In the driver's seat of 'Off Freeway' theater

LOS ANGELES has always been known for innovating. It's no surprise, then, that L.A. now has an answer to the Off Broadway dramas of New York: ''Off Freeway'' theater.

Within a 90-mile radius of this sprawling city is a similarly sprawling regional-theater movement that is fast becoming a major source of new dramatic works and a testing ground for the aspiring actor. Successful stages are sprouting up everywhere: Some 200 professional and semiprofessional theater groups now thrive, and 20 more are in the planning stage.

At the heart of this theater explosion are one man, Gordon Davidson, and the theater he directs, the Center Theatre Group of the Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles County Music Center - which is considered one of the most innovative resident theaters in America.

As artistic director of the Mark Taper, Mr. Davidson has personally directed award-winning dramas like ''Children of a Lesser God'' and ''The Shadow Box.'' Since 1967, he has guided the Mark Taper through nearly 100 productions, many experimental and some classical but all staged with dynamic creativity, culminating in the current ''Quilters,'' a thoroughly offbeat musical that is making the regional-theater circuits.

A transplanted New Yorker, Mr. Davidson says that when he first came out here 19 years ago there was very little theater. ''There was a tremendous talent pool that wanted to work in the theater and had no outlet for it,'' he says. ''I was able to tap into that. Although we were pretty much alone in those early years, now you have such organizations as the Odyssey Theater, the Los Angeles Actors' Theater, (and) the American Theater Arts, which at least were attempting to do a body of work not dissimilar to what I'm doing or what the New York counterparts are doing.''

Davidson believes these organizations are part of a movement to decentralize theater in the past 20 years. ''Broadway used to be the generating force for all theater. It went from there out into the world through summer stock, touring packages, and a few scattered theaters. Now there are nonprofit theaters throughout the country, all doing different kinds of work.

So is the Mark Taper becoming to regional theater what Broadway used to be?

''I see that as part of our function,'' Davidson says. ''It's funny to be called the establishment, but you become the establishment by virtue of longevity.''

Davidson says he has a number of missions to accomplish. His ''first and foremost'' goal, he says, is ''to create our own body of work through the development of new plays as well as an investigation of the classics. A regional theater now can develop a play and send it to New York, but more and more you will find that there are plays that get done in one regional theater, then get passed around to other regional theaters, and may never play New York.

''There's a play called ''Terra Nova,'' about the race between Scott and Amundsen to reach the South Pole. The only thing on stage is a sled and a white expanse of snow. It's been done in at least a dozen regional theaters, everywhere from Rochester, N.Y., to San Diego, Calif. But its life has not depended upon New York reviews.''

Davidson also believes that Los Angeles is becoming a major theater town. ''It used to be that you came out here to do television and film, then you went back 3,000 miles to New York to do theater. More and more actors from all over the country, from all over the world, are wanting to come here to do a play, because Los Angeles is becoming the place to be seen on stage.''

And what has happened to New York?

''. . . there is a tremendous confusion in New York as to what the theater is and who it is serving. The Broadway theater has become such a servant of the tourist and the business expense-account crowd that it no longer knows who or what its audience is.

''And the problems of the Broadway theater infect Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway. Off Broadway was originally a response to what was not possible to do on Broadway. Now, I think Off Broadway is mini-Broadway. Off Off is also now infected.''

Although he doesn't see any fundamental differences in style between New York and California theater, Davidson does find that ''maybe there is a little bit more willingness here . . . to take some chances.'' He adds: ''What is healthy in both cities as well as in many other cities across the country is the attempt to create ongoing theaters, as opposed to ad hoc productions. You see these theater groups proliferating because artists clearly need a place where they can do more.''

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