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If you're a kid bitten by the theater bug, you might simply gather together some like-minded pals, commandeer a convenient basement or garage, throw a few boards on some boxes and - presto - you're deep into the magic of play-acting.

If you're a grown-up contemplating a theater venture, you would be advised to take it a little slower. It might be good to find a real theater, for example. Or maybe line up your actors and directors in advance, gather financial support, study your audience. Even a pie chart or two might be in order.

But Buffalo United Artists, the little black box of a theater in an upper room over a bar at 884 Main St., is here to remind us that reasonable, if hopelessly theater-smitten, adults can also improvise their way into show business.

"I had no intention of producing," said Javier Bustillos, BUA executive director, in a recent interview in which he laid out the theater's unlikely genesis that began in fall 1991. At the time it happened that Bustillos came back from a trip to Minneapolis excited about a production he'd seen there. He was always an avid theatergoer and took theater courses in college before finally settling on linguistics. (He holds a master's degree in linguistics and education from Indiana University.) By then he had been living in Buffalo for 11 years and knew many of the city's theater people and figured the play would work wonderfully here. Despite his enthusiasm, however, there were no takers.

"I said, well, I'll do it myself. It was going to be a one-show deal, nothing else."

In the dead of winter, two days into 1992, Bustillos' production of the musical revue "A ... My Name is Alice" opened at the old Franklin Street Theater once situated behind Shea's Performing Arts Center. The "one-show deal" finally closed after more than 110 performances, setting what must be a record for numbers of performances of a single production in these parts.

"It was supposed to run three weekends," Bustillos recalled about this surprise hit. "But here we were in the middle of winter and we were squeezing in as many as we could. We knew it was good. The audience reaction was great, and the phone started ringing off the hook."

Bustillos extended the production, and then extended it again. He said that people were coming back to see it twice, three times. By the time it moved over to the Paul Robeson Theatre, it had gone through about 16 different Alices and other cast changes to accommodate the busy schedules of local actors. It even had a small band of groupies.

"That's how the whole thing started," he said. "It was a very pleasant experience, a one-time thing."

Or so he thought at the time. The wild success of "Alice" couldn't help but inspire the notion that maybe, just maybe, the patched-together company could renew this success on a regular basis. Thus was born a new theater company in Buffalo.

"In those years we always did a new show in different venues - at Franklin Street and at Ujima Theatre, in Alleyway Theatre, in Hallwalls or at Buffalo Seminary, where we did "Agnes of God.' "

"It was good stuff," Bustillos continued. "We did (Mart Crowley's) "Boys in the Band' our second year. We got "Love! Valor! Compassion!' - the Terrence McNally play - as soon it closed on Broadway. We were the first theater in the country to produce it. . . . We had people coming down from Toronto."

Buffalo United Artists was not a title assumed for its comforting sound of solidarity. The four or five individuals were actually artists who had banded together to make the kind of theater they thought worth making. By the third year, Bustillos was seriously sharing responsibilities for the operation of BUA with Coleman, Kelly and Timothy Finnegan - all who remain to this day - with others joining in along the way.

After years of bouncing from venue to venue, adapting sets from other people's productions and squeezing into other people's schedules, BUA took the plunge two years ago and moved into its own space. Still, even with the theater secure in its own home, Bustillos is hesitant to lock in a full season, preferring instead to plan only three shows at a hit. "Although it's not always so good as far as lining up actors, I like the flexibility."

BUA often does gay-themed plays - which has gained the theater a fiercely loyal audience in the gay and lesbian community - but Bustillos said the selection of plays ranges widely, from classics like Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba" to broadly appealing contemporary comedies like Paula Vogel's "The Mineola Twins" to socially cogent dramas like John Logan's "Never the Sinner."

"When you do shows that are contemporary and interesting, there may happen to be a gay character," said Bustillos. "We are interested in artistic excellence, that's the point - the play that communicates important sides of the human experience."

Bill C. Davis' "Avow," for example, this year's opening production, is a serious comedy that deals with hetero- and homosexual relationships as they intertwine with the Catholic Church's attitudes on celibacy and gay marriage.

"Avow' got a lot of good response from a variety of people," Bustillos said. "People came who had never been to the theater before."

Although Bustillos stressed BUA only does one, maybe two, thoroughly campy productions a year, the theater's riotous takes on classic scripts have gathered a band of enthusiasts. Last season the old creaky melodrama "The Bad Seed," with the mother played by Jimmy Janowski in drag, was a huge success. And Janowski, playing the Joan Fontaine character, will no doubt mine similar audacious humor from Daphne DuMaurier's classic "Rebecca." The Chris Kelly-directed production opens next Friday and continues through Nov. 17.

For Bustillos, "Rebecca" is packed with camp potential. "It's in there - all you have to do is twist it a little and you find a subtext. When the cast was reading through the play I had to stop them and say, "Is that line really in there?' And then, Chris (Kelly) always wants to go all the way with the material. He has this Mel Brooks kind of sense of humor."

Besides Janowski, the cast will include Guy Tomassis as Mrs. Danvers and D.M. Youngstorm as Maxim de Winter, with Caitlin Coleman, Jamie De More, David Haefner, Eric Rawski and Katie White in various roles.

According to Bustillos, it's an insatiable passion that drives BUA. "We all love the theater very much. And thank God we all have jobs (Bustillos is blah blah blah at the University at Buffalo). Unlike any other company, we have no administration, no one works for us. It is artist-run. And really and truly, what dollars we make comes through the box office. We have no grants and never have applied for one."

That doesn't mean he won't be applying in the future.

"We are growing up," he said. Moving into a permanent home was a step. With monthly rent a hard reality, Bustillos finally came to a realization: No more going dark when the perfect play eludes them. "Now we have to do shows."

With BUA's 10-year celebration coming up in January, Bustillos said he and the others want to make sure that they never lose what makes the theater unique.

"We always want to keep it small. The intimacy of the space is very important to the theater. You're so close that small things become grand; a slight turn of the head is a lot. The actors can't cheat.

"It is a different kind of theater experience."


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