The following letter is excerpted from Reflections, The Taper at Twenty, a publication produced by Center Theatre Group in recognition of the Mark Taper Forum’s 20th Anniversary. In this section, actor René Auberjonois, who appeared at the Taper regularly over its first twenty years and was a founding member of the Mark Taper Forum Repertory Company, reflects on his years working at the iconic venue.
I write this on “opening day”—a term which may put most people in mind of the baseball season in April, but for actors it means those few vulnerable hours before we face the event more vulnerable hours of “opening night.” It’s opening day of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, not on the Taper’s stage, but very much on what I consider home turf—the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, The Music Center—and very much the embrace of everything that is the Taper. That is: working under Gordon Davidson’s direction, with colleagues and friends, all of us having known each other on and backstage for 20 years.
20: a cardinal number, two decades on which so many things hinge. Under the most benign circumstances opening day, waiting for The Night, is a rarified time. But looking back over 20 years of opening days and nights with members of this same family, images surround me, etched into me like the images on the walls of the drum that is the Taper—that concrete O, a circular fortress squared by its own moat.
20 years ago, after an opening night, I leapt into that moat and frolicked about, overcome by youthful exuberance, and, I suppose, eager to be baptized in the Taper’s own water. A new theatre, a new actor, a new life in the theatre in Los Angeles. All of that is gone now. We’ve all grown into something else. This morning I listen as Gordon gives the cast notes, comforting us through this jittery time. So familiar, the same chip-tooth grin, the same concentration: to concentrate, to bring together—to draw a common center. We listen. My son listens (12 years old and already a veteran of three Taper productions). I watch him listen, watch him drawn into the circle.
On other opening days I’ve paced round and round the circle, the perimeter of the theatre, running lines, preparing, trying to concentrate, and then crossed the most, into the circle. The first time I did that, 20 years ago, I was acutely aware of the absence of ghosts backstage: the Taper smelled like a new car. Now, after 20 seasons, the place has a patina and plenty of ghosts; some of them are me.
The building, as everyone is quick to point out, was not meant to be a theatre so much as a concert hall. There are no closets for costumes, no wings for sets, no space for the crew, no green room for the actors. Yet over the years, people have burrowed in, nested, made space—struggling for every inch—and settled.
Within the curve there are two sets of stairs leading from backstage to the dressing rooms. There are 22 steps in the flight, 22 steps down to the stage, trying to breathe calmly on opening night, 22 steps up, gasping with exhilaration after the night’s work.
Over the years the youthfulness, the challenge of uncharted territory has evolved into something else, but the exhilaration never fades. Spending the decades working on everything from Shakespeare to Stoppard, working as a fool, a hero, a fop, a Russian, a Spaniard, in France, in England, in velvet, in rags, insane, in love, involved, and always in the circle, the drum. I’ve been embraced by the curve.
I remember most vividly a lull between matinee and evening, sitting in costume backstage watching the TV that is mounted—always on—above the desk of stage doorman Ross-Adrian Brown. It was a Molière play, most distant in style from the present-day surroundings—a war in Southeast Asia, a moral and ethical upheaval at home. And as I sat contemplating Molière, facing the back wall of the Taper that keeps away the outside world, I heard Lyndon Johnson announce that he would not seek another term as President. In that momentary clash of the contemporary and the classical, the real world penetrated the walls of that theatre just as it always seems to at crucial moments. Past and present collided, and fact and artifice played off one another in that special way that is uniquely the Taper.