THEATER : Triple Threat on the Stage : Recognizable for her work in TV and movies, Natalija Nogulich can do it all in the theater: act, direct, even produce.

A lot of actors worry about being out of work. Natalija Nogulich isn't one of them.

"It's not ego," she says firmly. "I just have confidence that employment will continue--because if it hasn't in the past, I've always initiated it." Currently, Nogulich is shooting a couple of episodes for the upcoming Fox series "Ned and Stacey." Then it's off to Santa Fe, N.M., for the TV movie "Lazarus Man" with Robert Urich. In between gigs, her company, the Grace Players, opens a one-act festival Thursday at the Egyptian Arena Theatre in Hollywood. Nogulich is producing the program, acting in one of the plays and directing eight of them.

"It's a lot of fun, and a lot of work," allows the Chicago-born actress, munching on cookies in her airy Brentwood apartment. "But the thing is, it's all come together so naturally." Nogulich (her first name is pronounced na-TAL-ya) is recognizable to local stage audiences from her 10-month stint playing the title role in "Tamara," to TV audiences as Adm. Nechayev on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and to movie audiences as Jack Nicholson's wife in "Hoffa." Next month, she can be seen in the film "Steal Big, Steal Little."

Growing up, Nogulich, who speaks six languages, dabbled in acting, but majored in art at Lake Forest College, north of Chicago. In 1976 she answered a newspaper ad for acting classes with David Mamet's St. Nicholas Theatre Company. Thoroughly hooked, she later moved to New York, where she studied with Stella Adler and worked on Broadway, including an acclaimed staging of "The Iceman Cometh" with Jason Robards. It was that show--which toured to the Doolittle in 1986--that brought her to Los Angeles.

It was also during "Iceman" that Nogulich began taking acting classes with Kenneth McMillan, whom she'd met when he starred in Mamet's "American Buffalo."

"Kenny had this extraordinary class that would start at noon Saturday and go on and on," she recalls fondly. "It was very languorous. He'd take breaks between scenes, go across the street to the Mexican restaurant. So I was going to class around noon, hanging out for a few hours, then going to the Doolittle, doing the play, getting out around 11:30, getting out of the corset by 12, then going back to Kenny's class in North Hollywood and doing a scene--then getting up the next day and doing a matinee."

She shakes her head. "It was just love of the work, and I always thought I could learn more, do better, improve my craft. That hunger--it was a little madness. I'm not sure I would do that today." She sighs ruefully, then laughs out loud. "I know I wouldn't."

Later that year, McMillan was cast in a New York show and asked Nogulich to take over some teaching during his three-month absence.

"I was his protegee, his pet," she stresses. "I was a student. And Kenny was such a mentor. They came to hear his wisdom, his joy." At first she refused McMillan's offer; later that day she changed her mind. "He had 35 people in the class," Nogulich says dryly. "Four came. Then five. Then six. I called Kenny and said, 'Let's put everything on hold until you come back. They don't want to study with me. They want you.' His response was, 'Keep the shingle out, babe.' "

She did, and her classes grew. Eventually McMillan returned to L.A., and they began teaching in tandem. In 1989, when McMillan died, Nogulich's classes grew to encompass his students. Originally she taught out of various local theaters, including West Coast Ensemble and the Heliotrope. In June, 1994, Nogulich banded together 40 students and launched the Grace Players at the Egyptian Arena with the West Coast premiere of David Mamet's adaptation of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters."

The transition was not fear-free. "I thought, 'This is a big leap: to take on a theater and trust that my classes will be able to sustain it--because they have to.' So I just took the step, and it was the right one. I didn't sit down one day and say, 'Well, it's time to make this into a company.' It just came naturally out of the classes. I'd been directing one-acts and scenes with the group periodically. Finally I thought, 'Why don't I just choose a really substantial play and do a full-out production?' "

That brought Nogulich back to her old friend and mentor, Mamet. "I'd been in a few of his films--'Things Change,' 'Homicide,' 'The Water Engine'--we'd kept in touch, but he really just knew me as an actress," she notes. "So giving me the rights was an act of faith on his part. And it was a great adaptation: Very integral to Chekhov, it really honored him. But what was really Mamet was he had this rhythm and music to the way [the characters] spoke, this energy and passion, people speaking over each other, that's sometimes missing from the classics."

Friends told her she was nuts to make her debut with Chekhov.

"But I loved the material," she says plaintively, "so I put it on the line." With her company, she engaged on a leisurely yet intensive pre-production schedule, beginning in January, 1994. "We took our time, did a lot of research," says Nogulich, who has a three-year lease-option on the theater space. "We looked at Russian movies together, went to Russian restaurants, went to Russian churches together. We got Russian together." The play opened to excellent reviews and was followed this past May by a second production, Jason Milligan's "Walking on the Moon."

Somewhere along the line, No gulich got used to wearing a business hat as well as an artistic one.

"It makes some people uncomfortable," she admits. "I've encountered situations where people were surprised that I knew how to type up a contract." Mostly, though, she's had encouraging responses. Director friends Mamet, Garry Marshall, Andrew Davis, Taylor Hackford and Claude Lelouch have been quick to pitch in. For $1,000, donors get their name on a brass plaque on a theater seat. And stars like Burt Reynolds, George Segal and Joe Mantegna (an old buddy from Chicago days) have participated in the Tuesday play-reading series.

Nogulich makes clear that the stage is not just something to fall back on if her commercial work dries up. "Theater is my greatest passion," she declares. "I didn't create this company as a 'just in case.' It's every bit as legitimate and important as the other. When I work in film, I have a great time. Teaching is very important to me, directing is more important, and my desire to direct film will also, at some point, take up a front. But the acting for me will never stop. I don't know how I know this, but I do. I know it in my gut."

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"ACTS OF GRACE": Egyptian Arena Theatre, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood. Programs: Thursday--"The Divorce" by Lynn Mamet, "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, "Spring Dance" by Horton Foote, "Yes, Charlie Chaplin" by Marv Chernoff. Friday--"One-Way Street" by Jason Milligan, "Shadowboxing" and "Unwritten Rule" by Bruce Hickey, "The Rook" by Lawrence Osgood. Saturday--"One Cold Night" by Bruce Hickey, "[Looking South on] Cahuenga Hill" by Travis Michael Holder, "The Man With the Flower in his Mouth" by Luigi Pirandello, "The Visitor From Hollywood" by Neil Simon. Dates: Opens Thursday. Plays Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 30. Price: $5. Phone: (213) 464-1222.

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