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Guest commentary: La Jolla Playhouse is committed to creating new art for this particular moment

La Jolla Playhouse
During the break in in-person theater caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, La Jolla Playhouse launched 14 new works in just eight months, artistic director Christopher Ashley writes.
(File)

At the start of 2020, La Jolla Playhouse’s new musical “Fly” was delighting enthusiastic audiences in our Weiss Theatre. We were sending the Performance Outreach Program Tour play, our annual play for young audiences, into San Diego schools for live performances with students. Five productions of the Playhouse-born “Come From Away” were playing to sold-out houses around the world. And I was in New York in previews for the Broadway premiere of “Diana,” a musical that started on the Playhouse stages. It was a beautifully rich and dynamic moment for the Playhouse.

Then we all know what happened: From one day to the next, all physical, in-person operations ceased and the Playhouse was left, like so many arts institutions, wondering when we would be able to come back together to make theater in person.

Yet over the next several months, I was astounded by the creativity and resiliency of our staff, artists and audiences as we built a new model for theater in a virtual landscape. Our Digital Without Walls performances have unlocked new national and even international audiences and toppled many barriers to access, allowing us to reach thousands of new audience members with this work.

Many of the artists we commissioned and who are working on our projects are local. We are supporting people who live and work in San Diego — not just the artists we commissioned but the performers and designers who live in town.

We are committed to creating new art for this particular moment and to paying artists and staff — a financial lifeline in a period of massive unemployment in the arts sector. During this pause, we will have launched 14 new works of theater in just eight months.

We remain focused on our schools and engaging with our San Diego communities. Our education team has created a remarkable set of tools to bring theater into the digital classroom. The online programs we offer, including the Veterans Playwriting Workshop and Spotlight On, have more than doubled, helping to keep the arts alive during this period of remote learning. Our methods of making theater in 2020 were different, but the impulse to create and be a force for positive change remains alive and well at the Playhouse.

Simultaneous with COVID-19, the theater industry underwent a profound reckoning in the days and months following the killing of George Floyd. Groups such as We See You White American Theatre called on all theater companies across the nation to re-examine the art on our stages and our practices in every aspect of our organizations. The Playhouse dove headfirst into this work, building on our ongoing EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) efforts, drafting a public anti-racism plan and establishing a staff-led Accountability and Inclusion Alliance.

Now one of our main tasks as a society, and specifically as theater artists, is to figure out how to re-emerge from this moment and rebuild our theater in a more equitable way. In this moment, we are being granted the space to reforge our purpose. I have been invigorated by the work of our entire staff and board — and the work being done in San Diego and by the industry at large — to make deep, lasting changes to our practices both onstage and off, with concrete steps and actions to promote equity and inclusion.

The unique power of theater comes from its ability to reflect the world — and sometimes even to change it. That power hasn’t diminished during the past year. The work we commissioned and produced in 2020 has in many ways been more inventive, inclusive and accessible than ever before. While I can’t wait for the return to live performance, I know the Playhouse will continue reinventing and reimagining our organization and the work we create to reflect and respond to our rapidly changing world.

Christopher Ashley is the artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse. This commentary was first published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.