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Working at Industrial Strength

Gil Cates, the man behind the Oscar show, finds all those Hollywood contacts can occasionally come in handy in his role as producing director of the Geffen Playhouse.

May 09, 1999|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

It's a constant refrain in the Los Angeles theater world, one that sometimes rises to the decibel level of a whine: "Why isn't the entertainment industry more involved?"

Both arenas involve actors, sets and scripts; surely there's got to be a way to funnel a fraction of the expected mega-profits from, say, "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" onto the L.A. stage.

It's not easy for a nonprofit theater to survive, whether in the shadow of the entertainment biz or in the middle of Iowa. Just ask Gil Cates, producing director of Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, which is nearing the end of its third full subscription season.

Since taking over the Geffen--formerly the Westwood Playhouse--in 1995, Cates has been so busy with administrative and fund-raising chores that it took three seasons for him to get a chance to do what he loves most: direct. His first Geffen directing effort, the Los Angeles premiere of Donald Margulies' drama "Collected Stories," opens May 19.

But this is one Los Angeles theater that doesn't have to worry about getting access to Hollywood. Cates, a film and TV director best known for producing the annual Academy Awards show, has never had a problem asking members of the entertainment industry to do lunch.

It's right there in the name: the Geffen Playhouse, so dubbed because of a $5-million gift in 1995 from the David Geffen Foundation (onetime music mogul Geffen is now the "G" in DreamWorks SKG, with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg).

It's there in the fact that the theater's inaugural performance under the Geffen name was "Four Dogs and a Bone," a cynical take on the movie industry by John Patrick Shanley, a playwright who also holds an Academy Award for the screenplay of "Moonstruck." And that production was directed by filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan ("The Big Chill"), who says Cates gave him his first opportunity to direct a play since his days at the University of Michigan. In fact, "Four Dogs," which starred Martin Short, Elizabeth Perkins, Brendan Fraser and Parker Posey, proved so popular in the town that never tires of itself that it was extended for three weeks.

And the Geffen's Westwood location also serves to brand it with the "industry" stamp. No matter how much of L.A.'s actual production happens over the hill in Burbank, or elsewhere, the entertainment industry continues to be associated with Los Angeles' Westside.

The 498-seat theater is also in its second season of experimenting with the "Industry Flex Plan," subscription packages based on a voucher system, which allow the patron to wait until the last minute to choose a date and still find prime seats available. The idea is to appeal to those who work under unpredictable shooting schedules.

Although the brochure touts the three-play subscriptions as "exclusive to the entertainment industry," theater marketing director Deborah Warren acknowledges that the program is also wide open to those who are not in the biz. So far, some 200 of the playhouse's 8,500 subscribers have opted for the plan.

As Cates charitably puts it: "Listen, are you talking about the Westside experience? I bet half the people on the Westside are, by definition, in the industry, whether it's a lawyer or an accountant or someone who pumps gas on the corner near an industry office."

Veteran Los Angeles theater director David Schweizer, currently in discussions with Cates about a "holiday project" for the Geffen, is one who enjoys that industry energy. "What I like about the flavor of the Geffen is that there is not a lot of phoniness about not referring to the entertainment industry," Schweizer observes.

"The projects that land and have a real community impact here are those that can somehow reflect that energy--not that they are soft or stupid or the same as movies, but that have a kind of unique pull that can appeal to that audience that stands in the movie lines, which is often a very open and playful and rewarding audience, because they don't go to the theater so often" Schweizer says.

And, while enthusiastic about using industry talent, Cates studiously avoids plays that are too influenced by the screenwriting mentality. "If you were to ask me what the key term is in my mind when we discuss a script, I would say that it has to be theatrical--somehow it has to engage the audience at that visceral level," he says.

"You don't have to know the term, you don't have to know what it means, but you know it is happening here. When you stand up and applaud, it is happening to you. When was the last time it happened to you when you were watching a television show? When was the last time it happened to you in a movie? It doesn't happen, because it's not live."

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