For the first time in more than a decade, Bill Bushnell walks from Spring Street into the lobby of Los Angeles Theatre Center -- the throbbing heart of L.A.'s theater scene in the late '80s, when Bushnell was in charge of the Skid Row-adjacent building in downtown L.A.
"Nothing much has changed," he says, as he looks around the cavernous space -- but then he notices that the doors that lead into the building's theaters are painted a different color. His eye catches a set piece, in the shape of a miniature urban skyline, that's perched over the street-side entrance to the lobby. "I like that," he says.
Security guard Richard M. Martinez tells Bushnell that they met in this space when Martinez was brought to LATC as a kid. Martinez, 29, was one of thousands of people who encountered Bushnell on the premises during those days.
In 1985, Bushnell's thriving Los Angeles Actors' Theatre moved into this converted 1916 bank building -- and the new theaters and offices that were built around it. The theater group, renamed Los Angeles Theatre Center along with the building, produced more than a hundred shows in three mid-size spaces and a fourth 99-seat black box over six years. The fare ranged from the wildly experimental oeuvre of Reza Abdoh to new plays by Latino and African American writers to more conventional treatments of classics.
For a few years, LATC rivaled the Mark Taper Forum as the city's most important theater. In 1991, the previous year's productions at LATC won eight Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards, the most given to any company that year.
But the company didn't last much longer. As the spearhead of a governmental effort to revive the "historic core" of downtown L.A., LATC had received $27 million from the Community Redevelopment Agency. The civic will to pay those bills collapsed in the fall of 1991.
Since then, the city-owned building has been used primarily as a rental facility. Only occasional moments have generated the same buzz of activity that marked the Bushnell years.
Escorted by Martinez and two of the city staff members who work at LATC, Bushnell -- clad in an outfit suitable for a safari -- takes a tour of his old stamping grounds. He approves the signs of continuing theatrical life from current tenants. At one point, to the sheepish disapproval of Martinez, Bushnell gleefully slides down part of the banister of the grand staircase.
Bushnell isn't in town to stay. He's directing "Split," a new comedy about a distinguished professor who is upset by the news that his mistress is about to marry another man. Company Rep will open "Split" on Friday at the American Renegade Theatre in North Hollywood. The play's author, Mayo Simon, accompanies Bushnell on the LATC tour. As they emerge on Spring Street, Bushnell notes that the lively daytime scene and Latino-oriented streetscape of Broadway, one block to the west, is overlapping into Spring.
If he were given the power to decide what to do with LATC today, he says, "I would turn it into a Latino cultural and performing arts center." The Eastside residents who shop on Broadway "would flood over to LATC to get in. You could put posters for shows up on Broadway."
Bushnell isn't likely to run another arts center, however. A decade ago, he decided "I don't want to work hard enough to make another company happen," especially in an era marked by "a serious lack of interest in the arts by government and corporations."
After LATC collapsed, Bushnell worked for more than a year at Cal State Long Beach and its professional theater wing, CalRep. Then he lived on a boat in the Virgin Islands, which proved to be "a hole in the ocean into which you pour money," he says. He moved to New York as a theatrical consultant, but when a hurricane damaged his boat in the Virgin Islands in 1995, he returned there and got work as a disaster relief employee with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"I had perfect training for working on disasters -- 35 years in the theater," he says. "I know how to talk to city officials and middle-management engineers."
He still works for FEMA -- now a part of the new Department of Homeland Security -- although he's paid on a by-the-hour basis that has enabled him to take plenty of time off for personal travel and for occasional directing gigs like "Split."
Within FEMA, he works in hazard mitigation -- "helping people rebuild so they won't get the same result if the disaster re-occurs." Organizing a FEMA conference, he says, is "like producing a play. You keep them entertained for two or three days."
He worked in Puerto Rico, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Washington, and in New York for seven months after Sept. 11 -- which occurred only two months after he moved to a house near Austin, Texas.
Bushnell is directing a play "about mature people who are still capable of passionate, volatile feelings," he says. The leading female character, a woman in her late 50s, works at a small L.A. theater. Her lover, the professor, is a mid-60s man whom Bushnell describes as "a tragic buffoon." As he talks, it's apparent that Bushnell, 65, feels a lot of empathy for them.
"His attitude hasn't changed at all," says playwright Simon. "He's not looking backward, he's not looking forward. That's how he was until the very last day of his time at LATC, and that's how he still is."
Emotionally, Bushnell says, he feels 27 -- the number of years he has been sober. "And I'm going to live to be 128."
Where: American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.
Ends: April 20
Contact: (818) 506-7550