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Hit Man David Sefton


By Randi Schmelzer

Published Oct 1, 2008 8:10 AM

Photo by David Miezal.

What do a Sardinian shepherds' choir, a Senegalese singer and a Dutch cellist have in common? They're all at UCLA Live this season — in the same show. "Mixing things up" is his job, says David Sefton, executive and artistic director of UCLA Live, who for eight years has single-handedly programmed UCLA's acclaimed, eclectic and sometimes controversial performing arts series.

Q: Do you have a programming philosophy for UCLA Live?

A: It's still coming. I go obviously not just for work that's obscure, but for work that I really, really regard to be the very best of what I see — and I see a lot. I get out there on the road and look for things. If anything can be constituted as an approach or philosophy to programming, it's that you need to see the work yourself and really go with your own feelings.

Q: You must be on the road constantly.

A: I am, and it's hard; it takes a lot of time, and it's tiring and not as glamorous as it sounds. And it's time-intensive in terms of the return: 90 percent of what I see I don't book. It's a good trip if I come away from two or three weeks of travel with one or two things.

Q: How do you decide where to go?

A: I'm inundated with invitations. There's a tendency to go back to places you find work, for obvious reasons. But then you have to kind of force yourself to get off the beaten track a little bit. So I try and go to at least one country I've never been to before per year. I've just come back from Romania, for instance; I'd never been to Romania before. Apart from the fact that it was the most appalling experience of travel I've ever had, I actually found some really good work.

Q: What are you most excited about in terms of this year's schedule?

A: I booked everything, so it's very difficult to pick out things. But I would give these three, because in each case it's been the result of years of planning: The Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz [Berlin's revolutionary theater "of the people"] has taken three years to work out technically how to make it work — and how to pay for it. In the Spoken Word series, the Werner Herzog project [Requiem for a Dying Planet] is a real departure in that [it] is half spoken word, half music created by Werner from the soundtracks of his films. We're bringing in a Sardinian shepherds' choir and a singer from Senegal and a Dutch cellist — so that's so much more complicated than one man and a microphone. And at the end of the season ... the Goran Bregovic Wedding and Funeral Orchestra. It's about 50 people on stage, and it's enormous to get on the road; it's the world music equivalent of a Ring Cycle. The fact that it has finally happened — after at least four previous attempts — is another, for me, professional achievement.

Q: Your programming selections really cover the gamut — this year's music lineup includes Tangerine Dream, The Klezmatics, Dan Zanes, a Skinner pipe-organ series ... Do you intentionally try to schedule something for every taste?

A: Frankly, I think everyone is a potential audience member. It's a bit of a plate-spinning exercise, trying to keep an eye on all of the art forms, but that's what I like. I really like being able to indulge my enthusiasm for the work that I think is great and to put that out in front of people. I'm able to work across as many art forms as I'm able to throw into the season.

Q: Some of your bookings are unconventional, to say the least.

A: I don't book or not book things for the sake of controversy. I book them because I think they're really good. Sometimes they're controversial. I wouldn't just book something because I thought it was contentious. In fact, some things have turned out to be duller than I anticipated. Michael Moore, for instance: I thought he was going to be much more contentious.

Q: One of the highlights of every season since your arrival has been the International Theatre Festival. Tell us about that.

A: All of the work in the program is dear to my heart, but the Theatre Festival is unquestionably one of the flagships. I initiated that festival as the big shift for UCLA Live, before it was UCLA Live. One of the things I like particularly about this year's festival is that of the six separate productions, five of them are exclusive to the United States. I don't think Lincoln Center can boast that! And every single piece of work in it is an outstanding and exceptional piece of original theater-making. What's so great about it, too, with this one, you see the strands of other art forms much stronger now.

Q: So you're redefining the word "theater," in a sense, to include other art forms?

A: I felt that "theater" was something that had to be stated as a genre within this context first before I said, "Now we're going to throw in dance as well." But now I really like the fact that, for instance, Sidi Larbi [Cherkaoui] has a piece that will appear in both the Theatre Festival and in my dance series. Because it's absolutely both: It's a dance company and a theater company and, in fact, a baroque orchestra and singers — and they are working absolutely and legitimately in complete multi-arts.

Q: Has it gotten easier for you to take risks with UCLA Live programming over time?

A: It has gotten easier because the audience definitely comes with you. So many people will come to things that they've never heard of just on the basis of us booking them. In the first couple of seasons it was slightly nerve-racking to not know whether or not they would come. Especially foreign work. I was reliably informed by many people that there wasn't going to be any interest in foreign-language theater, for instance, in L.A. and that no one would come. So that was a bit harrowing.

Live a Little There's a lot more Live to enjoy all year long. Visit for schedules, ticket information, detailed performance descriptions and even info on how to rent one of the Live event venues.