LA JOLLA, Calif. — When actors decide to step up their careers, they do theater. When freelance directors want to raise the level of their game, they run one.
Many helmers find a personal artistic home in academia, but a very few hit the jackpot and land a major regional theater, as Christopher Ashley did earlier this spring when the 20-year vet of Gotham and regional theater got the call from the La Jolla Playhouse. He’ll take over Oct. 1 from outgoing powerhouse a.d. Des McAnuff, following a directing gig on the June 26 Broadway opening of “Xanadu.”
McAnuff has run La Jolla for most of the last quarter century, during which time it has served local auds with classics and premieres, while developing a national presence with shows like “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” “The Who’s Tommy” and “Jersey Boys,” the latter three directed by McAnuff.
Ashley says the Playhouse has “a track record of doing very adventurous, provocative theater on a national scale. It’s had a kind of cutting-edge downtown feel, but it’s sent who-knows-how-many-plays on to Broadway.
“You can’t quite peg it,” he continues. “It’s not exactly alternative, not purely populist either. I think that kind of double identity will be an interesting thing to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
The duality will continue through the already-programmed 2007-08 season, which balances a hip-hop adaptation of a Greek tragedy, “The Seven,” with hoped-for big-ticket transfers of Cirque du Soleil impresario Franco Dragone’s “Carmen” and a new musical adapted from the film “Cry-Baby,” which will attempt to repeat the success of another John Waters screen-to-stage transfer, “Hairspray.”
La Jolla’s a.d. designate has harbored a desire to run a theater for more than a decade. “When Des left the first time (in 1995), I spoke to them about it, and it’s pretty rare when a theater comes along with the resources they have,” says Ashley, enthusing about La Jolla’s eight “crazy-deluxe” performing spaces, including a new black-box theater and a cabaret.
“Freelance directing is a lonely life,” he confesses. “You’re always moving on; it’s like dating but never ending up in a relationship. I felt hungry to settle down with a staff and some continuity. And as a freelancer, it’s such a one-shot thing; you make a statement without the possibility of having a conversation with an audience across eight plays or multiple seasons. I’m ready for something ongoing.”
Ashley is six months away from announcing his first season, 2008-09.
“Since we have so many different spaces available, I’m playing around with the idea of three or four plays in each season that group around a thematic idea. Immigration, for instance — what it means to be an American, who gets to be one and who doesn’t.”
And thinking about the presidential election year, “I’ve been wondering what it would be like to run ‘King Lear’ in rep with Edward Bond’s ‘Lear.’ The idea of a king so terrified of the outsider that he builds a wall to protect his kingdom is kind of interesting in Southern California. And then the rains come and everything turns to mud — it feels quite current to me.”
Beyond the core programming, Ashley expects to institute a residency program in which a young local company each year will bring two or three of its works into the playhouse. He also hopes to expand McAnuff’s single “Page to Stage” new script development program into several annual offerings.
“I think there’s about to be a Golden Age of new American playwrighting from a group that’s in their early 20s now,” he says. “British playwrights for a long time seemed to have the market cornered on responding to the larger world, but I think that’s changing.”
To facilitate the program, Ashley wants to purchase or build artists’ housing, “so that a lot more of the development can happen here, and the audience can watch the progression occur.”
Above all, Ashley says of his new post, “Being an a.d. is one big communications job. You have to articulate for your staff, your audiences, your customers, for the press, ‘Here’s why you should be excited about our plays. Here’s what we’re passionate about.’ Being able to communicate that passion is the job.”
He actually claims to be looking forward to fund-raising, and praises McAnuff’s willingness to teach him the ropes: “Des has been a superstar of graciousness to me.”
For the time being, however, Ashley’s main focus is “Xanadu,” the Broadway musical adapted by Douglas Carter Beane from the disco-kitsch 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John.
“I’ve spent more time than I ever expected figuring out where toe stoppers go down on roller skates, but I’m having a great time.” Ashley has directed a dozen musicals (including “The Rocky Horror Show” and “All Shook Up” on Broadway), and while they don’t get any easier to do, “I think I get more confident as time goes on — more confident in my own opinions, as well as in saying ‘I don’t know’ and throwing it open to the room for a solution.”
Such openness to collaboration should serve him well in an institutional setting, where flexibility can be in short supply.
“It’s easy for an institution in its middle age — speaking as a middle-aged person myself — to decide ‘This is the way we make theater, and we’ve been comfortable here, and we’ll keep doing it that way,’ ” offers Ashley. “An institution should constantly ask itself to change and grow, to bring in new perspectives and young people. Never letting yourself get too comfortable with the way you do it should be the goal. The world keeps changing, and our theater should change with it.”