UCLA Spotlight


David Sefton, Director, UCLA Live

  • By Cynthia Lee, Irene Fertik
  • Published Nov 1, 2003 8:00 AM

David Sefton came to UCLA three years ago to take the helm of the university’s performing arts program. Southern California hasn’t been the same since: his fearless programming picks have transformed a mainstream schedule into a wild E-ticket ride.

Sefton introduced UCLA Live audiences to works never before seen on the West Coast or the United States, mixing classical and traditional with edgy, contemporary works. In his first full season, 2002-’03, he broke new ground by launching the adventurously hip International Theatre Festival. The festival brought to campus large-scale, world-class experimental theater with such works as Robert Wilson’s Woyzeck and two visually stunning plays by the revolutionary Societas Raffaello Sanzio from Italy.

“I see UCLA as becoming a major stop on the international festival circuit. That’s my ambition,” says Sefton, who spent June and July frequent-flying from Mexico City to London, Madrid and Moscow. With his antennae always pinging for the next best production, the 40-year-old Liverpudlian was off in August to a Zurich festival to see performances from Israel, Australia and Belgium.

Lest you think this a dream job, Sefton notes: “Roughly 90-plus percent of what I see is rubbish. I see it so no one here has to. I’m the quality-control threshold.”

The theater festival was just part of Sefton’s debut season. The 86 different artists and groups included Yo-Yo Ma, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, the Bach Collegium Japan, Elvis Costello, the world-renowned Kronos Quartet, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, hip-hop pioneers, Rennie Harris Puremovement, contortionists and roller-skating violinists.

That season, he says, “was my mission statement.” This season, he is strengthening the mix with such offerings as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Randy Newman, Emmylou Harris, Michael Moore, Itzhak Perlman and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, straight from its sold-out run of Twelfth Night in London.

“When people say, ‘You’re just picking things that you like’ - well, yeaaah, pretty much,” Sefton snorts. “That’s the job, really. I get to exercise my own prejudices, tastes and discriminations. That’s what I’m here for. But it’s important to me that we bring in not just the radical and experimental, but the truly fabulous.”

The Globe’s “Twelfth Night,” for example, “was one of the best things I saw last year. I also plan on bringing in Chekhov and Ibsen someday, works not just by the greats, but great productions of those works.”

All this has produced a persistent buzz about UCLA’s emergence as a venue for experimental, pioneering work. “The talk was all about this guy on the West Coast,” says Joseph Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who just returned from the south of France. “David has transformed the presenting program at UCLA monumentally.”

“He knows what works. He’s not cavalier about his artistic choices - they’re well-reasoned,” Melillo says. “All of these opportunities existed before, but they just never got to the West Coast because L.A. did not have anyone to make these kinds of commitments programmatically. There needed to be a gatekeeper to open that door. And David arrived with a beautiful set of keys.”

But Sefton himself was unsure about what would happen once he unlocked that door. “You have no idea how quickly it will catch on, or whether it will catch on at all,” he says in retrospect.

Given a mandate by UCLA to take the performing arts in a radical new direction, he knew that change would be traumatic. So he has not abandoned UCLA’s strong traditions, such as its great dance program and classical music series. There’s more classical music than ever before “and, generally, of a higher standard,” says Sefton.

As initial nervousness about his arrival dissipated (“I think it’s clear now,” Sefton told the Los Angeles Times wryly, “that I’m not going to burn down Royce Hall and build a rock stadium”), audiences began snapping up tickets. In his first season last year, ticket sales hit 93,000, an increase of approximately 14,500 from the previous year. This year, UCLA Live attendance should top 100,000.

“I’m staggered,” Sefton says, “at how genuinely engaged, adventurous and uncynical the audience is.”

Sefton knows how far he has come.

“When you’ve got big companies coming to you to say they want to be on your program because they’ve seen who’s already been there,” he says, “you know there’s a new reputation and tradition being created here at UCLA.”