Raising the curtain on a new era at Playhouse

The new artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse has some huge shoes to fill, but he’s most interested in filling up the Playhouse’s performance spaces.

The Playhouse announced that Christopher Ashley had been selected to succeed Des McAnuff as artistic director after a 10-month search. Ashley most recently served as the artistic affiliate of the Manhattan Theatre Club from 2001 to 2006, where he directed productions including “Regrets Only” (2006), “Between Us” (2004) and “Wonder of the World” (2001). He received a Tony Award nomination for Best Direction of a Musical and a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Director of a Musical for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

The artistic director generally directs two shows from the Playhouse season and designs the rest of the season, which usually consists of about six shows. Ashley emerged from a field of 40 candidates that was narrowed to six finalists who came to La Jolla for interviews with the search committee charged with selecting a new artistic director. The committee included eight Playhouse trustees and Charlie Oates, chair of UCSD’s Theatre department.

Each finalist prepared sample seasons to give the search committee an idea of their artistic vision.

“His vision was both broad in scope and concise,” said Ralph Bryan, president of the Playhouse board of directors. “The most important thing that we saw from Chris was that he saw it as imperative that we fully utilize the resources we have with eight performance spaces. He had a vision that would allow and expect to use all of those spaces and keep them in constant motion.”

The Playhouse’s collection of venues includes three distinct types of theater: traditional Broadway-style stages, “thrust” stages that extend into the audience on three sides, and a “black box” space for experimental productions.

“In addition, we have rehearsal spaces that can be used as small performance spaces,” Bryan said. “Chris wants to design a season where the shows speak to each other. We could have a big show and a smaller, but related, show going on in one of the smaller spaces.”

Ashley also intends to expand McAnuff’s “Page to Stage” concept, which allows theatergoers to see stripped-down versions of productions in their early stages.

“You will see more workshops in their early stage,” Bryan said. “You will see shows as they are being born.”

The new Playhouse season, that begins June 5 with “Carmen,” is already in place. Ashley will take over beginning with the 2008 season.

“I am completely supportive of the appointment of Chris Ashley as artistic director,” McAnuff said in a statement. “I can’t imagine anyone better suited to the job. ... Chris has the artistic credentials and the political skills to make a superb artistic director.”

Artistically, Ashley will create a season consistent with the Playhouse’s recent mission of staging large pieces and new works in addition to fresh looks at the classics. The political skills McAnuff mentioned are essential in creating a cohesive season.

“It’s important for the artistic director to not only be able to direct and understand his craft, but to understand how to direct other directors, at times,” Bryan said. “It requires balance. He will have to interact with both artists as well as funders, who can have different interests.”

In his own shows, Ashley has collaborated with top playwrights including Douglas Carter Beane, Claudia Shear, Doug Wright and Paul Rudnick. He has been described as having a “deftness with warped social comedy” by the New York Times. His collaborations with Rudnick have been particularly hailed for their humor.

“It has been animated by a director, Christopher Ashley, and an actor, Peter Bartlett, who vibrate uproariously on Mr. Rudnick’s comic wavelength,” the New York Times wrote about “Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach.”

Ashley signed a three-year contract to helm the Playhouse beginning with the 2008 season. Bryan said Ashley’s efforts to keep the Playhouse as a nationally renowned theater would begin with keeping it relevant locally.

“Chris thought it was important to take a foothold in San Diego and be important to this community while maintaining that dialogue with New York that the Playhouse has had,” Bryan said.