LOS ANGELES, AUG. 31 -- Logistical nightmares are Tom Larson's specialty. He worked Hands Across America in Arizona. He staged L.A.-area Christmas and Easter pageants, each with a cast of 400 people and 150 animals -- "camels and donkeys and lions and tigers and chickens and ducks and wolves," he recalls. And he's a veteran of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival here and the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, during which he staged the epic "Mahabharata." So it's no surprise that he left his Hawaii home for a rented Hollywood apartment and the title of production manager -- at half his usual salary -- of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival.

"This is the ultimate challenge," says the 56-year-old Larson, a former singer and dancer in the Broadway production of "Camelot" who has been working on the festival since March.

No less daunted by logistical nightmares -- or any kind of nightmares, for that matter -- is Peter Sellars, the man who created this one. The eccentric bad boy of the theater world, who spent a controversial, high-profile year and a half as artistic director of the Kennedy Center's American National Theater, has landed in L.A. and conceived one of the most ambitious festivals around.

"People say there's no culture in L.A.," Sellars states. "Well, after this festival you can't say that. You just can't."

When the Los Angeles Festival opens Saturday near the ocean on a breezy bluff appropriately called Angel's Gate, it will be as sprawling in concept and geography as Los Angeles County itself. Over the course of 16 days, this movable festival will showcase the art and culture of the Pacific Rim. There are roughly 1,400 performers and 70 venues across Los Angeles County representing art of Australia, China, Japan, Latin America, Hawaii, Indonesia -- and, of course, California -- among other locations. Most of the outside events are free. Most of the traditionally staged theater is not.

It is a confusing as well as extraordinary confluence of events. Theatrical performers range from a Chilean troupe to an L.A.-based group whose members are homeless or formerly homeless. "Nixon in China," the opera of international diplomacy that Sellars himself has directed in several cities, makes its West Coast debut at the festival. There is a Mexican performance artist -- Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a particular favorite of Sellars's, whose work deals with art and life on the border between California and Mexico. There was to be a single Salvadoran poet, but after Salvadoran exiles here complained of his ties to the current regime, Sellars -- energized by the controversy -- scheduled an additional Salvadoran poet with a different political perspective.

There are some rare events. The appearance of the Cambodian Classical Dance Troupe from Phnom Penh represents the first cultural exchange between the United States and Cambodia since the Vietnam War. It also marks the reemergence of an art form thought to have been extinguished during the Pol Pot regime. Court performers from the Yogyakarta Palace of Java, appearing in a downtown theater, rarely perform in public or outside Indonesia. And next Saturday, a Javanese shadow puppet play will be performed as it is done in its native land -- all night, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. "Just as in Java," reads the brochure, "feel free to leave and return. ..." The puppeteer, on the other hand, never takes a break, according to Larson.

"I was kind of fuzzy on the difference between Bali and Java," confesses Larson. "I kind of always thought they were the same. When I started pulling out things we were going to decorate the stage with, this one person said, 'You can't decorate the Javanese stage with Balinese fertility poles.' We had to do a great deal of research."

If ever an event needed a guide, it's this one. But unfortunately the elaborate and colorful festival brochure is quite difficult to decipher. As Sellars and festival organizers deal with criticisms over whether the festival has been adequately publicized and financed, the brochure has become the whipping boy of the event. It's the one thing everyone -- including the festival organizers -- agrees didn't turn out right.

If the festival is successful -- if lots of people come -- it will seemingly defy the yawning cultural and physical chasms of the city and the county. Larson expects millions of people over the run of the festival. But Sellars has said he doesn't really care about the numbers. He told the L.A. Weekly, "I don't want everyone there. I want people who really care about art, and that's enough. That's plenty." The irreverent Weekly tweaked Sellars for going "overboard on Third World exotica," a criticism that he believes misreads the very nature of the festival.

