Arts + Culture

Legendary theater director’s legacy to live on at UCLA

Gordon Davidson chose to donate his papers to UCLA Library to serve as a resource to young artists

Gordon Davidson directing Catonsville
Photos courtesy of Center Theatre Group

Gordon Davidson in 1971, directing a rehearsal for “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine” at the Mark Taper Forum

Acclaimed theater director and producer Gordon Davidson, who is credited with bringing theater in Los Angeles to national prominence, began his career in the city at UCLA. And here is where his legacy will live on in the Gordon Davidson Papers.

Earlier this year, Davidson, who died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 at the age of 83, and his wife, Judi, donated his personal papers spanning his entire career to the UCLA Library. The collection of production materials, research notes, correspondence, photographs, posters, awards, scripts, materials for unproduced works and daily schedules encompasses Davidson’s monumental achievements in theater — as well as in film, television and opera.

“There were plenty of places where Dad could have chosen to donate his papers and memorabilia,” said his daughter, Rachel Davidson, in an interview following her father’s death. “He kept coming back to UCLA because of his connection. This was a gift that my dad very thoughtfully made to UCLA. His hope was that it would be an active archive, something that young actors, writers, directors and others will access and use.”

As the visionary artistic director of the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum for 38 years, Davidson earned a reputation for presenting challenging, thought-provoking productions. The late Gil Cates, founding dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, once called Davidson “the Moses of theater in Los Angeles.”

Davidson nurtured new playwrights with diverse voices.

Davidson arrived in Los Angeles in 1964, coming from the East Coast to work on a production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” by the Professional Theatre Group at UCLA. Offering him the gig was John Houseman, the famed producer, director and actor who directed the Theatre Group. The two had met a couple of years before when Davidson was working as stage manager at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Connecticut, his first job after earning a master’s degree in theater directing from what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. When Houseman left the UCLA Theatre Group a year later, Davidson took over as managing director, a role he embraced with energy, enthusiasm and an eye to shaking things up.

His inaugural play as director of the UCLA Theatre Group was “The Deputy,” German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s indictment of Pope Pius XII for not taking a stand against the Holocaust.

Protestors tried to shut down the play, but then-UCLA Chancellor Franklin Murphy rose to his defense. In a talk he gave about his work four decades later, Davidson recalled Murphy telling the protestors: “This is a place of learning. This is a place where these questions must be asked.”

That experience, Davidson said, “opened the door for me to get a sense of how one can take these kinds of risks — how we must take those risks — and people will be there to support you. That was my beginning. I walked right into it.”

“I was extraordinarily lucky to be in Los Angeles in the late 1960s,” Davidson said. “The country was alive to the issues that were facing it, and people felt as if they could make a difference.”

In 1967, Los Angeles civic leader Dorothy Buffum Chandler asked Davidson to lead the Mark Taper Forum in its inaugural season at the newly completed Music Center downtown. Davidson took UCLA’s Theatre Group with him, which became the nucleus for the Center Theatre Group, the umbrella production company for both the Mark Taper Forum and its neighbor, the Ahmanson Theatre. And he continued to push the envelope for American theater, staging challenging new plays, nurturing new playwrights and providing a stage for diverse voices to be heard. 

Rachel Davidson said, “His greatest mission was for the theater to reflect the city around it.”

Playwright Arthur Miller worked with Davidson on a 1984 production of “The American Clock” at the Taper.

“My particular passion for connecting art and social consciousness,” as Davidson described it, found him premiering such plays as Michael Cristofer’s “The Shadow Box,” the emotion-charged story of three terminally ill cancer patients, which went on to Broadway and earned Davidson a 1977 Tony Award for direction and, for Cristofer, a Pulitzer Prize; “Zoot Suit,” in 1978, by Luis Valdez, which explored the denial of justice to Mexican-Americans in L.A.; Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God,” the story of a deaf woman and her teacher, which earned Davidson a 1980 Tony Award nomination for directing; and, in 1993, “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s wrenching story of the AIDS epidemic, which went on to Broadway and won a Tony Award for Best Play as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Davidson is also remembered as a caring and inspiring mentor, said Jeffrey Janger, Davidson’s son-in-law. “So many people who worked for him have told us what a remarkable person he was. Some said he was like their father — their ‘theater dad.’” Many of those he mentored have gone on to formidable careers of their own.

Among them, Janger noted, are Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York and a professor at NYU, who was the Taper’s associate artistic director from 1989 to 1994; Robert Egan, producing director at the Taper for 20 years and now artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference; and Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and former executive director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, who came to the Taper in the 1970s as an Oxford-educated “anthropology consultant” for the play “Savages,” which was based on field research Brecher had done in the Amazon jungle with an indigenous tribe that was displaced from its homelands by the construction of the Trans-Amazon Highway.

With financial support from a fund established by the Davidson family, the Gordon Davidson Papers are being arranged and described in UCLA Library Special Collections, where they join related collections on Los Angeles theater, including the John Houseman Papers, the Theatre Group Production Files, the Theatre Group Publicity Records, the Center Theatre Group Records and the East West Players Records. When they have been fully inventoried, the Gordon Davidson Papers will be available to scholars and others for years to come.

Additional contributions for this archival work are being accepted by the Liberty Hill Foundation. To make a tax-deductible gift in Davidson's honor, go to the foundation's Gordon Davidson Archive Fund. To make a gift by mail, write a check to “Liberty Hill Foundation,” noting “Gordon Davidson Archive Fund” in the check’s memo line, and mail it to: Liberty Hill Foundation, 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, California, 90048.

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