The Year to Come Literally: Florida to Princess Di to 2068 at La Jolla Playhouse

by Leorah Gavidor November 27, 2018
 

 

the-cast-of-the-year-to-comeWhen La Jolla Playhouse Director of Artistic Development Gabriel Greene told me they were currently in rehearsals for “The Year to Come,” I thought he meant they were getting ready for the upcoming season. Turns out “The Year to Come” is the newest play from Yale School of Drama graduate Lindsey Ferrentino, onstage Dec. 4-30 at the Playhouse.

“Directors say it’s their wish that the next actor who walks in to audition will be the answer to all their prayers—I think of new plays in this way,” Greene said of reading scripts. “We want it to be the next big thing.” Ferrentino’s reputation preceded her; her play “Ugly Lies the Bone” enjoyed a sold-out extended run at New York’s Roundabout Theatre and played to a 900-seat theater in London.

When Greene and Playhouse staff read Ferrentino’s newest work, the playwright warned that it was a “really raw” draft. “But all the sharpness, passion, comedy, pathos—it was already present,” Greene recalled.

The story takes place on multiple New Year’s Eves, at the family gathering in the backyard of their home in Florida. It’s “not an accident” that the family drama is set in that state—with so much happening there that is representative of our divided country.

“Who they are as a family is like who we are as a country,” Greene reflected.

A swimming pool onstage—complete with water—represents the aspirations of the family who moved to the Sunshine State to begin a new chapter in their lives. Dips in the pool and the arrival of the famous onion dip punctuate the plot. As the New Year approaches and with it the promise of a new beginning, Ferrentino “turns time on its head.” The characters experience multiple New Year’s Eves going back in time, while the audience sees how the stories they tell about themselves shift and evolve.

The play examines “our motivations for crafting stories,” Greene said. “It’s about how we create what we need to tell ourselves about ourselves.”

Jane Kaczmarek, of “Malcolm in the Middle” fame, plays in the cast alongside Broadway actor Adam Chanler-Berat.

Greene was born and raised in Chicago, and Gary Sinise’s Steppenwolf Theatre was his hometown stage. Eleven years ago, he moved to San Diego to work at the Playhouse. He was already familiar with the theater’s reputation for eclectic offerings.

“It kind of terrified me,” Greene admitted. But it was scary and exciting at the same time. He is glad to be part of an organization that is a “safe harbor for the unsafe and surprising.”

“We love being able to choose plays that are perhaps a bit challenging,” said Greene.

Very new plays find a home—and often begin a journey to success—at La Jolla Playhouse, which began as a summer stock venue for Hollywood actors staying in the village of La Jolla. The DNA Series, which Greene curates, invites playwrights and directors to use the Playhouse’s rehearsal space, staff and resources to develop new projects. So far six plays that began in the DNA Series have gone on to full productions at the Playhouse, including Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & the What.”

“My mom introduced me to the work of Ayad Akhtar, who I’m sad to say I hadn’t heard of—yet. She saw a play of his in Chicago and called to tell me I had to look him up to get him at the Playhouse.”

In 2019, the Playhouse returns to musical territory with the world premiere of “Diana,” on Feb. 19. Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (the Jewish guy from Bon Jovi), the team that wrote Tony Award-winning Memphis, reunited to write the show. “Diana” tells the fairytale story of the preschool teacher who married the Prince of Wales and became British royalty in 1981, only to find herself disillusioned by the world she wanted to be part of.

“It’s an interesting time to revisit her story,” said Greene, as Meghan Markle captivates the world with her own fairytale. The play explores how Diana herself was “an unlikely source of societal change.”

A rock-n-roll, classically tinged, contemporary score speaks the musical vocabulary of the independent Diana, loved by the people but belonging to the rigid monarchy. Greene tells of phone conversations with songwriter Bryan, calling in ideas while on the road with his band.

“What’s that sound?” DiPietro asked the musician on one occasion when Bryan called him with an inspiration for the show.

“‘That’s 40,000 people,’ Bryan said. ‘I’m in Helsinki on tour.’” DiPietro and Bryan’s collaboration on “Memphis” began when they premiered the musical at the Playhouse in 2008, moved to Broadway in 2010 and subsequently won them four Tony Awards.

“It’s an exciting time to be developing new work here,” said Greene. In the past 18 months, six new Playhouse shows have gone on to Broadway and many have found reception all over the world. For the past five seasons, Greene noted, almost all the works have been new to the stage.

Artistic Director Christopher Ashley is the “ultimate arbiter” of what gets selected from the multitudes of scripts that come to the Playhouse every year. But the entire artistic department reads the scripts and Greene emphasizes the collaborative nature of the art form—a team effort that includes the crew, the artisans, the prop and costume designers, and even the audience.

“Theater shouldn’t be a one-way conversation,” Greene said. “It’s not passive.”

Many are probably already familiar with the Page To Stage program, which engages audiences in witnessing the “birth” of a play. During rehearsal and throughout the show’s run, the playwright and director make changes based on audience responses and feedback.

Then, of course, there’s WOW—Without Walls—a series of out-of-the-box traveling interactive theater experiences that change with the site and invite audience participation. San Diego residents might have seen “Model Home” at Horton Plaza, or encountered drama emerging from the ocean at La Jolla Shores during a previous WOW Festival. Stay tuned for announcement of the 2019 WOW Festival.

2019 also brings a new Performance Outreach Program (POP) Tour to San Diego classrooms. Since 1987, the POP Tour has been traveling around the county to deliver theater experiences to students at schools, libraries and community centers. Next up is “Light Years Away,” the story of three fifth graders who accept the challenge of competing to be chosen to live on a newly discovered planet in 2068.

Greene is continually impressed—and heartened—by San Diego’s voracious appetite for theater. He works to ensure that the Playhouse is speaking with a wide range of voices that accurately reflect San Diego and the United States. The organization continually strives for balance, while remaining relevant and also maintaining that “daring” reputation.

“We are so lucky that the audience is hungry for adventure and is willing to go along with us for the ride.”

Like the characters in the upcoming “The Year To Come,” Greene said, “there is a real focus on what’s next.” A partnership with UC San Diego, where the Playhouse is located, brings constant renewal of ideas and a “stellar new generation of theater” to the institution

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