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Christopher Ashley’s vision: ‘adventurous theater’

La Jolla Playhouse has received more than 300 awards for theater excellence, including the 1993 Tony Award as America’s Outstanding Regional Theatre. Founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer, over the past six decades the Playhouse has been nationally acclaimed for its innovative productions of classics, new plays and musicals.

New artistic director Christopher Ashley from New York has replaced two-time Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff. Ashley’s recent projects include “Nine Armenians” at the Intiman Theatre and “I Hate Hamlet” in Chicago.

A conversation over lunch with Ashley is like champagne bubbling over. His love for his craft brims. His enthusiasm effervesces.

Discussing why he chose La Jolla Playhouse, Ashley noted, “San Diego is having a really good moment in the arts community. San Diego’s got a real shot at being the seed bed of new theater work in this country. I want to be a leader in that. I want the Playhouse to be right at the center of that storm.”

Ashley was also generous in praise of his predescessor. “I’m one of Des’s biggest supporters,” he said. “I really respect and honor that he gave most of 25 years of his life to the Playhouse. He really built it into a major American theater. I asked Des, in his last days here, if he had any real advice for me. He said, ‘Hire the best artists you can find, and support them to do their very best work.’ I thought that was pretty good advice.”

The theater’s new artistic director has a distinctively interactive vision. “I reallly want to get our audience excited and interested in the process of a play being born,” he said, “so they’re not just seeing it at the end point. I want to have a mix of master artists nationally, and young up-and-coming artists: the mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow. I want the mix to be spectacular, sumptuous, simple and human. I’m interested in having a season that has Broadway musicals in it, and also a really moving play with two actors and a chair and a shaft of light - there’s room for both.”

Light:

Can you tell us what you’ll do as artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse?

Ashley:

Up until now I’ve been director of plays and musicals. I’ll continue to do that, two or three shows a year. But there’s also a whole new part of the job, picking our season of six plays that we’ll do, and leading the artistic life of the theater. We’ll do two shows a year that are as provocative and adventurous and edgy as we can find. So what you do is you articulate, “Here’s the type of theater I see. Here’s the kind of theater I hope we can become.” If you say that loudly, and often enough, people start to think it’s a good thing and work in the direction you’ve articulated.

Light:

How did you go about putting your first season at La Jolla Playhouse together?

Ashley:

The first thing I did when I got here was I sat down with the artistic staff and I wrote down, on index cards, every project I wanted to consider. There were 180 index cards. I put them all up on the wall and then began a process of actually subtracting. It was really intense, how you get down from 180 to six, or eight or 10.
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Light:

What is your long-term vision for the future of La Jolla Playhouse?

Ashley:

Some of my job is to keep continuity. Mostly it’s trying to make this place really indispensable to its audience. That is the center of my hope for the Playhouse.

Light:

What is your view of the Playhouse’s role in the community?

Ashley:

Our No. 1 job is to put on the most vital, adventurous theater we can. I’m hoping the programs we do are exciting enough so that we don’t have to get our identity by moving it to New York. But after we’ve served San Diego and La Jolla, (we must ask) has the theater we’ve created had an impact? Whether that’s “Jersey Boys” on Broadway or a hit that travels to Europe to do a tour - you want to be noticed. But our major job is to give audiences here a great time.
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Light:

Tell us the thought process behind your selecting which theater “projects” you’re going to be involved in. Is it variety? Message? Challenge? Something new?

Ashley:

All of the above. The most exciting part of the job, and the most challenging, is creating a season. Is there enough variety of tone? Is there enough that’s really substantial or meaty? Is there enough that really entertains you? The mix of the dark and the light, is that successful? Are we serving our loyalty to the artists who are important to our theater? You want to be able to keep that relationship going.

Light:

Has the configuration of the Playhouse changed over the years?

Ashley:

Just before I got here they completed a major expansion. It was a summer theater, had a summer season, in two spaces and the offices were in trailers behind the theater. We’ve now got real offices and a beautiful black box called “The Pottiker,” three rehearsal rooms which could be performance spaces for workshops and productions. There’s soon going to be a restaurant which will have a cabaret in it. We now have eight spaces to produce in. It’s just amazing.

Light:

What’s the difference between directing and producing a theater play?

Ashley:

Directing a show is very narcisstic. It’s almost like every sentence has an “I” in it. Producing, or artistic directing, is much more like parenting. You’re bringing something into the world and nurturing it, hoping it does well. Watching a play you’ve produced is more like a parent watching their kid at a recital.

Light:

How do you see the future of live theater given these changing times?

Ashley:

The subjects it talks about will change as the world will change. Theater technology will change, too. But there is a lot theater is really good at talking about, core questions. What is family? What is love? Why are we alive? What’s our relationship to God and to meaning? Those are the subjects that are always going to be relevant. Writers will write about them in different voices, in different ways. But those subjects will always be around.
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Light:

Why is live theater flourishing even as people have so many other entertainment options?

Ashley:

There’s some things that you can’t get from televison and film and the Internet. It’s the liveness. It’s being in the same room with a living human being who’s telling you a story, who’s experiencing an emotion that you care about, who’s singing you a song, who’s dancing, who’s living in a vibrant way and simultaneously with other audience members and sharing an experience. That communal experience is unique, and people are hungry for it still ... I think people need to reconnect to each other. Right after 9/11, every (New York theater) show for a couple of weeks just exploded. There was something so fragmenting and terrifying about that experience, people we’re afraid and alone, theater gave them a connection, it put something back together for them.

Light:

Is this season’s lineup typical of what were gong to see in the future?

Ashley:

I’m hoping we have a good blend this year, but can people actually take this season as the blueprint for what future seasons are going to be? I really hope not. I really hope that we’re a theater that challenges itself to change constantly and reinvent itself every show and every year. If our next season feels very much like this season, then we’ve had a failure of imagination.

Light:

What can we expect from La Jolla Playhouse under your stewardship?

Ashley:

Fun and adventure. That’s the goal.