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.

Theatre 4--the black-box house with flexible seating and black door--opens the Discovery series with a world premiere Thursday night of “It’s a Man’s World,” written by and starring Greg Mehrten. Set in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the play, a collaboration with New York’s avant-garde Mabou Mines, is about a gay actor’s search for identity, and runs through Sept. 29.

The center hopes to establish an ongoing relationship with Mabou Mines, the Magic Theatre and Luis Valdez’ El Teatro Campesino near San Jose. Valdez, author of “Zoot Suit,” one of the Taper’s most noted productions, will premiere a new work of Valdez’s, “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges,” early next year.

In the first “season” running through April, there will be 16 plays. Bushnell directs at least one--”Boesman and Lena” by Athol Fugard (the Classic series) about South African apartheid. Besides producing three simultaneous series of plays, the performing-arts center will feature a five-part music series; a two-part dance series, an “intermedia performance” series and a poetry series.

The kaleidoscope of activities could turn a calendar into a crazy quilt. Next Sunday night in Theatre 1, in the midst of the “Three Sisters” run, there will be “Reggae/African Futureburst.” A week from Monday in Theatre 3, time out from the Afghanistan war zone to hear Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet of City Lights Bookstore and the Beat Generation. “So we close a set down and bring in music (or poetry) for a day and set the thing back up,” said Adam Leipzig, LATC’s dramaturge/associate director, reflecting the we-try-harder mentality of Bushnell’s senior staff.

Leipzig, 27, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and joined LAAT as an unpaid assistant stage manager soon after graduating from Yale in 1979, said: “What else do we do that doesn’t make life hard?”


Like most of the senior staff, Leipzig earns $22,500 a year, and there’s pride in that. Bushnell draws $23,000. “We knew it (LATC) would happen,” Leipzig said.

“You put a bunch of people that make $100,000 a year into a big office and give them all the resources they could possibly want, (and) they will come back with a study of options the length of a telephone book. But if you put a bunch of people (like us) in a cubbyhole where every time they turn around they jostle someone else, they’ll create something pretty damn interesting.”

A multi-theater complex downtown has been Bushnell’s dream all along. “All the freeways come together right there, the ethnic mix--plus,” he said bluntly, “the basic economic power structure is downtown.”

A self-styled “raging optimist” he sees no problem being so close to the Taper. “If you build a gas station on a corner, you fail. You build two gas stations, something begins to happen. You build four gas stations; everybody begins to go to that corner to buy gas.”

Producer Diane White said simply: “Good theater begets good theater.”

Besides senior/student and “quik-tix”discounts, theater seats range from $10-20.

To further entice audiences, the Theatre Center is providing free parking and free baby-sitting services on Tuesday and Friday nights for subscribers’ children “(age) 2-and-toilet-trained to 12,” Bushnell said.

Besides senior/student and Quik-Tix discounts, theater seat prices frange from $10 to $20.

As for street crime, Bushnell said that “the perception of the east side of downtown is far worse than the reality.” He said a well-lit street and parking area 120 feet from the building and 24-hour security will help overcome that perception.


Even before assuming control of LAAT from founder Ralph Waite (“The Waltons”) in late 1978, Bushnell had chosen the building. Earlier that year Waite and Bushnell were filming “On the Nickel,” a movie about life on Skid Row, and had offices at the Alexandria Hotel on Spring and 5th streets.

“Across the street I would see a building, a Greco-Roman structure that was falling to ruin, covered with graffiti and, usually, sleeping or dead bodies,” Bushnell told his peers last fall at a downtown convention of California’s arts leaders. “I used to look at that building, and that part of me that is an urban animal used to say, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something?’ ”

The same year CBS gave LAAT a $200,000 capital grant to buy a building in Hollywood for a theater complex. When that fell through, someone suggested Bushnell call the Community Redevelopment Agency.

That Bushnell’s dream coincided with the redevelopment agency’s desire to begin revitalizing the east side of downtown with Spring Street was more than fortuitous, for the agency showed him the 1916 Security Bank building--the structure he originally had his eye on. Still, the path of making his dream a reality was shaky and complex.

“Twice in the next 4 1/2 years, I walked away from the project throwing my hands in the air,” Bushnell said. “I learned in certain life programs I practice that you can only beat your head against the brick wall so long before you get so bloody you cannot see.”

His life program, in place ever since he took his last drink in April, 1976, on his 39th birthday, is based on his assessment that he is a “reforming alcoholic living one day at a time.” He also lives by the theory that “if you don’t keep moving forward, you stop.”

