Gordon Davidson, Mark Taper Forum Founder, Dies at 83

Gordon Davidson

The Tony Award winner and longtime Center Theatre Group leader was "one of the most renowned and respected artistic directors."

Gordon Davidson, the founder of the Mark Taper Forum, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles, according to the Center Theatre Group. He was 83.

“Gordon Davidson was one of the most renowned and respected artistic directors in the regional theatre, in large part because he was one of the original founders of the entire concept,” said Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie in a statement. “He led Center Theatre Group for 38 years and produced one of the broadest arrays of plays, particularly new plays, of any theater in the country. Without his prolific vision for Center Theatre Group 50 years ago, the theatrical landscape in Los Angeles, and the country, would be very different.”

Davidson served as the founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, which produces at the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theatre and the Kirk Douglas Theatre, for nearly four decades, from 1967 to 2005.

In 1967, Los Angeles cultural leader Dorothy Buffum Chandler asked Davidson to help lead the charge in the creation of a 750-seat theater — the Mark Taper Forum. Its first production was The Devils, a controversial play by John Whiting about a nun who lusts after a 17th century Catholic priest, claiming he bewitched her.

Regarding the L.A. theater scene at the time, Davidson said in 2013: “There were very few theaters that had year-round activity. The theater scene, as I encountered it, consisted mostly of small storefront theaters with actors who performed showcase productions.”

Davidson in 1977 won the best director Tony for Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, which also won the Tony for best play as well as the Pulitzer Prize. The play, about three terminally ill cancer patients, was adapted into a Paul Newman-directed TV movie in 1980.

The Forum’s other productions included The Kentucky Cycle and Angels in America, which won back-to-back Pulitzers in 1992 and 1993, as well as Children of a Lesser God, which was the first play to bring sign language to the stage, and Zoot Suit, the first production to explore Mexican-American injustice in the 1940s.

Davidson oversaw more than 300 productions, which were known to raise social consciousness and stir up controversy. He once said that theater is the place “to say something about the lives being lived by citizens in an 'unheard' community and to change the conventional perceptions of that community.”

Davidson was born May 7, 1933, in Brooklyn. He studied electrical engineering at Cornell University, but after working as an usher at the Tanglewood Music Festival, he changed his major to theater. Davidson graduated from Cornell in 1956 and earned a master’s degree in theater at Case Western Reserve University in 1957.

Following service in the U.S. Army, Davidson began a life in theater, starting as an apprentice stage manager at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy in Stratford, Conn., and later working both on and off Broadway. When actor-director John Houseman hired him in 1967 to work as an assistant director for a production of King Lear at the Theatre Group at UCLA, Davidson moved to Los Angeles. He eventually became the managing director there when Houseman moved to Paris.

“The key discovery for me was how open the audience seemed to be to new ideas, to adventures in theater, theater that asked questions about who they were and what the world was like and what changes could be made in a world,” Davidson said in 2012 about the L.A. environment. “And at the core of that for me is what the theater is about. My whole perspective on this country and the availability of good work in the arts, from all over America, had changed.”

Davidson opened the 315-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City in 2004. “I’ve committed myself to a life in the theater,” he once said, “because it is the best way I know of telling our stories and preserving our culture and our humanity — the hard, difficult, confrontational and bold enlightening truths.”

Among his honors and awards, Davidson won three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Distinguished Direction Awards, was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame and was appointed to the National Council of the Arts by President Bill Clinton.

Davidson is survived by his wife, Judi, and their children, Adam and Rachel.