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LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL : THE SCENE BEHIND THE SCENES

I try to tell my kids, if they can see only one play for the rest of their lives, go see “The Mahabharata . " . . . We’re having the Ganges River flow through a sound stage in Hollywood!

--Robert J. Fitzpatrick

Los Angeles Festival Director

“The Mahabharata"--based on a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit poem 15 times longer than the Bible--is a play that Robert Fitzpatrick likes to say is “equivalent to all stories we know,” involving patriarchal struggles, death, despair, mother love, lovers, children, war and peace. And Armageddon.

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Ma-ha-bha-RA-ta-- slower than you can say Rumpelstiltskin, prompting festival staff to clip it to “Maha"--translates as the “great story of the Bharatas.” Or simply the story of the human race.

More than any of the 37 productions in the Los Angeles Festival that opens Thursday, the nine-hour epic (which can be seen either in a 1 p.m.-to-midnight marathon or as a trilogy on three successive nights) is the centerpiece as well as the hot ticket, despite the $90 cost. For impresario Fitzpatrick, it is the signature import, a work he originally wanted for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Only the work wasn’t ready.

More than 350 artists and 31 companies representing 11 nations make up this year’s international arts event, successor to, though considerably smaller than, the Olympic Arts Festival. “Is this the Son of Sam?” asks Fitzpatrick, referring to Sam the Eagle, the Olympic mascot. “No, 1984 was a one-time event, and we tried to cover the entire world, every art form, as many countries as possible. . . .”

The making of the 1987 festival (with repeated festivals being planned every two years thereafter) involves first of all, artistic choices, primarily done by Fitzpatrick, helped by key staff. Festival ’87 focuses on theater and dance companies as well as music. Once the companies were in place by the beginning of the year, it was a matter of getting ready for them. A staff of 14 has ballooned to 45 and will be expanding soon by another 200 volunteers, most of whom will serve as ushers during the festival’s 3 1/2-week run.

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Getting ready means everything from acquiring special non-immigrant visas to arranging first-night cast parties to preparing stages--from constructing an entire theater at Raleigh Sound Stage 11, where Lyon Opera Ballet and Compagnie Maguy Marin will perform--to preparing Sound Stage 12 next door for “The Mahabharata.”

Director Peter Brook needed 10 years to produce “The Mahabharata” in French at a stone quarry at Avignon, France, in 1985. The actual preparation of the English-language premiere in North America at Raleigh 12 on Van Ness Avenue will last about a month. However, De Santis, the festival’s production supervisor (who had the same role during the Olympics), has been working on the project for about a year.

At $1.9 million (including $400,000 for the English translation), “Mahabharata” accounts for more than half the festival’s production budget of $3.4 million, and nearly a third of the $5.8-million budget. It is the only event to extend a week beyond the festival’s close (Sept. 27). If the performances sell out (the Saturday marathons in September were sold out by mid-June), altogether 8,000 festivalgoers will have seen the play at 10 performances. Thereafter, the play travels to Brooklyn for three months (the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a co-producer), then to Australia, perhaps to Germany and Japan.

“Mahabharata” has a lot of elements:

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A floor of reddish-brown clay--75 tons of a straw and dirt mix--from a company called Corona Clay near Riverside, matched in color and consistency to the dirt Brook used at Avignon and at his Bouffes du Nord theater in Paris.

An 80-foot long, 7-foot-wide, 7-inch deep river, and a much smaller amoeba-like lake, cut into the layers of clay and styrofoam flooring, requiring water changes every other performance because of all the dirt raised during onstage warring and other muck from extinguishing fiery torches.

Fire--for the torches and a snakelike circle of flames--comes as a gift to the festival from Ira Katz of Burbank, whose “pyrofluid” as a substance meets the approval of city fire inspectors. Katz designed the low-heat flame for the 1984 Olympic torch. His pyrotechnics have also been used at last year’s Statue of Liberty fete, on “Miami Vice,” and by hospitals and nuclear power plants staging mock disasters.

