THEATER : Give Him an Oscar : Producing the Oscarcast and being a UCLA dean may be hard jobs, but Gilbert Cates says his toughest is launching the Geffen Playhouse.

Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When he was a fencer in college, recalls Gilbert Cates, he learned to minimize wasted movement. "You just move the weapon enough to protect your body. If you move it further, you present a target for your opponent. You try to be focused."

Focusing remains crucial for Cates, a former Directors Guild of America president who is clearly drawn to high-profile, high-stress jobs. Perhaps best known as the producer of the Academy Awards broadcast since 1990, the producer-director is also both dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and producing director of UCLA's Geffen Playhouse.

Bronx-born and raised, Cates, 61, has worked in all three disciplines throughout his career. With a master's degree in theater from Syracuse University, he started out in show business as a $50-a-week guide at NBC and later created the musical series "Hootenanny." His Broadway productions include Robert Anderson's "I Never Sang for My Father," which he later both directed and produced on film, and he has directed or produced more than 20 television films.

This week, Cates' theatrical roots take center stage as he oversees the first play produced by UCLA's Geffen Playhouse, the 498-seat Westwood theater that was renamed earlier this year following a $5-million gift from film, theater and music mogul David Geffen. The West Coast premiere of "Four Dogs and a Bone," John Patrick Shanley's comedic skewering of Hollywood, opens Thursday starring Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Perkins, Parker Posey and Martin Short.

Cates meets one minute with "Four Dogs" director Lawrence Kasdan to review ads, the next with the theater's managing director, Lou Moore, to discuss construction. Cates, who plans to direct a show at the Playhouse next season, says: "I love the action. I want this place to be hopping and jumping."

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Question: What prompted you and UCLA to acquire this theater in the first place?

Answer: UCLA has the second-largest film archive in the U.S., next to the Library of Congress, and two wonderful theaters on campus. What we didn't have was a really close affiliation with a professional theater. Even though UCLA owns the Doolittle Theatre, it is very far away and [managed by] Center Theatre Group. We wanted to have a professional theater that was physically close and emotionally connected to the students.

When I produced in New York years ago, it always used to disturb me that there was no place to hang your coat, the theaters were warm, the lobbies were cramped and it cost three bucks to get a terrible drink. Theaters didn't go out of their way to encourage people to come, which is what movies do.

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Q: Once UCLA bought the theater [in June, 1993], what was your initial plan for it?

A: Our original notion was for a subscription season, with four or five plays.

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Q: What changed? Your first presentation, the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," ran nearly a year.

A: It hasn't changed. We booked in "Picasso" to get experience in booking, and now we are producing "Four Dogs and a Bone" to get experience in producing our own plays. When we start our season in 1996, we will have broadened our operational knowledge.

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Q: Tell us about "Four Dogs and a Bone."

A: "Four Dogs and a Bone" is a very solidly crafted play about Hollywood, and it's a comedy. It's written by an extraordinary playwright, John Patrick Shanley, who also happens to be an Academy Award-winning screenwriter [for "Moonstruck" in 1987].

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Q: How did you select Lawrence Kasdan, a man best known as a film director, to direct it?

A: I initially asked Shanley to direct this play, which he did in New York very successfully. It was Shanley who suggested Larry Kasdan, because he knows Larry's work and they're friendly and I think they have the same ear.

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Q: What does this first production tell us about the Geffen Playhouse?

A: I don't know. I think the only way for someone to get a feeling of what this theater is going to be like is to check in in two years, after we've done a couple of seasons.

The first play that the Taper did [in 1967] was "The Devils." It was a very adventurous production. It was excellent. I began to obsess about the importance of this first play and what people would think of it. Then I realized that after the first play is the second play, then the third play and the fourth play. And that's when you will get a sense of what this theater is about.

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Q: What about the theater's connections to the Hollywood community? You do have several film and TV personalities involved with this production.

A: Actors act in theater, film and television. Writers and directors work in all three.

It's funny how people assume that if someone is a star, he or she doesn't have the ability, instinct or drive to be onstage. It's an opportunity to work in front of a live audience, get instant response and experience that extraordinary danger.

I just finished directing a miniseries [Guy Waldren's "Innocent Victims," to air on ABC next year]. The actor looks at you after each take--"How am I doing?" Well, in the theater, actors don't have to do that. The actor has 500 people giving him or her an instant response. It's very gratifying for an actor. Scary and gratifying.

