Taking over the moribund La Jolla Playhouse as artistic director in the early 1980s, McAnuff injected fresh ideas into the company, favoring new spins on the classics, recruiting iconoclastic young directors like Peter Sellars, and getting conservative San Diego playgoers to come along for the wild ride.
"Des really re-founded that theater," Ashley said. "It was a theater that was originally founded in the '40s then had gone dormant for a couple of decades. It was really a theater that he created."
During his tenures at La Jolla and Stratford, McAnuff has continued to lure audiences by programming a mix of contemporary plays, imaginative new versions of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht, and splashy but thoughtful musicals such as "The Who's Tommy." He also has directed movies, including a 1998 adaptation of Balzac's "Cousin Bette," starring Jessica Lange.
It's a method for making theater, McAnuff said, that he learned from such mentors as Michael Langham, his esteemed Stratford predecessor.
"Musicals are a legitimate part of the repertoire. How can you not take 'West Side Story' seriously? It's a masterpiece, and belongs on the same stage as Eugene O'Neill."