Finding a “Mahabharata” site was task enough; outdoors was the first choice. A decomposed granite quarry in Griffith Park was eliminated one night last September after Fitzpatrick climbed the rocks and shouted down to Brook, but the sound was muffled. Then the weather grew cold, hardly conducive for midnight audiences. At other outdoor sites, the sounds of nearby freeways intruded.

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Vasquez Park, not far from CalArts in Valencia where Fitzpatrick was president for a dozen years, was too expensive. “We would have had to bring in a movie location,” recalled De Santis. “Electrical power, telephone systems, and truckloads of water just to drink, not only for the actors but for the audiences. Then there were fire regulations and environmental impacts,” he added. “And we would have had to replace all the vegetation. Physically take out the bushes, put them someplace else and keep them alive, and at the end put them back where we found them.”

Renmar Studios in Hollywood where Le Theatre du Soleil appeared in 1984 was rejected by Brook, who felt the ceilings weren’t high enough. Finally, Studio 12, 45-feet to the grid, was booked, an acoustical wall away from Stage 11.

In late July, five weeks before opening-day ceremonies, Studio 12 is empty, except for scattered boxes and forklifts; air-conditioning has just been installed. In a corner, two men wrap flame-resistant muslin around foam rubber, constructing the 800 or so bleacher seats.

On Aug. 6, exactly four weeks before opening day, as the first tiers of scaffolding go up at Raleigh, Katz is holding a test for Fire Inspector Richard Van Daele in the workshop at his company, Tri-Ess Sciences Inc. Abroad, Brook used cyclohexane, a combustible and possible carcinogen, which is barred for production work here.

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Katz holds up a straw torch encased in a tamale-like shell with a protective metal funnel down its center, pours pyrofluid on, and lights a match. He runs his hand about six inches above the flame; he does not get burned. Others do the same. “See, it’s cool,” he says.

A smaller torch is tested, then a ring of tiny cotton balls that will be scattered about the studio’s river and lit by actors. Van Daele would have preferred a gas jet contraption for the circle of fire, but De Santis doesn’t think an even blue flame would satisfy production standards. Van Daele is willing to accommodate--as long as it’s safe. Katz’s pyrofluid has been around for more than a decade; the inspector has dealt with the substance before. “And the whole stage is coated with clay, which is very safe for that fire stuff,” Van Daele adds. Still he must see how everything works onstage in rehearsal beginning Aug. 27. “We won’t really know (on final approvals) until technical rehearsals, while the actors are here working with the flame,” says De Santis.

On Aug. 7, as the dirt starts arriving in a huge yellow truck, Simon Duhamel, the assistant designer from Paris, is upset. Rust-colored fiberglass has been draped in front of the scaffolding, with the eggshell-colored (flame-retardant) muslin in back, but now the fiberglass hangs knee-high off the ground. Duhamel wants the scaffolding adjusted. “It looks stupid!” he tells De Santis. De Santis makes a suggestion about lowering the top. Palms downward, Duhamel slaps the air behind him, and stalks off the stage area.

Aug. 12, the festival production hears from Brook in Zurich, who is about to stage a week’s run of the English version of “Mahabharata.” Brook has decided the scaffolding doesn’t work, nor do the tamale torches. At Raleigh, workers start erecting two lines of pipe, six inches apart, like curtain rods, on which to hang both fiberglass and muslin. Using stucco mixers to pour the dirt evenly into the studio, the earth floor is almost all laid down.

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Aug. 17, the scaffolding no longer shows. But the clay carpet is still very wet, and Duhamel worries it won’t be dry by the time the actors visit the studio nine days later. Outside, De Santis is matter-of-fact. He must still worry about constructing a theater inside Raleigh 11 for the French troupes. “In retrospect we didn’t need the scaffolding at all. We could have hung two pieces of goods like a normal theater. . . .” And saved $10,000.

