Published in The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — Two months ago, Michael Ritchie, who was almost finished shepherding the renovation of the Mark Taper Forum here, woke in the middle of the night in a panic.
“In my waking up or in my dreaming I believed we had forgotten to design and put in bathrooms backstage,” Mr. Ritchie recalled. He drove downtown from his house in the Los Feliz neighborhood, walked inside, saw the bathrooms, wiped his brow and drove back home.
Mr. Ritchie, the artistic director of Center Theater Group, which runs the Taper, could be forgiven for having doubts about what could fit inside the distinctive, mushroom-shaped structure in downtown Los Angeles. Over four decades the building has become a cultural landmark, while its quirks have given its staff headaches. On Saturday the Taper will reopen with a revival of John Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves” after a yearlong, $30 million renovation that Mr. Ritchie predicts will solve those lingering difficulties.
Opened in 1967, the Taper was designed by the Los Angeles architect Welton Becket as part of the Music Center, the West Coast’s equivalent of Lincoln Center. Mr. Becket put the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Ahmanson Theater at opposite ends of a plaza and plopped the Taper between them. (The Walt Disney Concert Hall joined the center in 2003.)
Mr. Becket designed the center in the style of New Formalism, which emphasized geometric shapes. “The overall site plan of this rectangle, this sort of square and ‘let’s have a circle’ — I, frankly, think it’s not a lot more than that,” said Bob Hale, a principal at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the firm that led the renovation. Though the Taper is considered one of Mr. Becket’s best works, Mr. Hale said, “it also comes with huge limitations that come from conceiving a building as a pure circle.”
And Mr. Becket designed the building not knowing who would use it. At one point it was considered for chamber music, or even grand jury meetings. Ultimately Ms. Chandler, the Los Angeles cultural leader, took the young theater producer Gordon Davidson to lunch at the top of her eponymous pavilion. As Mr. Davidson recalled, “She looked out the window and said: ‘See that round building? How would you like to rent it?’ ”
For 38 years Mr. Davidson was the artistic director of Center Theater Group, which also ran the Ahmanson and eventually the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. The Taper became known for its thrust stage, jutting into a classical, semicircular amphitheater, which creates an especially intimate relationship between audience and performer. That design, Mr. Davidson said, was proposed by the theatrical designer Jo Mielziner, who consulted on the project (as well as Lincoln Center’s similarly shaped Vivian Beaumont Theater).
But the site is a case study in what happens when a theater is built without a tenant in mind. Packing the auditorium into a circular building left a tiny backstage and only a thin, curved hallway for a lobby. “I talked to the architect; I said, ‘My God, this lobby is small,’ ” Mr. Davidson recalled. “He said, ‘Well, it’s Southern California, people will go outside,’ forgetting about the rainy days and cold weather” — they do occur, however infrequently.
Bathrooms are a problem for many theaters, but four women’s stalls for a 750-seat hall is particularly egregious (two more were added later). As Mr. Davidson recalled, “I didn’t get any complaints about the plays — yes, I did — but the real complaint was, ‘Mr. Davidson, when are you going to fix the bathrooms?’ ”
There were other problems patrons never saw. Stagehands had to cart set pieces across the plaza on dollies, up five steps and through a door that was a mere 4 feet 10 inches wide by 7 feet tall. They still managed to carry in a Mustang (on its side), a bus (in three pieces) and the towering backdrop for “Angels in America.”
“Watching a show load into this building was like watching a snake swallow a rodent,” said Jonathan Lee, the Taper’s production manager for the last 20 years.
Mr. Mielziner designed several devices that were considered experimental in the 1960s but turned out to be annoyances. Most problematic was the treadmill, a 90-foot-long, 7-foot-wide wooden conveyor belt that curved around the back of the stage and could be used to allow sets to drift into the scene at the push of a button. But it has been dormant since 1970, when, while bringing out actors during a curtain call of “Paul Sills’ Story Theater,” Mr. Lee recalled, “the treadmill was almost louder than the thunderous applause of the audience.”
The backstage had a makeshift quality. Lights were poked through tiny slits in the ceiling, which prevented workers from seeing where they were pointing. The costume department was a shack in the middle of a hallway. And the outdoor reflecting pools leaked onto cars in the underground parking lot.
After Mr. Ritchie replaced Mr. Davidson in 2005, he and his colleagues decided to solve these problems, enlisting Rios Clementi Hale, the local firm that has also worked on a continuing Music Center makeover.
Mr. Hale and his team gutted and updated almost everything that was not concrete. To create more lobby space without disrupting the building’s circular shape, they went underground, taking out 30 parking spaces to create a stylized lounge with gold, curved couches and mosaics of mirrored tiles that fit the era in which the building was designed. And yes, there are more bathrooms: 16 stalls for women.
Backstage, flexibility was the mantra, as the designers nixed the treadmill, created a modern lighting grid, cleared out old air-conditioning equipment to allow space for a wardrobe room and widened the load-in door to 6 feet by 9 feet.
Though Mr. Lee is overjoyed to have better amenities, he is proud of what the old Taper was able to accomplish within its limitations. “Lots of plays with swimming pools,” he gave as an example. “Now, of course, we have a drain under the stage, so that when the pool leaks we don’t have to bail it out with a vacuum cleaner.”