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Fall Preview / The Arts | How I Chose My Season

'Our Approach Involves Asking for Artists' Dream Projects'

DES McANUFF / LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

September 15, 2002|DES McANUFF

Sometime in late spring, the mailings start to arrive: season announcements from area theaters, providing a range of shows for nearly every taste. Usually there's a familiar name on the roster--maybe a playwright or a production, an actor or a director. Often there's a world premiere or a local premiere. Occasionally, there's a classic. Always there are surprises. For some venues, the season has already started; for others, September marks the beginning of the year. In scanning the rosters, many people wonder how these shows were selected. Is there a magical formula involved in putting together a season? We asked the decision-makers at five theaters to share how they made selections.

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Our major obstacle in planning the 2002 season was an acute shortage of time. I returned to the La Jolla Playhouse in October 2000 with barely enough leeway to assemble an artistic staff and scramble our 2001 season together. We certainly didn't have the luxury of planning ahead! Last fall, I had just opened a major musical when I found myself facing the looming needs of 2002.

Unlike most theaters, where seasons run from fall to spring, our season operates from spring to fall because of our relationship with UC San Diego.

Our approach to season planning involves speaking to leading artists we are interested in and asking for their dream projects. Because we don't simply choose plays and seek hirelings to direct them, season planning can be particularly arduous. Although we of course face financial restrictions, we're less interested in concocting a balanced mix than in producing work that has the drive and passion of theater artists fulfilling their dreams.

Charles Mee's play "Wintertime" crossed my desk and I devoured it. I passed it to my associate artistic director, Shirley Fishman; my literary manager, Carrie Ryan; and my assistant, Amy Tripodi. By the next morning, I was securing the world premiere. Happily, "Wintertime's" director at Sundance Theatre Lab, Les Waters, is a professor at UC San Diego's department of theater and dance, with whom we share our theaters.

After calls to new artists and our "alumni," projects started cropping up. Playhouse favorite, modern clown Geoff Hoyle came up with "A Feast of Fools," a retrospective of his extraordinary body of work. This was a slam-dunk--a vintage project of manageable size. I wanted to do one of Shakespeare's low comedies before Sept. 11 but felt, given our recent history, that this was an empty choice. I turned my attention instead to Moliere's "Tartuffe." We'd had a big success with "I Am My Own Wife" in workshop the year before, which starred Jefferson Mays, a former student who has matured into a national treasure of an actor. Moliere and Jeff, combined with religious hypocrisy and fanaticism, would open the season.

Suddenly, we lost two musicals that we were considering but almost simultaneously came up with two world premieres: Heather McDonald's "When Grace Comes In" and Jose Rivera's "Adoration of the Old Woman." Heather's "An Almost Holy Picture," which also premiered at the playhouse, went on to a successful run on Broadway this season, and Jose's play was a long-outstanding playhouse commission. We were delighted when he finished it in the nick of time.

It turned out that we had no musical for 2002. We don't feel required to do one every year, but we do love to celebrate the musical's integral place in the American theatrical repertoire. It's home-grown, after all. It belongs to us. Happily, my assistant and I saw Mabou Mines' glorious production of "Peter & Wendy" in New York.

Lee Breuer's breathtaking piece pushes many of the same emotional buttons that musicals go for and generates the same visceral excitement. It also fulfills part of the playhouse's mission--to invite visionary theater troupes to present their work here, broadening our audience's theatrical experiences.

Last year, we presented "The Laramie Project" by the Tectonic Theater Project; the year before, the Improbable Theatre's "Lifegame." In fact, Moises Kaufman, "Laramie's" director, suggested this year's play for our Page to Stage workshop--his colleague Leigh Fondakowski's production of "I Think I Like Girls." This is a piece that we're developing in front of audiences, without critics. When we welcomed the actors from "Laramie," we wanted them to make La Jolla Playhouse a home away from home, and they have. I made a similar invitation this year to Chuck Mee, and I sincerely hope he returns.

In writing this piece, I think it's worth pointing out that we're much further along in planning the 2003 season, which opens next May. I suppose it's possible that this careful planning may backfire and that we should be sticking with the kind of high-velocity, knee-jerk hysteria that's worked so well the last two seasons. 2002 features five world premieres--sometimes it's fun working without a net! But frankly, it's great to have some time to think.

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Des McAnuff is artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse.

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