Behind the Scenes with David Ellenstein: North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 30 Season is underway

By Sara Appel-Lennon

David Ellenstein, Artistic Director of North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach (launching its 30


season this month), said he knew he wanted be an actor at age four, when he saw how much his dad, Robert Ellenstein, enjoyed working in theater. His father performed in stage plays, TV series, and films, including the role of Federation Council President in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

“My father was a pretty well-known actor, director, teacher, artistic director, and the main mentor for me. He believed in the power of theater to affect the world in a positive way,” Ellenstein said. “He understood that plays, with their ability to elicit laughter and tears, promote discussions that encourage broader perspectives and tolerance of others. Ultimately, theater is about community and about the way we treat each other.”

Ellenstein also named Geoffrey Sherman, Alabama’s Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, as a mentor. Ellenstein said he liked Sherman’s stage directing savoir-faire, always expressing thanks to each actor and requesting input after rehearsals.

“In my directing, I strive to be constructively honest,” he said. “My style is one of a benevolent despot.

“Any good actor knows that he can’t see what he is doing, so ultimately he doesn’t know how it’s being perceived. The more he has done it, he has an idea, but he can’t actually see it. He needs someone who he trusts to tell him what’s coming across.

“Consider this quote on the subject by Sir Laurence Olivier’s counterpart, Sir Ralph Richardson, when he spoke to a young director: ‘My boy I’ve been doing this a long time and I can be very, very good, but I can also be very, very bad, and when I am, you must tell me.’ ”

Ellenstein said he offers feedback tailored to how and when an actor needs to hear it; being direct works well with some actors, others prefer “ricochet notes.” That’s where the actor who needs to hear the comments receives them without knowing they are meant for him or her.

“Actors are fragile and very sensitive creatures,” Ellenstein said. “But I’m the advocate for the audience in the room.”

Ellenstein said he usually leaves NCRT acting to the actors, however he recently cast himself in two plays: “Talley’s Folly” and “My Name is Asher Lev,” to critical acclaim.

Looking ahead, Ellenstein said plans are underway to either locate NCRT to a new venue or expand the current one, which Olive and Tom Blakistone founded in 1982. He said productions are inhibited by the facility’s lack of backstage wing space, and an indoor path for actors to move from one side of the stage to the other without the audience noticing.

“Still, we do amazingly well in the confines we have,” Ellenstein insisted.

NCRT, a subscription- and donation-based theater, operates on $1.7 million annually, and under a Small Professional Theatre Contract with Actors Equity Association. Its youth programs, which generate less than 10 percent of the budget, include a three-week summer drama camp, acting lessons for ages 7-17, and six performances of each of its four plays.

Busy planning the theater’s 2013 season, Ellenstein said he is creating a master list of 100-120 plays from which he’ll pick the most marketable that satisfy his artistic inclinations. So far he’s considering a comedy, drama, new play, musical, classical work, and “two serendipitous surprises.”

Ellenstein and his wife, Denise, moved from Los Angeles to Carlsbad almost nine years ago when Ellenstein landed a director’s job at NCRT. He said when he first told his wife about the opening, she started packing their belongings. “‘You’re going to apply for the job. You’re going to get it and we’re moving,’ Ellenstein quoted.

He said he hasn’t looked back since.

“I love creating things with creative people. They’re using themselves to create art. It’s a vibrant life and a good ride. I’m very lucky,” he said with a gleam in his eye.

NCRT 30thSeason

Sept. 10-Oct. 9: “Lend Me a Tenor”

Oct. 22-Nov.13: “Heroes,” San Diego premiere, stars Jonathan McMurtry, Ken Ruta, and Ray Reinehardt

Jan. 7-29: “The Lion in Winter,” stars Kandis Chappell, Mark Pinter, and Richard Baird

Feb. 18-March 1: “Visiting Mister Green,” stars Robert Grossman

April 7-29: “This,” San Diego premiere

May 26–June 17: Two by Pinter — “The Lover” and “The Dumb Waiter”

July 7-29: “Dames at Sea”

March 2-18: “Henry IV, Part I,” co-produced by Mira Costa College, performed at the college’s theater

Tickets: $29-$49

Box Office: (858) 481-1055


Holiday productions: “Mistletoe, Music and Mayhem,” Dec. 8-18; “An Unscripted Carol,” Dec. 19-20; “Sister’s Christmas Catechism,” Dec. 21-24.