Making History at the Ford

Rumor has it that in 1912, John Barrymore was frolicking in the Cahuenga Pass reciting soliloquies from Hamlet when he declared, “What wonderful acoustics – there should be a theatre here!” Less than a decade later, the Pilgrimage Play Theatre (now the Ford) was built on that very spot.

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During the Ford construction, we discovered this wall – a relic from the Mark Taper Forum’s Lab program.

Since then, the rolling hills of the Ford have echoed classic verse of all kinds, from a lavish production of Faust in the 1930s to an iconic production of King Lear in the 1960s. And, though the striking outdoor space lends itself perfectly to the classics, the intimate indoor space beneath the amphitheatre witnessed the birth of some of the most influential modern theatre of the twentieth century.

From 1973 through much of the 1990s, this 87-seat black box theatre was the home of the Mark Taper Forum’s new play development programs The Lab and Taper, Too. The list of artists and productions that those programs developed is truly remarkable, from the first workshop of Tony Kushner’s landmark Angels in America and the Taper’s first presentation of a Latin American play (Jose Ignacio Cabrujas’ The Day You’ll Love Me) to the works of theatre icons like Spalding Gray, Bill Irwin and Joseph Chaikin.

The recent uncovering of The Lab’s logo during renovations sparked a desire to unearth more about this seminal period.

How did The Lab and Taper, Too end up at the Ford?

Madeline Puzo [Producer of The Lab and Taper, Too, 1979-1989]Robert Greenwald, who is now a documentary filmmaker, was the one who saw the space and started The Lab, as a laboratory for artists to create experimental work.

How specifically did the Ford space influence the work?

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Andrew J. Robinson in Belly of the Beast. (Courtesy of CTG)

Andrew J. Robinson [Actor and director]The downstairs Ford space was like a pressure cooker. Once the doors closed, that was it. You were in the world that the artists had created. The outside was completely shut off.

Michael Jung [Associate Producer of the Taper New Works Festival]: The space could really be converted into almost any creative vision.

Robinson: During Belly [Belly of the Beast, 1984] we turned off all lights and created total darkness  – and I mean total – to give the audience a feel for [the character’s] sensory deprived life in solitary confinement. People would freak out, and on a couple of occasions, beg that the lights be turned back on. One man literally crawled over people and fled the theatre.

Robert Egan [Director and Producing Artistic Director of the Taper New Works Festival]: It was also ideal for developmental theatre. It was a rough, raw space. The walk up the hill [into the venue] was a welcome procession out of the bustle of the city through nature into a surprising and sacred space for new and challenging work. It was intimate at less than 90 seats. So it was a truly embracing space to focus on new groundbreaking work.

Jung: The intimacy of the venue also allowed a special connection between the performers and the audience. We served wine and beer and snacks and often the audiences would stay after the talk backs just to hang out.

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Roxanne Mayweather in Mimi Seton’s 1986 multimedia event See Below Middle Sea at the Taper, Too. (Courtesy of Seton)

What are some of your favorite projects from that time?

Egan: I will never forget our workshop ofAngels in America. It was so simple, without any of the technical pyrotechnics that would ultimately be employed in its many major stage productions around the world. I remember the Angel simply walking on stage and stepping on a black box and spreading her arms to suggest feathered wings and I saw it all. It was so powerful and it was the first time the world was hearing those magnificent words and confronting those powerful ideas.

I also remember that in that same season we heard the first three plays in Robert Schenkan’s Kentucy Cycle. Both plays went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. And it all started here in LA at the Ford!

Robinson: [Acting in] In the Belly of the Beast directed by Robert Woodruff was my one titanic production experience at Taper, Too. Belly was the story of Jack Henry Abbott, a man who spent nearly his entire life in some form of penal lock-up. Norman Mailer wrote a book of the same title and helped get him out of prison, at which point Abbott promptly murdered a young man on the Lower East Side. It was perhaps the most powerful theatrical experience I ever had.

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Jon Matthews & Stephen Spinella in the first workshop of Angels in America. (Courtesy of CTG)

Puzo: Oh yeah, In the Belly of the Beast was an incredible production. I couldn’t have been prouder of being a part of that. We didn’t think it would go anywhere, then suddenly it went to Sydney, then it went to the main stage and then it went to New York.

I’m also really proud of is Struck Dumb with Joseph Chaikin. Joe had aphasia, but wanted to perform again after he had a stroke. He was terrified the whole time, but he wanted to do it.

I remember [the director] Robert Woodruff asked Joe, “How will you learn your lines?” And Joe said, “I can’t.” Woodruff asked, “How will you remember your blocking?” And Joe said, “I can’t.” And Woodruff laughed and said, “Well, you’ll have no trouble keeping it fresh!” And that was true; it was a life-changing performance.

Egan: Another highlight for me was watching Luis Alfaro roller skating around the stage in a black slip during a moving piece about the trials and tribulations of being gay and Latino. It was incredibly brave, imaginative and funny. I think the projects and the Taper staff truly reflected the dynamism and diversity of Los Angeles at the time.

Luis Alfaro
Luis Alfaro in performance. (Photo by Monica Naranjo)

Diversity and inclusion have been big topics of conversation lately. Could you tell me a little more about how that factored into Taper, Too’s programming?

Jung: We always looked for diversity of content and experiences and searched for unique voices that represented the American tapestry and particularly a perspective on Los Angeles.

Egan: I really think that is why huge crowds would line up in front of the theatre. They were there to see new plays that spoke to the diverse, political, complex social world in which they lived.

We premiered artists from many different communities – I first saw the work of Luis Alfaro, George Wolf, John Fleck, Tony Kushner, John Belluso, Han Ong and many more in that space.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Puzo: There was also a professional development element to the Taper, Too. As a producer, I believed that our responsibility wasn’t simply to the audience, but also to our artists and the artists in your community.

We welcomed LA theatre artists and gave them the opportunity to develop and show their work. That’s what Taper, Too was about.

Robinson: It was another theatrical world then, kinder, more generous, more appreciative to theatre artists.

Puzo: And the work these artists did at the Ford was life-affirming and life-changing. It was an incredible time where the forces of creativity aligned and some profound work came into being.