That it should be Bushnell who formed the alliance with the redevelopment agency comes as no surprise to those who know him.


“He’s a kind of inspired negotiator,” said Charles Marowitz, 51, an LATC associate director and “resident gadfly” who has spent years in British theater. “If I was going into a combat zone, I would like to have him with me. He figures out the logistics of victory and never the consequences of defeat. . . . Let him be the tank of the theater.”

The Theatre Center deal essentially hibernated from 1978 to August, 1982. The spur to activity was the demise of an IRS regulation giving real-estate tax credits to private investors putting up bonds to help build places of entertainment. A scramble was on to put together a money package before the regulation expired at the end of 1982.

Douglas Ring, who became president of the LATC board after his connection as a lawyer on the deal, said the County Recorder’s Office must have broken some sort of precedent by staying open late New Year’s Eve so the deal could be recorded to meet the tax deadline.

The package, the size of five Los Angeles telephone directories, includes: $4.8 million from the bond-holders nationwide; $2.5 million in urban development action grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development; $1.36 million from 17 equity investment packages, with LATC Managing Director Stephen Richard contributing $2,500 to complete the last $80,000 package that New Year’s Eve; $250,000 from the Atlantic Richfield Co., plus the CBS grant.

And from the redevelopment agency, which Bushnell called “the real heroes”--came $1.9 million in 1982 to purchase the original structure and the land and the parking lot next door for new construction; a $150,000 start-up loan in early 1983; an additional $2 million to for such items as computers and telephone systems, theater lighting and sound systems, and desks.

In turn, LATC repays the redevelopment agency $2 a year for the rent and equipment. However, its actual “rent” is $700,000 in interest payments annually to bond holders. Moreover, LATC’s annual budget has risen seven-fold from $700,537 in fiscal 1983 to $5.3 million for fiscal 1986, which began in May. On Aug. 12, LATC also got what Bushnell called a two-year “grace period” from the redevelopment agency to ensure against the contingency of failure. That came in the form of an interest-free loan of $2.375 million to the LATC Foundation for its first two seasons: $1.075 million for the “rent” payment and $1.3 million for operating expenses.

Richard estimated that to meet the $5.3 million budget, LATC will have to raise an additional $1.2 million from corporations and individuals. It will use $750,00 of redevelopment agency operating-expense money in the first year, and about $3.4 million will come from earned income--tickets sales, theater rentals, proposed restaurants and those subscriptions.


“Entrepreneurship,” Bushnell says, “is a certain amount of razzle-dazzle. Marketing is brute force.”

With Los Angeles’ power structure backing LATC, can success be far behind? Mayor Bradley called the contractors and union leaders dealing with the center project to City Hall on Aug. 12 and, in Bushnell’s presence, told them how important getting the job done was to him. The center’s board includes Deputy Mayor Tom Houston, federal Judge Stephen Reinhardt and County Assessor Alexander Pope. Its honorary board of governors reads like local political heaven.

Still, putting the pieces together was fraught with complications.

“Three Sisters” and “Nanawatai” were rehearsing last month across two halls at the downtown Embassy Theater, allowing directors Stein Winge of the National Theater of Oslo and Lamont Johnson of Santa Monica, whose most recent work was “Wallenberg” for NBC-TV, to compare notes. Meanwhile, “It’s a Man’s World” was on the fifth floor of the old May Co. department store downtown and “Fool for Love” was rehearsing at USC.

The costume shop was at 4th and Spring streets, the prop shop was in the prop man’s house, the design shop was in Alhambra, the business offices were in Hollywood, and Diane White held “Fool for Love” auditions at her Beachwood Canyon home. (These functions, and the business operations, will be housed in the new center.)

Because of construction “mis-estimates,” Bushnell is opening nearly six months late and going head-to-head against the Taper in the audience sweepstakes. It also means that Timian Alsaker, head of design, must return home to Norway next week instead of staying through a good part of the season.

At the end of June Bushnell was unable to meet his payroll and his ex-wife gave him a $40,000 loan. In mid-July he learned he could not get the New York cast of “Fool for Love,” and it was decided to open it a week after the other three plays. In keeping with the Theatre Center’s multicultural commitment, producer White decided on an all-black cast. In mid-August the theater’s restaurateur bowed out, effectively barring what was to have been an ancillary feature of the center--two restaurants downstairs, an outdoor glass-enclosed cafe and a lobby bar. These must wait until 1986.


