``I want to create the theater of the 21st century,'' exclaims Bill Bushnell, artistic producing director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, ``and this town is going to do it.'' We are standing in the lobby of the nearly completed $16 million, four-theater complex scheduled to open Sept. 20. Bushnell is pointing out that the location -- on Spring Street, at the edge of skid row in downtown Los Angeles -- has a purpose.
``This is the first city of the 21st century right here,'' he continues. ``It has no majority population. It's the one city in the world that has a chance to figure out how the world really works, with that crazy mix of ethnic groups, religions, languages, races; and downtown is where the different groups all crisscross. It's the perfect place to build a multicultural theater organization.''
This diversity is reflected in the center's opening bill, which includes the British comedy, ``Noises Off,'' Michael Frayn's new translation of Anton Chekhov's ``The Three Sisters''; ``Nanawatai!,'' by William Mastrosimone (``Extremities''), a new play about the war in Afghanistan; Sam Shepard's ``Fool for Love,'' with an all-black cast; and the multimedia ``It's a Man's World,'' done in association with the Mabou Mines company. Music, dance, and poetry are also planned, including appearances by Lawrenc e Ferlinghetti, the Los Angeles Balinese Dance Theatre, and Babatunde Olatunji -- grand master of the Nigerian drums.
``We want this theater to be accessible to everyone -- physically, culturally, economically,'' says Bushnell, who has fixed a $12 average ticket price in a town where $40 is the norm. There is free child care for subscribers and free parking for everyone. The stages -- ranging in size from 99 seats to 500 -- were designed so that no one is ever more than 60 feet from the stage.
Envisioned as a meeting place for artists and the public, the complex will eventually include three restaurants, a lobby bar, a bookstore, and an art gallery. The stage door is situated to force audience and artists to mingle. ``This is going to be a center where everybody who wants to be involved in theater can come and practice their craft and grow,'' says producer Diane White. ``Actors, directors, playwrights can interact with each other and have a place to explore new ideas.''
The center is the culmination of 10 years of work by the Los Angeles Actors Theatre (LAAT), which has earned a reputation for activism by doing plays on social and political issues. When founded in 1975 by Ralph Waite of ``The Waltons,'' LAAT was literally a free theater. A hat was passed at intermissions. In 1978, after an artistic dispute, Waite left and bequeathed the operation to Bushnell and White. ``I knew how to develop a theater,'' says Bushnell, who learned the craft at the Cleveland Playhouse and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, ``but we had no money, and I was not interested in standing still in a small theater where you couldn't pay the actors.'' It was then that Bushnell and White embarked on their plan to move out of the converted bowling alley that had been LAAT's home.
Bushnell called the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and was referred to the abandoned 1916 Greek-Revival style Security Bank Building. He took one look at its stained-glass ceiling and marble walls and decided it was perfect.
Financing has been innovative, resembling more the deals put together for office buildings than for an arts project. The CRA purchased the building and leased back the land to LAAT. A limited partnership was formed -- with LAAT as the general partner -- to raise money in the business community. Seventeen limited partnership interests were then sold for $80,000 each. Additional assistance came from the federal government.
``The Miracle on Spring Street,'' is what Mayor Tom Bradley dubbed the project at ground-breaking ceremonies, echoing the city government's hopes that the Theatre Center will help to revitalize this section much the way the venerable Music Center sparked rejuvenation in another part of downtown 21 years ago. ``Spring Street is expected to be a new commercial and financial center in the next 10 years,'' says Marge Cook, director of public relations for the Biltmore Hotel on nearby Pershing Square and a f ounder of the L.A. Downtowners, a booster group. ``We expect the Theatre Center to be a key element in this development.''
To design the new complex, Bushnell recruited commercial and residential architect John Sergio Fisher. In addition to converting the bank, Fisher created an adjoining structure to occupy the parking lot next door. Bushnell observes, ``In New York they tear down theaters to make parking lots; here in L.A., we tore down a parking lot to build a theater.''
In its new quarters, the company will continue its commitment to works by new playwrights. LAAT has presented over 200 world or West Coast premi`eres, and 12 original plays produced by the group have since been published. ``Showcasing new playwrights is important,'' says Bushnell, ``because these are the people who are talking in today's voices.''
``It's also important to do the classics,'' he continues, ``if we can reread them with the eye of today.'' LAAT has drawn criticism in the past, however, for such restagings of the classics as a futuristic ``Macbeth'' and a slapstick ``Hamlet.'' Undaunted, the Theatre Center is planning an androgynous ``Midsummer Night's Dream'' and a multiracial production of Pinter's ``A Birthday Party'' for later this season.
The eclectic nature of the theater's fare is reflected in its musical schedule. ``In Los Angeles a large variety of musical styles and traditions are coming together to form new hybrids,'' says Fredric Myrow, musical director and composer-in-residence. For the opening season, Myrow has organized five concert series, including a sampling of reggae, an evening of Chopin and Bach, hit music from Latin America, jazz programs, and mixed-media ventures. Myrow sees these concerts as a ``nest'' out of which wil l develop a new musical theater.
The Theatre Center will also offer admission-free workshops such as the Actors' Lab, the Black Ensemble, the Playwrights' Lab, and a Women's Project. There are plans for a Latino workshop, as well.
In addition, the Center has an educational program, whereby schoolchildren are bused to the theater to watch a production and talk with the actors and director afterward.
``The audience of the future comes from young people,'' says Ms. White. ``Most of the children that came to see our `Hamlet' had never seen a play in their lives, and they loved it! Maybe in the future they'll come back.''