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The Theater Of The Brash Makes It Big

September 15, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN

A subscription brochure for the new Los Angeles Theatre Center quotes Diaghilev's famous exhortation to Nijinsky: "Astonish me!" LATC has astonished us already. From a small rented theater in Hollywood to a new $16-million downtown arts complex in only 10 years--it's an audacious leap.

But now comes the test. Will LATC find an audience on Spring Street? Will it temper its artistic audacity in order to keep that audience? As for the first question, nobody knows; but 23,000-plus subscribers gives it a good running start. As for the second, I'd say no: not with this group's history.

It's important to remember that the Los Angeles Theatre Center--originally the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre--wasn't invented by Bill Bushnell. Ralph Waite thought it up. One of his notions was that the actors would come out and do the show, and the viewers would leave what they wanted in the collection box. That was charming, eccentric and impractical. But it started the theater off on a human, individual note that it hasn't lost until Bushnell.

We have spent some miserable evenings on North Oxford Avenue--remember "The Al Chemist Show?"--but each time we've been aware that somebody back there really thought this was one terrific hunk of theater. That has not always been the case at, say, the Mark Taper Forum, where a show can be so immaculately delivered that it also seems to have been immaculately conceived.

FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Dan Sullivan's piece on the new Los Angeles Theatre Center Sept. 15 stated that the theater had started out 10 years ago "on a human individual note that it hasn't lost until (artistic producing director Bill) Bushnell." The intended phrase was "that it hasn't lost under Bushnell."

LATC has dared to be quirky, to follow the idiosyncrasies of its contributing artists: Alan Mandell's fetish for Beckett, Donald Freed's paranoia about the American Establishment, Charles Marowitz's delight in mugging the classics. It's been a rash theater, a quality easily lost when a group graduates to marble halls.

Less so, though, when you have put them up yourself. LATC wasn't summoned to Spring Street, as the old UCLA Theatre Group was summoned to the Music Center. Bushnell came downtown on his own terms. One of them is that the work will proceed much as it did in the old house, except that there'll be more of it. And architect John Sergio Fisher has created a space where that can happen.

We'll review the new LATC in action later this week. For now it's enough to say that some smart thinking went into this building. The smartest decision was not to design it after the model of the Shubert or the Ahmanson, as a single hall with the performers at a distance from most of the audience. There's a place for this kind of house, but Los Angeles didn't need another one.

Rather, the new LATC takes its inspiration from the New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre: a quartet of smaller playing spaces opening off a grand lobby. This allows the visitor to feel important as he orders a drink at the bar without robbing him of the right to absorb a play at close range, minus amplification. LATC's four stages will be large enough to let an actor open up, but small enough so that actor and audience will be able to bond in a way impossible in a culture palace.

Yet with four shows going on at once, there'll be a hum to the building, a reminder that it's located at the heart of a great city. What's the essence of the city? Choice. So here. If Chekhov doesn't appeal, try a Sam Shepard, a reggae concert, a reading by Ferlinghetti. People will head down to Spring Street at the last minute to take pot luck, especially since LATC is offering free parking.

The lobby is designed to be a village-square sort of place, with people browsing in the bookstore and staying around after the show for supper. (It would help if Bushnell would find somebody to run the restaurants.) Not only will this underscore the sociability of the theater-going experience, it will take some of the pressure off the show to be the evening's be-all and end-all, giving the playwright additional permission to take chances.

The building will remind us that we can be relaxed in the theater without taking the act of theater any less seriously. Compare the yammer and smoke of a Broadway lobby to the mellow feeling of a London lobby. Which crowd is getting more out of the play? Of course, it is hard to relax when you have put down $80 for a pair of tickets. LATC's top ticket will go for $20.

The management will even offer in-house child care, which is very much in the Ralph Waite populist tradition. In short, this is a theater that wants to make it easy to enjoy the theater. That's not the same as offering easy plays. From the first year's schedule, LATC isn't offering us any cream puffs: a play about the Russians in Afghanistan, a video piece by the Mabou Mines, new plays by Joyce Carol Oates and Luis Valdez, Sherwood's 'The Petrified Forest" reinterpreted by Marowitz. . . . There will be plenty to argue about.

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