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L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum hailed at 20. Theater earns plaudits from peers across US

As the Mark Taper Forum celebrates its 20th anniversary this week with six gala evenings, tributes are coming from all over: The Taper ``has been at the forefront of the movement in this country to establish theater as a cultural institution as opposed to a commercial moneymaking enterprise,'' says Peter Zeisler, director of Theater Communications Group in New York. ``The extraordinary thing about not-for-profit theater in this country is that there is no longer a single center like the New York of 30 years ago. The Taper has led that change.''

``It's a national landmark, really,'' says Peter Layton, executive director of the Drama Studio in London. ``Because of its leadership and ability ... the Taper is the most visible and cohesive focal point for American regional theater.''

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``Gordon Davidson [artistic director] and the Mark Taper Forum represent everything that is important and good about the American theater,'' says Zelda Fichandler, producing director of Washington's Arena Stage. They have ``high artistry, a conscience, awareness of the world they inhabit, and always motion toward the achievement of their artistic goals.''

Founded in 1967 as an outgrowth of the Theatre Group at UCLA, the Taper has presented more than 250 plays, ranging from contemporary American and European works to the classics. Its offerings have been so varied, in fact, that one longtime local critic has grumbled: ``Taper's seasons are so eclectic that sometime you ask yourself: What does it really want to be ... besides well-subscribed.''

But through the years, the Taper has garnered a Pulitzer, 11 Tony Awards, 58 L.A. Drama Critics' Circle Awards, and nearly 200 other awards. Some 150 of its offerings have been world or American premi`eres.

``The plays that make it to main stage are really the tip of the iceberg for Taper's activities in workshops for producers, writers, actors,'' says William Wingate, the Taper's executive director. Other Taper activities include a traveling theater for young people, television and film productions overseen by Taper Media, a literary cabaret on Sundays, and a place for innovative experimentation called New Theatre Now.

The list of plays that began here and went on to be successful elsewhere includes ``Children of a Lesser God,'' ``In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,'' ``The Catonsville Nine,'' ``'Night Mother,'' and ``In the Belly of the Beast,'' and musicals such as ``Zoot Suit.'' In the case of ``Children of a Lesser God,'' the play resulted in awards for three actresses: a Tony for Phyllis Frelich, a SWET (British award for best actress) for Elizabeth Quinn, and an Oscar for Marlee Matlin.

Of the struggle to stage the organization's first production, ``Devils,'' back in 1967, Davidson recalls, ``I'll never forget it. We thought [the Taper] was over before it began.''

With 20 years of hindsight, much is now being said about the key to the Taper's endurance and abundance. One factor, say observers, is the tenacity and vision of a single leader. Gordon Davidson ``has had the strength, stamina, and fortitude to stay in this enormously taxing position - dealing with fund raising and bureaucracy snafus, in addition to artistic questions,'' says Mr. Zeisler. ``In very few instances around the country has one artistic director been able to sustain that kind of commitment. It keeps things well-oiled and functioning well.''

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Davidson himself speaks of a ``commitment to plays that make you think and feel and question and challenge ..., plays that are willing to speak directly and openly.''

Three such plays are being seen this week: ``Aunt Dan and Lemon,'' by Wallace Shawn, opened yesterday; the Improvisational Theatre Project production of ``One Thousand Cranes,'' by Colin Thomas, opens Friday; and the premi`ere of ``The Good War,'' by Studs Terkel, will be held on Sunday.

Davidson and others say another reason for the Taper's success is the great pool of talent drawn to the entertainment center of Los Angeles - producers, writers, and directors for film, TV, and video.

But that opportunity cuts both ways, according to Hope Tschopik, managing editor for the 20th season anniversary book, ``Reflections: The Taper at 20.''

``The L.A. location is actually problematic because of the enormous economic draw'' of those other activities, she says. ``Come springtime, many key talents are wondering if they should be committed to anything here, because of the opportunities in television and film they might have to forfeit for the coming season.''

If there is an introspective side to the current celebrations, it is a ``sigh,'' as Davidson puts it, about the future. ``I'm very concerned about the bottom line of economics,'' he says, reflecting an oft-heard lament about the expense of live theater compared to film and television. ``Theater is very expensive to put on, and getting more so.''

An $8 million budget this year will come from earned revenues (50 percent), allocation as a resident company of the Los Angeles Music Center (35 percent), government grants (5 percent), and private philanthropy (10 percent).

Mary K. Bailey, director of development, says the Taper's finances have been characterized by stability and growth over the years.

``But it is very very clear that private sector philanthropy aimed directly at Taper programs and special projects must increase dramatically ... if we're going to maintain the pace, standard, and success established in the first 20 years,'' she says.

She adds that the Taper maintains commitments to a program of theater for young people and a program offering hearing devices and signed performances for the deaf, despite heavy losses every year. ``We feel a moral and artistic commitment to maintain them,'' she says.

The answer to the Taper's problems, according to Davidson, is not to get uptight about funding, audiences, and statistics but to stay focused on artistic integrity. ``I try to keep something else, which is a kind of openness ... not unrelated to what actors must do - a childlike quality in performing you must hold onto. That wonder is terrific for everybody.''

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