justice, which is why he sought out El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, in the 1970s, and had us perform our show at the Taper. He opened the door for so many artists of all colors. When I moved to L.A., he invited me to audition. I did my first two shows here. Ten years later, Gordon was hiring a director for the Latino Theatre Initiative, and he encouraged me throughout the hiring process. I applied, with Luis Alfaro, and we both got the job. He nurtured a generation of theatre artists and future leaders, and we are forever indebted to him.
Thomas Schumacher, president, Disney Theatrical Group
Gordon was a shepherd. I have a stack of memories of Gordon. They circle around his two lives. The first is his role as director of life-changing productions. The second is in his advocacy for inclusive theatremaking. He gave voice to the deaf community. Before him, the idea of a signed performance was absurd. Today it is a mandate. Children of a Lesser God changed the landscape and elevated an entire community of actors. He was in L.A. to build a theatre when it mattered. He led a whole city into new territory.
Luis Valdez, artistic director, El Teatro Campesino
Gordon came into my life at a pivotal time that eventually rocked the whole community of Los Angeles. He was an extraordinary human being, director, mentor, and overall mensch. He will be missed, not just at the premiere of our 2017 production of Zoot Suit at the Taper, but for many years to come. I don’t doubt that his spirit will be with us in the rehearsal hall come January, but I will certainly never forget him for the rest of my life. I loved the guy.
We are left with these memories, and just as important, with Gordon’s legacy. It is a legacy of passionate advocacy in the theatre, an embedded sense that what we do is far more than mere entertainment, and a belief that art has the power to change lives and perspectives—and a city. It’s a legacy we proudly build upon as we look ahead to our 50th anniversary.
The rubber band broke. Thank God.
Michael Ritchie is the artistic director of Center Theatre Group.