De Santis and other festival officials say changes are to be expected, they’re “built in” to budgets, “contingencies” are provided. He insists the clay will dry. “Simon doesn’t know about American ingenuity,” he smiles. “I’ll back a 747 if I have to against this back door with engines going to get this earth dry. . . . The idea is that it’s complete when Peter Brook arrives, so that he walks in and says ‘Aaah’

Getting ready for the the Festival can be such a headache. Take the second week of August:

Fitzpatrick, who in May was named president of the $2 billion Euro Disneyland project outside Paris, was away, as he had been for much of the summer--this time not in Paris but at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. In his absence, much of the organizational burden fell to associate directors Leigh Drolet, 37, and Tom Schumacher, 29, while the buzz of excitement that invariably follows the rather charismatic 47-year-old impresario was missing. So was his political clout.

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Besides construction problems at Raleigh that week, festival organizers learned that Pope John Paul II, on his visit here, would not be using a parking lot across the street from St. Vibiana’s as a heliport, but would have to motorcade from several blocks away, thereby creating the potential for traffic jams and missed curtains for festivalgoers.

Box-office receipts began dropping back to $1.1 million, not for a lack of interest, but because certain productions, including “Mahabharata’s” Saturday marathons, were oversold, and money had to be returned. At $1.4 million, or 60% of seating, the festival begins to accrue a profit which, as Fitzpatrick notes, is “gravy for the next (1989) festival. I like to be outrageous in programming, but I am to the right of Genghis Khan in budgeting.”

Logistics coordinator Donna Saul lost the use of a two-way radio system when the leasing company inadvertantly rented it to another customer.

Artist relations director Joan Selwyn, who also arranges opening-night cast parties--"What I do, if I can, is make a marriage; I match the party-giver and the event"--was told Columbia Studios couldn’t host the “Mahabharata” party because of a scheduling conflict; instead corporate sponsor AT&T; will host at Raleigh 11.

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Special work-permit visa applications for the Monnier-Duroure company got stamped in the immigration office for Montreal instead of Paris, meaning, until the matter was ironed out, that the 11-member company would have had to fly here from Canada instead of coming directly from France, costing the festival about $8,000.

Patrick Johnston, transportation captain/dispatcher (and an actor in “Bent” at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood) ended the week with only a dozen drivers; he said he needed 30 by Aug. 23, because “Mahabharata” was arriving next day. (By Aug. 24 he was up to 22 drivers).

Meanwhile, down at City Hall on Aug. 11, a three-man City Council committee balked at waiving certain fees for hanging festival banners and for renting equipment from forklifts to portable toilets for various festival events. Although the committee reversed itself a week later--only after Fitzpatrick showed up and talked the about festival’s goals in giving “all audiences in this city access to the creators . . . from around the world"--it meant a delay in bringing the matter before the full council. For festival officials, that meant rushing to meet certain deadlines as opening day approached.

As Schumacher explained, the delay affects Thursday night’s opening of Quebec’s Le Cirque du Soleil on a Little Tokyo parking lot, and the John Cage Musicircus at the Children’s Museum on Saturday. Le Cirque needs gravel and the music circus requires stages. “The circus gravel has to be put down before the tent goes up during the last weekend of August,” said Schumacher. “If we’re not going to be able to use their stages, we’ll have to make other arrangements.”

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However, the festival ran into rough waters when its special-event status came before the L.A. City Council on Wednesday. Even though the festival got the status with only three no votes, providing for the assistance of various city departments and $22,000 worth of rented equipment, the festival’s program came under fire from several council members for not sufficiently representing Los Angeles’ minority community.

“I’m not satisfied that we have to wait till next time (1989). Are we creating kind of a snobby arts festival here?” asked Councilwoman Gloria Molina. Councilman Ernani Bernardi called it “chintzy” for a $5.8 million festival to be asking for any kind of help.

There were also strong indications that the city would be looking more closely at future festivals, should help be asked for next time. Councilman Nate Holden, in voting with Molina and Bernardi against special status, said he is not willing to wait for more representation from Los Angeles’ minority community in the next festival, and suggested there was “a real lack of sensitivity” to community needs.

It’s not the Olympic Arts Festival, with all the power and prestige the Games brought.