"This stuff isn't exotic," he insists. "Filipino kulintang {percussion music} is, I suppose, exotic, except they're doing it four blocks from here. So it can't be exotic anymore. The Mayan marimba that we have here -- those people are working across the street here. This is not exotic! This is now American culture... . This is less exotic than the Bolshoi visiting. There's a larger Filipino population than Russian population... . As far as I'm concerned, most of East Coast culture is genuinely exotic in Los Angeles. What we're presenting is, in fact, normal." He breaks into a delighted laugh.

Those who have come from across the ocean are being housed in the Olympic Village at UCLA, where Olympic athletes stayed. "And they've all requested to go to Disneyland," says Larson. He plans to honor their requests.

An exploration of Pacific culture couldn't be more timely for Los Angeles. However, Sellars uses the themes of the festival -- the use of art in spirituality, the "otherness" of non-European art, artists working as a collective -- to range afield of Pacific Rimness. The Wooster Group, the respected and adventurous theater ensemble from New York, has little to do with the Pacific, but it does exemplify one of the festival's themes -- working as a community group. "Otherness," in particular, is important to Sellars. "The current language being proposed for the NEA is a reaction to otherness, a panic, a fear of otherness -- racial, religious, sexual, political otherness," he says. "That is the reality of America, and it won't go away. When you use the phrase 'the American people,' that means Filipino people, that means Mexican people, that means gay people."

Now 32, Sellars is still as Washington remembers him -- spritelike with a moussed-up thatch of dark blond hair, a casual, approachable manner and a giddy laugh. He's no longer constantly in a kimono, favoring instead one day last week a stylish black and white checked suit with a turquoise T-shirt. He works out of cramped quarters in a downtown office, surrounded by energetic staffers who handle the myriad logistical details of the festival and on Wednesday evenings get their feet massaged as a way of relieving stress.

In the three years since Sellars was hired by the board of the Los Angeles Festival to produce the 1990 event, he estimates he has been in Los Angeles only five to six months each year, spending the rest of the time on other projects, such as operas, plays and videos. "I'm one of the most well-known and working directors in the world. I have lots of gigs," he says with a laugh.

"This is as much as I can do," he says of his festival work. "If it's not enough, then I'm the wrong person for the job. I have to continue to be a working artist... . If I lost that part of me I would be a bureaucrat, and I'm a really bad bureaucrat." He laughs as his ambitious, money-losing theater project in Washington comes to mind.

Although some of the work that Sellars presented at the Kennedy Center was showered with critical praise, the American National Theater project never kindled the interest of the city, and Sellars left midway through his three-year contract.

" 'Ajax' sometimes played to 19 people in the Terrace Theater," Sellars recalls. "That's when I thought, 'This is really not fun.' So I took it to La Jolla," he says, referring to the respected regional theater south of here. "You couldn't get in. That's when I thought there's life elsewhere."

Sellars contends that there are too many theaters at the Kennedy Center. "There was too much product on the shelf," he says. "I thought if I just had to fill a festival once every three years for two weeks, that would be good. I could really concentrate all of the firepower in one gesture."

He already has ideas for the 1993 festival. He's thinking about focusing on African and Middle Eastern art and culture. Meanwhile, he's made this his home base, renting the guest studio of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Pasadena. He draws no pay for his job, having turned down the board's offer of a $100,000 salary in light of early budget problems.

Two years ago, organizers were worried that there wouldn't be enough money to have a festival. "I would call people and say I'm representing the Los Angeles Festival, which is being directed by Peter Sellars," says development director Allison Sampson, "and people would stop me and say, 'Now, what carnival is this?' and 'Isn't he dead?' "

Since then, Sellars's profile in the city has risen substantially and the festival has cultivated a new crop of cultural donors. Sellars says the festival has met its $5.1 million budget. It turned down a $30,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant in protest of anti-obscenity restrictions. And it cultivated new donors, particularly in Asian communities here.

About $1 million of the festival's funds has come from various Japanese concerns, even though Japanese performers do not play a large role in this festival. "For the first time, the Japanese have paid for something that was not Japanese," says Sellars. "What interested them was that this was a festival in south-central and east L.A. as well as Little Tokyo."