Bravoby Pat Launer November 27, 2017
It’s a pretty heady time for the La Jolla Playhouse.
In June, artistic director Christopher Ashley won the Tony Award for his stunning direction of the heart-rending new musical, “Come From Away.”
And this season in New York, there will be at least five shows that were birthed at the Playhouse: “Come From Away,” “Escape to Margaritaville,” “Junk,” John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons,” and the ever-popular “Jersey Boys,” which ran for 11 years on Broadway and is re-opening for a presumed extended run Off Broadway.
“And there may be more,” Ashley says, tantalizingly. “The list is not complete yet for the season.”
Chris admits that his phone has been ringing incessantly since his Tony win. (“I wish there were three or four more of me!” he quips). But the most surprising part of the aftermath, he says, is “something I did not expect. I walk around, and people just beam good will at me, wishing me well. That’s amazing.”
He’s getting myriad requests to read new plays and direct them elsewhere, but his first priority is “always for production at the Playhouse. I love all our staff. Our production staff can do anything. And I love the audience. They’re smart, adventurous and anxious to watch the development of new work. They have incredible pride about the work that comes out of San Diego.”
Chris has been struck by the vitality of the local theater community. And impressed with the vibrancy of local theater educational opportunities, citing SDSU, UCSD, USD, and City College, among others.
“There’s real energy and talent here,” he says, “producing generations of great theater-makers who stay here to make their mark.”
He makes a genuine effort to tap that local talent for Playhouse productions.
“One of the first things we talk about when we look at a play is we look at the acting pool here, which is very strong.”
He also acknowledges the need to spread the word about how strong the theater community is in San Diego. We’re one of the top theater centers in the country, sending more shows to Broadway than most other cities nationwide. People in New York know about the potency of San Diego theater, but many locals do not.
Still, certain challenges persist. As at most theaters, the audience at the Playhouse remains “largely well-educated and largely, but not wholly, white.”
This past fall’s third incarnation of the Playhouse’s successful, biennial WoW Festival (Without Walls) was staged at various locations downtown, rather than on the UCSD campus, as the 2013 and 2015 Festivals were.
“The audience this year was really young and really diverse,” Chris reports. “And it wasn’t the hard-core theatergoing audience. These were folks who wouldn’t go to a play, but would go to an event.”
The site-specific presentations, or events, took place in Horton Plaza, at the arts and culture venue Bread and Salt, at the New Children’s Museum and at the Central Library, among other locales.
“I was really excited to take it downtown,” says Chris. “This Festival has become a center of contemporary performance, site-specific and immersive.”
Immersive theater is participatory theater, in which audience members give up their ‘observer’ status to become active participants in the storytelling process. Some immersive theater involves just one audience member at a time.
“There’s a surge of interest in immersive theater now,” says Chris. “This is a huge growth area. Audiences love it, and it connects to young people, social media and a kind of impulsive community building. For us, it builds a whole new audience, cultivating a young audience, as every theater must. There’s no question that the WoW Festival brings in our youngest and most diverse audience.”
The WoW Festival also attracts increasing numbers of national and international artists. Many of them, says Chris, requested an urban location.
“I want to re-discuss the whole ‘central-ness’ in future festivals. One of my hopes is that WoW sows the seeds for a more city-wide Festival.”
Meanwhile, he’s putting the final touches on the 2017/2018 production list, which continues the Playhouse history of presenting world premieres: 85 to date. This will be the fifth Playhouse season composed entirely of new work.
“I’m very proud of that,” Chris says. “This is an exciting slate of emerging writers – two men and two women, including two artists of color. There are strong female characters. It’s a broad tapestry, with different kinds of stories, populations and writing impulses. Real diversity, in the best sense of the word.
“New work is very exciting to me, the thought of helping an artist find a voice and an audience, and take flight. Of course, we will do revivals again in the future. But this new work is exciting in how it reflects diversity and ambition, and a range of styles and stories.
