By Lonnie Burstein HewittWoW! Thanks to La Jolla Playhouse, it’s not just an expletive anymore. It stands for Without Walls, a new program to bring theater beyond the confines of its buildings and into the world outside. As part of Arts Month San Diego, the Playhouse is kicking off the program with “Susurrus,” an audio play by Glasgow-based playwright David Leddy, whom the Sunday Times called “Scotland’s hottest, edgiest young playwright.” Leddy specializes in designing site-specific plays for unusual locations, like a graveyard, a greenhouse, or his own bedroom.
susurrusmeans what it sounds like: whispering, murmurs, like the rustle of wind through trees. So it’s a perfect title for a play that takes you on a walk through San Diego Botanic Garden with an I-Pod, while voices softly speak, and sometimes sing, in your ears.
Described as “part radio play, part avant-garde sonic art and part stroll in the park,” “Susurrus” weaves together bits of bird lore, memoir, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (both Shakespeare’s play and Benjamin Britten’s opera), creating a tale of love and loss that will move you emotionally and physically, whispering another world into being as it guides you on your way.
It’s certainly a different kind of theater. There’s no stage, and no audience around you. You reserve your show time in advance, with no more than six people admitted every 15 minutes. You’re given a map and an I-Pod, and it’s a personal experience — just you and those voices, in a setting that keeps changing as you follow the mapped-out route.
An award-winner at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival, “Sussurus” has already been presented in several English gardens, and public gardens in places like Boston, New Haven, and Ann Arbor. I’ve had a small preview and can tell you: it is haunting. One of the highlights: the countertenor aria from Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s lucent. Ethereal. Definitely Wow.
WoW is funded by a four-year, $900,000 grant from The James Irvine Foundation, and the Playhouse plans to commission a different production every six months or so, to be performed in parks, malls and other locations throughout San Diego, culminating with a festival in Spring 2013.
“Because of our weather, this is one of the friendliest places for site-specific art,” said Christopher Ashley, Playhouse artistic director. “As soon as we got the grant, we started looking for exciting new pieces, and our literary manager, Gabe Greene, found “Sussurus” in Columbus, Ohio. We all went to see it, and what was really exciting was the way what was planned and what was unplanned intersected, the way real life and art start to blur. Like the flock of birds that took off at just the right moment.”
The grant enabled the Playhouse to bring the playwright here to find the perfect site. “We showed him several gardens and this was the one he loved, for the feeling of the place and how it related to his piece,” Ashley said.
This is the West Coast premiere of “Susurrus,” the Playhouse’s first WoW event. There’s already a buzz, and tickets are going fast. Buy now, and stay tuned for more WoW news. Very soon, there will be word of Event No. 2.
If you go
What:‘Susurrus,’ a site-specific audio play written and directed by David Leddy
When:9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 16–Oct. 2 (Thursday–Sunday)
Where:San Diego Botanic Garden, 230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas
Box Office:(858) 550-1010
Note:Susurrus (recommended for mature audiences) runs about 90 minutes in all weather, with umbrellas provided in case of rain. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Call Playhouse for wheelchair accessibility. Tickets include garden admission; parking is $2.