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Johnston, a CalArts theater major that summer, had been a festival driver. In the darkened Embassy Theatre just outside his festival office, he compares the events. “Oh wow! ’84 was a different time. Everyone was much more open, people were much more willing to lend a hand and be part of it and share a burden as opposed to saying ‘How much?’ ”

In 1984, drivers earned $6 an hour; this year it’s $5. “There were long lines to sign up for the Olympic festival with no advertising for drivers,” Johnston recalled. “Lines! Hundreds of people were applying. . . .”

Still this festival has some advantages, not the least of which is the carry-over of prestige from the successes of 1984. No one, at least among festival boards and managers, blinks at Fitzpatrick’s artistic judgments. The man who imported Sankaijuku, the almost naked Japanese butoh dancers, their bodies whitened with ashes, to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, is considered by them to be culturally inviolate.

With a little help from Mayor Tom Bradley’s office, a record number of non-immigrant visas have been cleared by the U.S. Immigration office here. This being a considerably smaller festival than 1984, which over a period of 10 weeks drew 1,500 artists and 76 companies from 18 nations, the problem of providing security and interpreters has also considerably lessened.

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The festival itself is providing off-duty police and fire marshals. “We’ve been talking to the Hollywood police and getting suggestions from them,” notes Andrea Randall, festival operations manager. “The off-duty police are armed but not uniformed. Their presence is known. Word gets out on the street when they appear. We want to have them walking around to make sure our patrons don’t get ripped off.”

Le Cirque, a theatrical troupe without animals or fire, is creating special problems, from the size of fire aisles to sewer hookups. But the worst of it happened last month. “We were selling tickets all over the place. We had the whole schedule printed, we negotiated the contract, the whole thing was set,” Schumacher said. “Then the manager called me and said, ‘I got a problem.’ ”

In the brochure Le Cirque is listed as having four 10 a.m. performances on Saturdays and Sundays that follow 8 p.m. performances the night before. “He said if they do a show at 8 o’clock, the performers won’tbe over and out of costume until 11. Now these people have been hanging by their feet, he said. They’ve been riding their bicycles in the air. There’s an incredible adrenaline rush. They’re not going to come down until 12:30, 1 o’clock. Now if they’ve got a 10 a.m. show, they’ve got to be warming up at 6 a.m. Five hours of sleep. I said, ‘How did we get to this point?’

“Here we’ve got a half-million brochures out there. So we took the early morning shows off the schedule, and changed the times to 1 p.m., 4:30 and 8 Saturdays, while on Sunday we only do two shows. Nobody wants to be the one to say, ‘I made ‘em perform at 10 a.m. and the trapeze person fell.’

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“The box office had to call every single one of the 10 a.m. ticket-holders, and everyone who bought a 2 p.m. Saturdays and everyone who bought Sunday morning. . . . My sister got a call. I got reports from the field,” Schumacher grimaced.

“She called me and said, ‘Is everything OK ?’ ”

A key element in getting ready is the care and feeding of the visiting artist. “It’s a lot like stage managing, says Saul, who earned a master’s degree in stage managing from CalArts. “Making sure people are in the right place at the right time.”

Of course where the artist stays, or prefers staying, can be of primary importance. So can special requests.

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Ingmar Bergman, who is directing the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s production of “Miss Julie” (in Swedish), always stays at the Beverly Wilshire.

Peter Brook changed his mind about staying at a Santa Monica beach motel and opted for a hotel with pool in West Hollywood, to be closer to the “Mahabharata” production. The rest of the company will be at the Oakwood apartments near Hollywood, so they can do their own cooking.

John Cage, the father of the musical avant-garde who celebrates his 75th birthday Saturday, and around whom many of festival’s music events centers, eats only macrobiotic food, so he too requires his own kitchen.

Everyone else stays at the Biltmore downtown. The hotel will have a hospitality suite as well as an after-hours Festival Club (the Grand Avenue bar), where presumably artists and audience can mingle.

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One of the women in Urban Bush Women has a toddler, so she needs a baby-sitter backstage at the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Tom Bradley Theatre. Associate producer Jeanie Troy is making arrangements.

