One day, sometime during the '30s when Laurence Olivier was in Los Angeles to make a film, he rounded a curve eastbound on Sunset Boulevard and caught sight of the cluster of buildings that make up UCLA's campus. He thought they looked so beautiful that he wanted his son--if and when he ever had one--to go there.

With a little help from Oxford University's fastidious admissions office, which turned him down, Olivier fils , 24-year-old Richard, has done just that (that's the story he tells, at least). And after an undergraduate career that allowed only a couple of sorties as director in local Equity Waiver theater ("Ubu the King" and an anti-nuclear musical by Tim Robbins, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"), Olivier is out in earnest with Daniel Therriault's "Battery," opening Saturday at the Second Stage.

"Battery" was done two years ago at the Cast Theatre; Olivier thinks it's a better play now.

"It's the story of an electrician, his girlfriend and a manic-depressive who works in the electrician's shop as an assistant," Olivier said. "The electrician is an obsessive personality. He has his own ideas and he wants to control people's lives--he even tries his own brand of shock therapy on the assistant. It played in New York in December, and I think it's a much better play since it's been rewritten, much more concise, and with a stronger ending."

Olivier spent last year directing four plays for the Northampton Repertory Theatre in Great Britain, and has returned to find himself bullish on the Equity Waiver scene.

"Three or four years ago, it was very frustrating to know that most Equity Waiver artists were using the theater as a means to get an agent. Now I see the energy shifting toward doing theater for its own sake. Unlike British actors, who tend to have cynical attitudes abut trying new things, American actors have more of a passion to do things. They may not always have the technique, but they're more willing to take chances."

One of the new things with which Olivier is experimenting is an innovative rehearsal process which, after a certain point, makes the director superfluous.

"It's based on Mike Alfred's discoveries with his group, called Shared Experiences. Ian McKellen told me it turned his life around. Alfred analyzed what makes the theater different from movies and television, and concluded that it was the live interaction, not only between cast and audience but among the cast members themselves. He came up with the basic tenet that you should never block a play. If actors understand their characters well enough, and have the sense not to upstage each other, they'll move naturally and consistently within their context. They'll direct themselves. You can do it with Shakespeare and a cast of 25, where an audience can decide which action to follow, or you can do it with a three-character play like 'Battery.' It means that night after night, things are never the same."

A diner and an adjacent gas station on Highway 57 between two small towns in South Carolina--the kind of place time has forgotten, or at least dawdled over--is the site of the musical "Pump Boys and Dinettes," which has its West Coast premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Thursday. It began as a cabaret piece in New York, where director Matt Cassella saw it and thought he could open it here as a more effective theater piece.

"The six actors and actresses in it not only have to act and move," he said, "but they have to sing and make up a band onstage, playing electric bass, electric guitar, piano, accordion, banjo, pots and pans, spoons and salt shakers. Still, the challenge for me is to make it more real, less of a concert piece. The revue is like rockabilly, and like the other works I've directed ("Strider," "Baby and the Bathwater," "Runaways"), it's about people who want to belong."

Other openings for the week: today, the WIMS at the Boyd Street Theater; Thursday, Marsha Norman's " 'night, Mother" at the Mark Taper Forum, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's "A Woman of Independent Means" at the Doolittle, Adele Shank's "Tumbleweed" at Los Angeles Theatre Center; Friday, "Lord Buckley's Finest Hour" returns to the Richmond Shepard Theatre, and on Saturday the Globe Playhouse in Hollywood is the site of a new production of "Hamlet."

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