Big plans, little sleep for arts festival director

If the people of Los Angeles were awarding gold medals, Robert J. Fitzpatrick would surely get one. They wouldn't find him training with the teams, however. As director of the Olympic Arts Festival, this tall man with distinguished-looking silver hair and dark-rimmed glasses has been spending his time in a cavernous converted airplane hangar.

Here, at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC), he has put together an international cultural celebration which, most observers agree, has given these boycott-tainted Olympics a world-class success story.

It hasn't been easy. ''This is the 57th straight day I've not been to bed before 3 a.m,'' says Mr. Fitzpatrick, who is also president of the California Institute of the Arts. But though he may be physically overtaxed, he says he is mentally and emotionally ''exhilarated and satisfied.'' This satisfaction, he says, stems chiefly from winning a very risky battle - and winning it big.

For the past eight weeks this city has been bathed in artistic expression - a vast array of some of the world's finest theater, dance, music, and art - all brought here by Fitzpatrick after four years of tireless globe-trotting searches and delicate international negotiations.

Yet when he finally announced his schedule of performers earlier this year, he recalls that ''my colleagues said it was a suicidal gesture.'' He was presenting groups that were so avant-garde and controversial that their own governments hesitated to let them come. Riskiest of all, there would be more than 10 theater troupes performing in foreign languages without English translation.

It proved to be a risk worth taking. According to official estimates, more than 75 percent of the events sold out. There are many stories of citizens rising at 4 a.m. to wait for hours in hopes of obtaining a single theater ticket. Hundreds have been turned away. And tickets to the final performance of the Royal Opera's ''Turandot'' reportedly changed hands for upwards of $500.

The resulting festival, writes Steven Winn in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, ''has surpassed in impact what even its most enthusiastic backers had expected.''

Fitzpatrick explains that the crucial moment came on the opening night of Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre de Soleil, which presented Shakespeare plays spoken in French and done in Japanese Kabuki and Indian Kathakali styles - with a bit of Italian commedia dell'arte thrown in.

''Ariane Mnouchkine and I were pacing in a hallway underneath the stage,'' he recalls, ''and there was a slit through which I could see the legs of the audience. I kept waiting for that creak which would signify a mass exodus. I had stage fright of Olympian proportions.''

The moment of truth came, he says, ''about five minutes into the performance'' - when, instead of leaving, ''people started leaning forward.''

''The battle was won.''

Following this performance, word spread, and people came in droves. They were delighted. ''They had the double pleasure of seeing new work and overcoming a language barrier,'' says Fitzpatrick. At the last performance of Theatre de Soleil, Fitzpatrick says, ''there were 12 or 13 curtain calls. The audience didn't want them to leave.'' The stage was littered with flowers, he recalls, and ''I started to cry.''

Fitzpatrick says that moments like this one have kept him going - and he has gone to nearly every opening, cast party, and celebration dinner. This has been part of a conscious effort, he says, to make every artist and every audience member feel equally at home in the festival. ''We did not want the image of this being for the elite, the arts patron.'' After the opening-night performance of the Pina Bausch Wuppertaler Tanztheater from West Germany, for example, he says, ''we blocked off the street and invited the entire audience (3,000 people) to the party.''

To be sure, there have been disappointments. ''the CIVIL warS,'' an 11-hour multinational experimental work staged by Robert Wilson, never made it here when funding went dry. There has also been a notable lack of music: No symphony orchestras were invited.

Perhaps the greatest irony, however, is that the festival's most prominent legacy to Los Angeles - the Robert Graham Olympic Gateway - has also been one of its least popular contributions. These two 40-foot bronze sculptures, standing astride the entrance to the Los Angeles Coliseum (where both the opening and closing ceremonies will be held) depict a male and a female athlete, headless and nude. The sexually explicit nature of the depiction has stirred massive controversy: Recent letters to the Los Angeles Times call the statues ''distasteful,'' ''a monumental faux pas,'' and ''a national embarrassment.''

Fitzpatrick stands behind the works, stating that they ''recall fragments of (ancient) Greek sculpture'' and that ''in the 20th century it is inconceivable not to portray the human body as it is.''

Nudity was also a potential issue with some of the performing groups in the festival, including Brazil's Grupo de Teatro Macunaima and Guinea's Les Ballets Africains. In both, however, the style apparently transcended the nudity, and the public at large was not provoked.

On the whole, however, Los Angeles - an area never known for its nourishment of fine arts - has been swept up in a euphoria that may permanently change its cultural face. Letters and phone calls have poured into newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations, heaping praise on the festival. ''I regret that California is not a British colony,'' one reader wrote to the Los Angeles Times. ''If it were, Robert Fitzpatrick would be knighted by the Queen for organizing a superb Olympic Arts Festival.''

''It's been wonderful,'' says Charles Champlin, arts editor of the Times, ''and it's going to leave us changed.''

One small confirmation: With a number of groups doing Shakespeare in foreign languages, there are widely circulated reports that more copies of Shakespeare have been sold here in the last couple of months than ever before in the city's history.

The first major change will probably be the establishment of a biennial international cultural festival in Los Angeles. Mayor Tom Bradley has already met with Fitzpatrick to discuss just such a venture.

''There is such a grass-roots groundswell rising to have future festivals,'' says Maureen Kindle, president of the city's Board of Public Works and member of the executive committee of the LAOOC. ''If we did one in two years,'' she adds, ''we'd have to have Bob Fitzpatrick [as director].''

Fitzpatrick readily gives credit to his staff, many of whom have been as indefatigable as he is. They return the compliment. Dan Pavillard, the publications director, calls working with Fitzpatrick ''a revelation.'' Wally Prawicki, Fitzpatrick's personal assistant, calls the experience ''frantic, hectic, thrilling'' - and adds that ''you can't believe the list of addresses [ of foreign artist friends] I have.''

Fitzpatrick admits that it has all been hard on his home life. ''I would call my wife,'' he says, ''and tell her to meet me at intermission with fresh laundry.'' His family's reward, he says, has been the cultural enrichment. ''My nine-year-old daughter went around to all the events discussing Pina Bausch with everyone,'' he recalls.

What has been engendered by the festival, Fitzpatrick concludes, is both ''an excitement'' about the arts and ''a real sense of camaraderie.''

''We were not going to let the [Soviet boycott] take away our joy,'' he says.

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