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Q: Is this multiplicity in your own career what attracted you to the dean's job at UCLA?

A: I was attracted by the fact that UCLA had made a commitment to have a School of Theater, Film and Television where those disciplines could profit from one another just as they do in the real world. In universities, those three disciplines are usually very separate and suspicious of one another. Theater departments frequently think of film people as being superficial. Film and television people frequently think of theater people studying Latin or a dead language.

That's ridiculous. Writing is writing. Why should film people be denied the theatrical lessons of 2,000 years simply because they want to make films? There's a theatrical vocabulary and language they can profit from.

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Q: How will UCLA and its students profit from having the Geffen Playhouse around?

A: First of all, they'll have a first-class theater to attend. And students at the School of Theater, Film and Television will have the opportunity to participate in professional programs, master classes, seminars, workshops in acting, playwriting, directing.

A few years ago we presented Sir Ian McKellen in "Richard III" at Royce Hall. What was lovely about that is he gave master classes to students so there was an interchange with the acting, writing and directing students. It would be terrific if we could do that on a regular basis, and it will really happen in 1996.

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Q: What's been the delay?

A: We had to raise money. We didn't have the financing to launch a subscription season.

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Q: Which brings us to the $5-million gift last April from David Geffen. How did the Geffen gift come about?

A: We explained what we wanted to do with the theater here in Los Angeles and described the importance of the theater to the community. And he agreed.

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Q: Has the Geffen gift made a difference in fund-raising?

A: Substantial. Without the Geffen gift, we would have been in deep trouble. With the Geffen gift, we can go forward. Also, I think a lot of people were awakened to the possibility of gift-giving. I hope it will encourage other people to make similar gifts. Not just to us, but to all theaters.

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Q: Has it encouraged gift-giving at the Geffen Playhouse?

A: No. Right after the Geffen gift was announced, there were people I was asking for money who said, "You don't need it. You have the Geffen money." And that's not true. David's gift was a sizable, terrific, wonderful gift, but it can't cover all our costs and it is being paid out over a period of time.

The theater requires constant raising of money to cover the shortfall between the cost of a ticket and the cost of production. Unfortunately, as you know, the price of a ticket doesn't pay for the cost of the production. In addition, there is a certain amount of money necessary to maintain the plant. There's a mortgage on the building.

I think audiences today like the intimacy of smaller theaters. I honestly believe there is a desire for intimacy not only between people but between people and the art they are involved with. I love the fact that this Playhouse is the right size not only for what audiences want to see but for what playwrights seem to be writing. Whether Mamet or Shanley, writers seem to be writing plays that are best served by a 400- or 500-seat house.

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Q: Can you break even with a theater this size?

A: No way. We are prepared for a perpetual deficit of between $500,000 and $750,000 a year. This theater always operated with a little profit. What would happen is if a play was a hit, it would run until it wasn't a hit, and another play would come in.

Once you commit to a subscription season with seven or eight weeks per play, if you have a big hit, you can't play it beyond the seven or eight weeks to maximize the profit. And if the play doesn't do very well, you can't book anything else in because the time is committed to that play. And you have to build sets for four or five productions a year. So the point is, it is not a moneymaking proposition.

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Q: Los Angeles theater people and others have long complained that the entertainment industry doesn't do enough for local theater, given all the writing, acting and other talent that theater nurtures. Do you think getting this gift from Geffen signals more participation?

A: I hadn't intended for it to send out a signal. I don't see the stark separation between the film and theater communities that many of my colleagues do. I think support of theater is a function of location, material and excitement.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" ran almost a year. Why? There were no stars. It ran because people in the audience enjoyed what they saw, told their friends and people came. I'm still naive enough to believe that if you present something that's exciting and interesting, people will come.

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Q: Will you also produce new plays here?

A: Absolutely. Maybe half of the 250 plays we read before choosing "Four Dogs and a Bone" were new plays. We will have a new play workshop here. Absolutely. We're very greedy.

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Q: How would you compare putting this theater together to producing the Oscars? Is this easier?

A: No. This is the hardest job I've ever had. With the Oscars, there's a night on which it all ends. This is like having a child--it's ongoing, just gets bigger and requires a lot of time and attention. But the joy of it is that like with a child, it does grow up. The life continues.

Theaters are closing and business is tough for regional theaters around the country. To be a new theater and try to go against that tide is kind of exciting.

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