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Bill Bushnell Polishes His Dream

September 15, 1985|JUDITH MICHAELSON

With arms outstretched as if wielding an unseen pointer, and in a booming voice deepened by chain-smoking cigarillos, the theater impresario of Spring Street might have been a high school principal lining up the class for the grand graduation picture.

First he positioned on top of the staircase several dozen construction workers who happened to be in the huge marble lobby of the newly constructed and historically restored $16-million performing arts complex that afternoon.

"Volunteers next. Bring in the volunteers," said Bill Bushnell, artistic producing director of the new Los Angeles Theatre Center (formerly the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre).

Outside at 514 S. Spring St., a green-bereted security officer with a walkie-talkie unlocked the door and in trooped scores of volunteers who will read scripts for and serve as ushers in the four new theaters. "You want to give me the actors and directors, please," directed Bushnell.

A little more than a week away from previews, more than three weeks to the opening of three plays this Thursday night and the "gala grand opening" of the Theatre Center Friday night, Bushnell was in a familiar and beloved role: running the show.

He is "Bill" to some, "Bush" to others, either an entrepreneurial street-smart genius, "the quintessential macher who makes things happen," or a producer exercising "Genghis Khan" tactics in his drive to expand audiences.

In a sense, the move downtown is his graduation. No longer directing LAAT's two humble theaters on North Oxford Avenue in Hollywood with a total of 214 seats, Bushnell, now oversees the LATC's new complex of three plush mid-size houses and a 99-seat black-box stage totaling 1,221 seats with state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment.

Bushnell, 48, has been the artistic producing director of the decade-old theater since late 1978. He has built his audience from 4,432 subscriptions three years ago to 23,934 at last count, and has won a substantial share of honors for his theater. "Eden," the first of a trilogy with an all-black cast, directed by Edmund Cambridge of Manhattan's Negro Ensemble Company, now an associate director at LATC, won five Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards in 1980. Bushnell and LAAT received the prestigious Margo Jones Award for their presentation of new American plays in 1983. LAAT is best known for "Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon," (1983) by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone featuring Philip Baker Hall as the President.

Through the lobby's stained-glassed ceiling, the sun was fashioning pink mother-of-pearl splotches, but Bushnell focused straight ahead as he continued to engineer the commemorative photo (seen on Page 1) with an eye to the political realities.

He had to fit his people in. Three board members in dark navy up front; his directors in sandals and sneakers to the right; can't include all the tele-marketers, so put a few to the left of the stairs. When a staffer hesitated sitting on the still-chalky floor, Bushnell told him: "Don't worry about your . . . (expletive deleted) pants."

Just before placing himself down front with producer Diane White, his longtime partner with whom he has lived for the past nine years, he suggested that if everything goes as well as their picture, "We're all on our way to a tremendous season."

With the move downtown, Bushnell places himself in position to rival Gordon Davidson's Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center. Not since Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival took up permanent residence in the landmark Public Theater in 1967 with its premiere of "Hair" has such a cluster of theaters come into being virtually at once.

Still Bushnell--whose dream was built through an intricate marriage of public/private-sector funding with the city's Community Redevelopment Agency playing a leading role in the process--would be the first to say that his center's future hinges on what happens inside.

Theatre 1--an open stage and 503 seats upholstered in seven shades of hot yellow, orange and red seats, and denoted by an orange door--opens its Classic series Thursday night with Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" in a new translation by British playwright ("Noises Off") Michael Frayn.

Theatre 2--a proscenium stage and 296 seats with a Prince-purple door and wine-colored seats--opens the Los Angeles premiere of Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" Sept. 26 with an all-black cast.

Theatre 3--a thrust stage in a stark Greek-amphitheater setting (downstairs), with 323 seats, a blue door and black seats that veer straight up the side of a steep incline--premieres the English-language production of "Nanawatai" by William Mastrosimone, about the Soviets in Afghanistan. Philip Baker Hall plays the Soviet tank commander. It opens the Premiere series Thursday.

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