A woman with one of the Cage events insists that her hotel room be no higher than the fourth floor; she hates elevators.

As for opening-night parties, Hugh Hefner and daughter Christie are hosting Lyon Opera Ballet at the Playboy Mansion. Selwyn made the arrangements three weeks ago with Richard Rosenzweig, executive vice president of Playboy Enterprises, as flamingoes nibbled the grass on the mansion’s back lawn and a bikini-clad young woman sunned herself at the pool.

Douglas Cramer, executive vice president of Aaron Spelling Productions, Inc., and a vice president of MOCA’s board, is hosting the Armitage Ballet. He’s a friend of choreographer Karole Armitage and her fiance and collaborator, artist David Salle.

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Community activists Michael Fasman and his wife, Majorie, a member of the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, host the Earth Players & Market Theatre from South Africa, here to do a play about apartheid.

Bella Lewitzky’s Dance Company is going to Marcia Weisman’s house for its party on Sept. 18, the closing night. One of the nation’s major art collectors, Weisman is a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Lewitzky is doing an untitled work based on the sculpture of Henry Moore, and Weisman hopes to have a borrowed Moore sculpture for the event.

As during the Olympic arts event, each company is assigned an associate producer. Altogether there are seven associate producers. The French dance companies have a producer and assistant who speaks French.

Schumacher, who was a line producer during the Olympics, describes how the system works, after Saul has arranged housing and transportation:

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“When El Tricicle from Spain arrives, Murry Hepner will be at the airport and she’ll greet them. She’s bilingual. She’ll be at the airport, El Tricicle will get off, she’ll say, ‘Welcome to Los Angeles. We have a van here. Let’s get your luggage.’ Murry will escort them to the hotel, Murry will make sure they get checked in, that their press is all taken care of. Murry and the tech guy at LATC will make sure the rehearsal schedule is set up.

“Murry will be able to set up requests like, ‘Can we go see something else, can you sneak us into this?’ Then the artist will say, ‘Gosh, I’m sick.’ Murry will take care of them.”

Riding into San Francisco three weeks ago to promote the festival, Fitzpatrick mused: “One day in July, I had breakfast in Paris, lunch in Cologne and dinner in Stockholm, flying around with Michael (Eisner, chairman and chief executive officer of Walt Disney Studios) to amusement parks.”

Was Fitzpatrick’s heart in this festival? It hardly mattered. By the time he got to the hotel suite for press interviews, he was in top form, selling the festival and himself.

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On dance: “Dance is always sexual, but sometimes it’s prettied up so much as a way of not dealing with it. What you have in Maguy Marin and Monnier-Duroure is deliberate accentuation (of sexuality). Then I saw Michael Clark’s work in London. Here was someone who is a soul brother. Here was someone deliberately challenging gender roles that this step is for women, and this step is for men. . . .”

On his peers: “I totally reject abstract theories or themes for festivals. I have fights with my European colleagues. I tell them they’re like trash compactors, trying to squeeze everything to fit (a theme). I go at it the exact opposite. I try first of all to find work that troubles me. If it doesn’t trouble me, I figure it’s not going to last. I want something that unsettles me, that throws me off balance. In food terms, I don’t want to do meringue, no matter how pretty it is. Eighty percent of the theater in Los Angeles is meringue. Worse than that,” he laughs, “it’s dietetic, sugar-free meringue.”

On Bergman: “He’s honed ‘Miss Julie’ down to the essence. It almost has for me a Japanese quality it has been so distilled. Desire is so palpable in that play, the ache of desire, yet there’s no physical lovemaking. The lighting in that play, a Swedish country kitchen, all grays and blacks, copper water pots, copper skillets. . . . If you want to understand what you can do with lighting in a theater, this is the one play you have to see.”

On himself: “I finally discovered the other day how to define what my job really is. It is to be the stand-in for the audience, the ombudsman . . . the midwife. . . . The whole premise for the festival each time: We’re not about real estate, landlords or building monuments. We’re not about permanence. We’re a kind of epiphany, a kind of momentary appearance.”

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