And Sept. 3, at 1:30 a.m., Alsaker couldn’t find a pair of pliers to help him mask the stage lights for Theater 1. He said he and some construction workers tried to stop some cars for a pair, but couldn’t. “A bum wandered by and said he could nick (steal) one. He came back and said he couldn’t nick it.” Finally a worker who lived nearby went home for the pliers.

“I think the arts are truly important when they become radical, when they tend to be owned by nobody, when they are not in anybody’s camp,” Bushnell said recently in his temporary office--a table in Irwin’s restaurant next door to the Theatre Center.

“And anything that’s out there that can be dramatized effectively should be. The fact is that power figures have, since the beginning of theater as an organized art form, been fascinating. Oedipus wasn’t the janitor, he was the king. Richard III wasn’t the janitor. Richard Nixon wasn’t the janitor. . . .

“I think all art is political and I don’t see how you can avoid that because it deals with social, cultural and human issues. . . . (This theater is) trying to continually ask questions of its audience and its artists, in terms of where is the world going and where is this town. There is this continuing cultural concern to define what the hell is this place because it’s about so many different things. . . .”

In its own eclectic mix, Bushnell’s center will have two ensemble companies--one for black actors led by Edmund Cambridge and one for classical actors led by Charles Marowitz. The theater also happens to have a Scandinavian connection. Alsaker, who’s Norwegian, was brought over in 1983 to design “Enemy of the People” (Marowitz’ adaptation of the Ibsen play). He said he knew a good director--his countryman, Stein Winge. Later, on two trips to Norway, White was impressed by Winge’s work in Oslo, and Winge asked to direct “Three Sisters.”

Of his four opening plays, Bushnell speaks with the most passion about “Nanawatai,” which means “sanctuary” in the Afghan language.


“I suppose that’s so, because it goes to the core and the heart of what we do, which is to develop new American work. Mastrosimone is here and totally a part of the process, in effect the evolution and birth of what I think is a major new American play.

“I think the play is consequential because it deals with very large human issues. Faith versus non-faith. Western-mechanized society’s blind belief that it owns all the countries adjacent to its borders and beyond, whether it’s the Soviet Union in this particular case or the United States in Vietnam and Central America. The emergence--or re-emergence--of women in a male-dominated society.”

As the openings neared, the plays could be found all over downtown. Except for the silly grin on her face, White could have passed for a terrorist as she carried an antique rifle to the “Nanawatai” rehearsal at the Embassy.

Earlier in the afternoon, Julie Hebert, 31, director of “Fool for Love,” ran through the opening of the Sam Shephard play at USC with Pam Greer, Richard Lawson and Moses Gunn.

“This play is about passion,” said Hebert, just before the scene began. “It’s about love, passion and obsession and how powerful that can be. The passion between the half-brother and the half-sister, but it’s all of them, the father is the blood passion . . . so it pushes all these people to an extreme, it pushes them to the real edge of behavior.”

At the Theater Centre, director David Schweizer,35, who used to run the Taper Lab, watched video sets being installed in Theatre 4.


“ ‘It’s a Man’s World’ is very technically involved,” Schweizer said. “So scenes are seen both in the eye of the camera and the eye of the live audience. As a result, the technical aspect is really inseparable from the aesthetic. . . . The title has a lot of plays on the definition of what is a man, on both an ironical and a serious level, so that it means everything: the sexual definitions, gay and straight, the creative definition of what it means to be an artist. . . .”

In the north hall at the Embassy, Winge was beginning Act IV of “Three Sisters” with Ann Hearn, Barry Michlin and Gerald Hiken. “I waited with the fourth act because I didn’t want to do it before they know what their persons (characters) are like,” said Winge afterward. “People are frightened to do Chekhov . . . On the contrary, I fantastically attack him, and work with the man.”

And over in the Embassy’s south hall, Mastrosimone and Lamont Johnson were dealing with “Nanawatai’s” 13th draft.

Bill Bushnell’s vision of his Los Angeles Theater Centre is very specific:

“The real reason this building was so attractive was that it was on street level,” he said in the middle of the grand lobby. “And this room, in itself an architectural piece of art, was going to be available without people buying a ticket.

“We’ll have a bar, it’ll have an art bookstore in the back and a certain amount of gallery space. This will be a gathering place open and available all day and all evening. This place is going to cook. It’s going to rock ‘n’ roll.

“If this place works the way I think, the (the outdoor) Terrace Cafe will eventually be open to the wee hours of the dawn and people are going to sit out there and discuss what they’ve seen in these theaters, talk about what’s hanging on the walls, or simply argue over their chess game.”