Gil Cates: Man of 1,000 roles

Oscar's main man brings attention to theater

Gil Cates is a constant cheerleader.

He waxes eloquently about playwrights and directors, his behind-the-scenes staff, his board of directors and anyone who goes against the grain by touting theater in a movie-TV town. His comments, regardless of the subject matter, begin with the positive, even if the negative is rather damning.

And while Cates, who takes no pay for his Geffen duties, is the consummate theater animal, that’s only one of his roles. He is also a hybrid of mathmetician-lawyer as he chairs the negotiating team for the Directors Guild’s film and TV contract, which had its first meeting in September.

And he’s a TV-film producer and director, and is getting ready for his 14th stint as Oscarcast producer.

The morning Cates sat down to talk with Variety was less than 72 hours after he had named Jon Stewart as host of the Oscar telecast, which he will once again produce, and just a few days before Annette Bening dropped out of the Geffen production of “The Female of the Species,” which had been targeted for a Broadway opening after the Geffen run. (Cates still has it on the schedule, though no new casting announcements have been made).

The Geffen itself was buzzing with Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third” on the mainstage, “The Quality of Life” being rehearsed in the Audrey for an Oct. 10 bow and Suzan-Lori Parks’ “365 Days/365 Plays” taking over the courtyard.

“Boundless energy and good will” is scribe Neil LaBute’s quick assessment of Cates’ importance to the theater. “He loves to come to rehearsal. You see him around every corner. And he’s always bringing up ideas. He is one of the older guys in that theater, but he’s the one making it feel the most young.”

Cates, 73, is enthralled by the new, whether it be a play or a production; he says the Geffen even has a policy against presenting anything that has been around for a few years. “There are wonderful plays being done at local 99-seat theaters that we never look at.”

He doesn’t like to talk about finances or how far they have come since the rebuilt Geffen opened. He allows, “I learned years ago that if you balance the budget no one comes in to tell you what to do. … We bought our artistic freedom.”

Then it’s back to pitching the Geffen and theater in general, and the difficulty of cutting through the clutter that keeps people from plunking down their money for a show. The next step, he says, is branding the theater and the experience.

“It is so difficult making the connection, because it’s not immediately recognizable even to donors who complain about (contemporary) culture,” Cates says. “My answer to them is to support theater because we do what TV and movies don’t. We are the interactive media. We affect the world.”

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