The man who put La Jolla on the map in the world of theater is putting on one last show.
Des McAnuff, who during his two terms as artistic director at the Playhouse has drawn critical acclaim and launched several successful Broadway productions from La Jolla, will step down from the position after directing “The Farnsworth Invention,” a Playhouse Page to Stage production that just opened and runs through March 25.
The play was written by Aaron Sorkin, best known for creating and writing the critically acclaimed television series, “The West Wing.” With such blue-chip talent behind the show, it seems poised to follow the path of other Page to Stage productions that have moved on from the Playhouse to enjoy huge success in New York and other theater centers. The best example is Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” which McAnuff helmed at the Playhouse in 2004 and went on to become one of the highest-grossing plays in Broadway history.
Page to Stage is a signature program at the Playhouse that allows audiences to experience the birth of play and take part in its creation. Page to Stage productions feature minimal sets and costumes, and will be revised throughout its process, including performances.
Audience feedback sessions are held after each performance that provide suggestions for the director, playwright and actors.
Considering Sorkin’s pedigree as a hit-maker, it is likely that the script is already in good shape. In addition to his success on television with “The West Wing” and his current project, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Sorkin has had theater success as well. His 1989 Broadway play “A Few Good Men” was made into a feature film.
“I am thrilled to be working with Aaron Sorkin on his latest project for the theater,” McAnuff said. “His incomparable ability to reflect and record the collective anxiety of a society infuses this play with a timeliness and urgency that gives us all pause in the midst of the ongoing media blitz that is our daily lives.”
Sorkin is also looking forward to the collaboration.
“La Jolla Playhouse is one of America’s great stages,” Sorkin said. “The chance to work with Des McAnuff on a play of this size and in front of such a sophisticated audience is the opportunity of any playwright’s dreams.”
The play centers around the bitter conflict that pitted Philo T. Farnsworth, a genius who invented television as a high school student in 1927, against David Sarnoff, the head of the Radio Corporation of America. The legal battle between the two would become known as a tragic example of legal and industrial force combining to crush a rightful patent owner.
After the production closes, McAnuff will move to a position as one of three artistic directors at Canada’s prestigious Stratford Festival, which is North America’s largest repertory theater and presents a six-month season in four venues.
“Stratford Festival of Canada was in my life even before La Jolla Playhouse,” McAnuff said. “In fact, the Festival first approached me about playing a leadership role even before I met with the search committee for the Playhouse in 1982. I’m thrilled to finally accept a senior position with this prestigious company, which is surely one of the leading classical theaters in the world.”
McAnuff leaves La Jolla Playhouse in much higher standing in the theater world than when he first took over at the theater in 1983. Playhouse productions have won 28 Tony Awards during his tenure. His first term, which lasted until 1994, saw many successes, including the 1985 production of “Big River,” which won seven Tonys, including the award for Best Musical and one of McAnuff’s two Tonys for Best Direction of a Musical.
In 1987, McAnuff directed “A Walk in the Woods,” which went on to Broadway and to theaters in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Lithuania. It was the first play ever performed at the Library of Congress for the Senate.
McAnuff first left the Playhouse in 1994, to work in film. His first feature was 1998’s “Cousin Bette,” starring Jessica Lange. In 1999, he produced the film “Iron Giant.” In 2000, he directed Robert DeNiro in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
After his return to the Playhouse in 2001, McAnuff again helmed several successes and helped launch one of Broadway’s most successful plays, “700 Sundays” starring Billy Crystal. The production began at the Playhouse’s Page To Stage script development workshop, which McAnuff also led.
In 2004, he directed “Jersey Boys” at the Playhouse. The show went on to enjoy huge success on Broadway and won four Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical.
“I consider my role in the rebirth and development of La Jolla Playhouse as the single greatest accomplishment of my career,” McAnuff said. “And I expect that I will always feel that way.”
For tickets or information about “The Farnsworth Invention,” call (858) 550-1010 or visit www.lajollaplayhouse.com.