La Jolla Theatre Ensemble brings staged readings to local venues


The 2016 La Jolla Theatre Ensemble season promises to bring a variety of plays to La Jolla venues for staged readings — everything from one-act plays by local writers to lesser-known plays by well-known playwrights — all the way up to Shakespeare.

Ensemble co-founder and longtime theater enthusiast John Tessmer said the pieces performed range from “serious to lighter fare” and are influenced by the season and the venue. The troupe performs at least 10 shows per season.

Held primarily at the La Jolla Community Center (the Ensemble’s original name was the Riford Readers, commemorating a time when the Community Center was called the Riford Center), the staged readings have branched out to La Jolla Library and St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

In February, in honor of San Diego Theatre Week and Black History Month, the Ensemble will perform “Permanent Collection” by Thomas Gibbons. “The play is about art and race issues. It’s not that we couldn’t do that anywhere else, but it’s more intellectually stimulating and literacy-based, so it’s more suited to do at the library,” Tessmer said. They take the “stage” for “Permanent Collection,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 7555 Draper Ave.

In March, the troupe returns to their original home for “John Gabriel Borkman” by Henry Ibsen. Because the last scene takes place outdoors, Tesssmer said they needed a venue with indoor and outdoor capabilities and prefer the La Jolla Community Center for its open air courtyard.

“The Community Center is quite a unique setting for this town. The Old Globe Theatre has an outdoor stage, but in La Jolla, there isn’t a similar space,” he said. “Plus, it’s joy to work there.”

Because 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the William Shakespeare’s death, the Ensemble will team up with the La Jolla Library and the San Diego Shakespeare Society in the spring to present an as-yet-to-be-determined program.

This summer, in honor of major League Baseball’s All Star Game being held in San Diego’s Petco Park, the actors will perform a baseball-themed play. Come December, they will do a Christmas-inspired play.

Staged readings, Tessmer explained, involve actors holding scripts and reading from them, as opposed to a stage production with costumes, sets and special effects. Still, the cast gathers for rehearsals one to four times leading up to the show.

Ensemble actor Nick Young compared staged readings to watching live radio theater, behind the scenes. “Audiences enjoy a good story read aloud by actors bringing the characters to life, not so much with movement, but by the talent of their voices,” he said. “It allows the audience to imagine in their own minds the scenery, the actions, even the characters. That’s what I think audiences get, an entertaining evening that frees their imaginations, without the commitment of a full production.”

The actors, many of whom are Tessmer’s friends, perform on the San Diego theater scene. “Occasionally I hold auditions … but I generally just ask people and they participate. Some of these actors are up-and-coming or don’t get the recognition they deserve,” he said.

One of them, Dan Feraldo, said being part of the Ensemble gives him opportunities he might not get otherwise. “I love being a part of this because it gives me the chance to work with a variety of actors and to perform in roles I may never have a chance to do in full productions,” he said. Feraldo has been with the Ensemble since 2012.

Another actor, Roberta Wolff, joined the Ensemble after 25 years in community theater in New Jersey. “It has been a real pleasure working with John and my fellow actors, an activity which I hope to continue for seasons to come,” she said.

In addition to the Ensemble, Tessmer — who joked that he “just can’t seem to stop” doing theatre and reading new plays – also has a part in the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s current production of “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Great Nome Gold Rush.”

Tessmer grew up in San Diego, and went to La Jolla Country Day School. “I got involved in theater there and loved it. Then I went to Yale as an undergrad and continued to do local theater productions. After I graduated, I thought it was a time to explore and gave myself a few years to see where it would go,” he said. “But because I hadn’t been on a professional track, I went to grad school and got a master’s at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. After that I traveled around the country searching for jobs and chasing the work until I moved to San Diego in 2001. In 2004, I moved to La Jolla.”

In 2010, Tessmer co-founded the Ensemble with fellow theater lover Davida Huchel, who has since bowed out of the management role, but still attends shows.

The funding for the productions comes from patron donations. Generally, admission is a $10 donation. Tessmer said contributions can be made in person or by mailing a check to: Friends of the La Jolla Library, 7555 Draper, La Jolla, CA 92037 or La Jolla Community Center, 6811 La Jolla Blvd., La Jolla, CA 92037. “Support of $100 or more will entitle you to free admission to all of the company’s 2016 shows, as well as complimentary concessions,” he said. Further, a donation to either venue could be designated as a stipend for the actors.

Should funding to pay the actors more than a stipend permit, Tessmer said he would like to stage a full-production. “The future is exciting and unknown and I have lots of ideas,” he said. “Which is a joy and a challenge.”

— Check La Jolla Light’s weekly community calendar and Best Bets section for performance dates and locations.