“Last year, we had “At the Old Place,” a quiet, personal character study. And “Kill Local,” which appealed to the “Game of Thrones” and “Kill Bill” crowd; and “Wild Goose Dreams,” which was political. This season will be equally wide-ranging.”
Coming Up at the Playhouse
The highly anticipated “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” (which closes on December 17), is, according to Chris, “completely wild. That disco moment represented a time of great release, movement and sexuality.”
The season continues with two more new musicals and four new plays.
First, there’s “The Cake,” (Feb. 6-March 4), by Becca Brunstetter, whose “Be a Good Little Widow” was presented at the Old Globe in 2013. This new play will be produced at four major theaters over a six-month period; it’s timely and topical.
“’Cake’ was inspired by a real case that’s headed to the Supreme Court,” explains Chris. “Set in North Carolina, it focuses on a baker, a woman of faith, who’s celebrating an amazing career moment. Then, her dearest friend’s daughter announces that she’s coming home to get married – to a woman. Of course, she wants the baker to make her cake. The play is an exploration of the baker’s struggle to balance her faith, her personal feelings and her business.
“As artistic director, I’m looking for a sense of political balance,” Chris adds, by way of explanation. “So many plays are written from the point of view of Democrats and those further Left. So few really invest in the mindset, the psychology, of the Right wing. This play takes it seriously and doesn’t condescend. That’s the kind of impulse I want to support.
“I’m not interested in Us/Them, black-or-white perspectives. I’m interested in exploring where the fault line is, and what it would take to bridge the gap, the divide, in our country.”
The next offering is “The Squirrels,” a world premiere by Rob Askins, whose wildly irreverent “Hand to God” played at the San Diego Repertory Theatre this past fall. Ashley will direct.
“It’s about a community of squirrels as winter approaches. The Grey Squirrels have most of the nuts; the Fox Squirrels are hungry outcasts. The outsider ultimately takes over the community. Every character is a squirrel. It’s really funny and very demented.”
When asked what the costuming for a play like that might be, he cryptically and humorously responds, “Let’s just say it’s a whole exploration of squirrel-ness.”
Another politically-leaning premiere is “Seize the King,” by Will Power, the son and grandson of civil rights activists, who is an actor, rapper and composer, in addition to being a playwright. In 2008, the Playhouse presented “Seven,” his modernized musical version of the Greek tragedy “Seven Against Thebes.” His new work, says Chris, is “a re-write of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.’ It’s very contemporary, and its impact is very, very political, without naming Trump. The audience makes the leaps.” Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Jaime Castañeda will direct.
Next summer will see the West coast premiere of “Queens” by Martyna Majok, whose searing/funny immigrant story, “Ironbound,” was produced earlier this year by Moxie Theatre.
“Her work is really exploding onto the theater scene now,” says Chris. “Both the Playhouse and Lincoln Center will present this world premiere, which has an all-female cast. A young immigrant woman in a rundown tenement in Queens, New York, meets her new landlord, who was in the same position 16 years earlier. The play explores their relationship, and the amazing women who have given birth to events in the building, past and present. The writing style is really bold, and it beautifully personalizes the economics of class and paying tribute to the women who came before.”
The next world premiere is “The World to Come,” by Lindsey Ferrentino, “a major writer coming into her own. This play is about a family that gets together every New Year’s Eve. It spans the years 2001-2017, going backward, examining the problems and relationships in the present, and how those developed over time. You might recognize some of the fractures and affections in your own family. The play finds the personal as a mirror to society, in a turbulent, beautifully written, unexpected way.”
The two new musicals for 2018 hadn’t been announced at press time, but Ashley will direct one of them.
His five-year plan? “To build new work into the DNA of the La Jolla Playhouse, to remain on the leading edge of new work in America.”
Information on the season and tickets for La Jolla Playhouse productions are available at 858-550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org.