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THEATER : Give Him an Oscar : Producing the Oscarcast and being a UCLA dean may be hard jobs, but Gilbert Cates says his toughest is launching the Geffen Playhouse.

October 15, 1995|Barbara Isenberg | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When he was a fencer in college, recalls Gilbert Cates, he learned to minimize wasted movement. "You just move the weapon enough to protect your body. If you move it further, you present a target for your opponent. You try to be focused."

Focusing remains crucial for Cates, a former Directors Guild of America president who is clearly drawn to high-profile, high-stress jobs. Perhaps best known as the producer of the Academy Awards broadcast since 1990, the producer-director is also both dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and producing director of UCLA's Geffen Playhouse.

Bronx-born and raised, Cates, 61, has worked in all three disciplines throughout his career. With a master's degree in theater from Syracuse University, he started out in show business as a $50-a-week guide at NBC and later created the musical series "Hootenanny." His Broadway productions include Robert Anderson's "I Never Sang for My Father," which he later both directed and produced on film, and he has directed or produced more than 20 television films.

This week, Cates' theatrical roots take center stage as he oversees the first play produced by UCLA's Geffen Playhouse, the 498-seat Westwood theater that was renamed earlier this year following a $5-million gift from film, theater and music mogul David Geffen. The West Coast premiere of "Four Dogs and a Bone," John Patrick Shanley's comedic skewering of Hollywood, opens Thursday starring Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Perkins, Parker Posey and Martin Short.

Cates meets one minute with "Four Dogs" director Lawrence Kasdan to review ads, the next with the theater's managing director, Lou Moore, to discuss construction. Cates, who plans to direct a show at the Playhouse next season, says: "I love the action. I want this place to be hopping and jumping."

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Question: What prompted you and UCLA to acquire this theater in the first place?

Answer: UCLA has the second-largest film archive in the U.S., next to the Library of Congress, and two wonderful theaters on campus. What we didn't have was a really close affiliation with a professional theater. Even though UCLA owns the Doolittle Theatre, it is very far away and [managed by] Center Theatre Group. We wanted to have a professional theater that was physically close and emotionally connected to the students.

When I produced in New York years ago, it always used to disturb me that there was no place to hang your coat, the theaters were warm, the lobbies were cramped and it cost three bucks to get a terrible drink. Theaters didn't go out of their way to encourage people to come, which is what movies do.

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Q: Once UCLA bought the theater [in June, 1993], what was your initial plan for it?

A: Our original notion was for a subscription season, with four or five plays.

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Q: What changed? Your first presentation, the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," ran nearly a year.

A: It hasn't changed. We booked in "Picasso" to get experience in booking, and now we are producing "Four Dogs and a Bone" to get experience in producing our own plays. When we start our season in 1996, we will have broadened our operational knowledge.

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Q: Tell us about "Four Dogs and a Bone."

A: "Four Dogs and a Bone" is a very solidly crafted play about Hollywood, and it's a comedy. It's written by an extraordinary playwright, John Patrick Shanley, who also happens to be an Academy Award-winning screenwriter [for "Moonstruck" in 1987].

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Q: How did you select Lawrence Kasdan, a man best known as a film director, to direct it?

A: I initially asked Shanley to direct this play, which he did in New York very successfully. It was Shanley who suggested Larry Kasdan, because he knows Larry's work and they're friendly and I think they have the same ear.

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Q: What does this first production tell us about the Geffen Playhouse?

A: I don't know. I think the only way for someone to get a feeling of what this theater is going to be like is to check in in two years, after we've done a couple of seasons.

The first play that the Taper did [in 1967] was "The Devils." It was a very adventurous production. It was excellent. I began to obsess about the importance of this first play and what people would think of it. Then I realized that after the first play is the second play, then the third play and the fourth play. And that's when you will get a sense of what this theater is about.

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Q: What about the theater's connections to the Hollywood community? You do have several film and TV personalities involved with this production.

A: Actors act in theater, film and television. Writers and directors work in all three.

It's funny how people assume that if someone is a star, he or she doesn't have the ability, instinct or drive to be onstage. It's an opportunity to work in front of a live audience, get instant response and experience that extraordinary danger.

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