Christopher Ashley, Artistic Director, La Jolla Playhouse
Related Story: The La Jolla Playhouse Debuts 2013-14 Season
CAVANAUGH: Tony Award season is here again, and as usual, are plays that originated at the La Jolla Playhouse are among the nominees. San Diego audiences can look forward to played reimagined from famous movies in addition to world premieres, and works developed at the La Jolla Playhouse. And the company will continue to treat audiences to innovative projects like the DNA Series of new plays, and without walls festival, which was recognized recently by a grant from the national endowment from the arts. My guest, Christopher Ashley, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse is one proud and busy guy! Welcome.
ASHLEY: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: You originated hands on a hardbody, and Chaplin, both up for Tony awards this year. How much has Broadway begun to rely on the playhouse for new material?
ASHLEY: I think San Diego is a real hotspot of shows going onto New York right now. We have had incredible success this year. And part of the reason that artists want to come to the playhouse and San Diego to start their work, there's a really well informed experienced audience here that in talk backs after the show and in the lobby, the artists are hearing smart things about their show and what they need to know before getting it in shape for New York.
CAVANAUGH: So how -- do you know during the run of a play whether or not this particular production is going to be Broadway-bound?
ASHLEY: Almost never. And we try to stay in a state of innocence, keeping our eye on making the best possible show for our audience. And if it has an afterlife, that's the bonus, the gravy, pick your metaphor. But really the meat of the issue is trying to fulfill the vision of the artists on our stages.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's move onto how you're doing that in this new season. It just began this week with the previews for his girl Friday, and that's one of my favorite old movies with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Give us a synopsis.
ASHLEY: So I'm also directing his girl Friday. And mine too, I love that movie. My father was a film professor, and black and white films were what I grew up on. And that and all about eve were the two that I loved the most growing up. I think it's the incredible charm of that relationship between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. And they talk so fast in that movie! In our production on stage, they're talking even faster. We really embraced velocity. It's a show about a bunch of reporters in the criminal courts building in Chicago in the '30s on the night of an execution. And they're incredibly verbal and competitive. The movie is based on a play from the '20s called the front page. And the movie was start to add a romance in the center of it. And we have two very hot, talented, sexy actors in the center. The event. And I wanted to do it this year partly because I turn on my television at the end of the day, and I have Tivoed something from NBC, and I'm so aware that I'm getting my news with a bias. And I think so many people in today's world like to get their news from a source that agrees with them. And the idea of what's the balancing act between truth and spin. And is it story telling or digging for truth? That was true in the '20s and '30s when these scripts were written, and it's true today.
CAVANAUGH: Very interesting how way back in the '40s and even earlier in the '20s, we see the same questions about journalism resonate over and over and over again. You just added a special engagement this summer, a play that sounds like a thriller. Neva?
ASHLEY: Absolutely. This is an extraordinary South American writer and director, Guillermo CalderÛn. And his play is a re-examination of events around Chekov, and it's about revolution and family and making art. And I had seen it in festivals around the world. And we're doing a new collaboration with the Taper in Los Angeles, and South Coast Rep to create a mini-tour of this play. So it'll run for one week only at La Jolla Playhouse.
CAVANAUGH: June 26th through the 30th. There's another play that you saw offBroadway, I believe, a play called Tribes. Why did you want to bring that to San Diego?
ASHLEY: Most of the time, I like to do world premieres and new work and really initiate a show at the playhouse. Every once in a while, I'll come across a play that I've seen in New York or somewhere else in the world that I'll say, wow, San Diego audiences have to see that play. It's a play about a young deaf man in a hearing family. And it's the moment when he falls in love with somebody who is in the process of losing her hearing, and he's kind of caught between the hearing world and the Deaf community, and the question of where does he stand, who does he want to be a part of, and it's an incredibly funny, incredibly verbal, incredibly dysfunctional family. So it's got family life in it, questions of communication and identity. And there's one central moment. We hired the same director, David Cromer who did the original production of it. There's one moment in this production where you're inside the head of the central Deaf character, and it's really theatrical. And it's really powerful. And that moment kept sticking with me.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the playwright, Nina Rain. She's really developing something of a reputation.
ASHLEY: She is. She's the next hot thing. She's out of Britain but really sweeping America with this play and her next couple of plays.
CAVANAUGH: Tribes opens June 25th and runs through July 21st. When I heard about the playhouse that you were doing a production called sideways, I said is that from the movie and he talks about Merlot all the time? And it is!
ASHLEY: If you're a wine lover, this is the play for you. And if you're amused by wine language, which I deeply am, this is also the play for you. This is based on a novel by Rex Picket, who is also a San Diego native which is they then made into the movie. So we have gone back to the novel, and he's created a theatrical expression of his novel. It's kind of a buddy movie, and the four central characters, two romances, and it's steeped in wine.
CAVANAUGH: A lot of that, if I recall the movie correctly, a lot of it had to do -- the wine country seemed to be a character in and of itself. So how is this changed for the stage?
ASHLEY: Des Mackinaw is back directing it. And he has a very theatrical imagination. So set designs will amaze you. But he's imagined to capture in very theatrical, very comic and unexpected ways what is it like in these bars, in these wine tastings, in these cask rooms. He creates a real sense of wine country on stage in our theatre.
CAVANAUGH: And I notice that on your website, there is a little line, a exclaimer of some kind, watch out for language and so forth? This is an adult production.
ASHLEY: Is this definitely one with some adult language, yes.
CAVANAUGH: It opens July 16th and runs through August 18th. New a world premiere, the tallest tree in the forest. It's a 1-man piece, focuses on the life of Paul rove son.
ASHLEY: An extraordinary writer, performer named Daniel baby. And he got interested in the life of Paul Robeson, as a singer, as an active. He got caught up in the whole house un-American activities McCarthy moment, and in world politics. And he was really a forerunner who made it possible for the next generation of American black artists to make their way. He was an extraordinary singer, an extraordinary speaker, and they've created a piece about him, not a bio-pic, autovery unexpected and directed by Moises Coffman.
CAVANAUGH: I've spoken with him.
ASHLEY: I enjoyed that interview.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ASHLEY: He directed 33 variations, the first play when I got to the playhouse that I programmed. And the Heiress this past year on Broadway. He's a really, really interesting bold director. He and Daniel are coming up with a piece about Paul Robeson, and we're going to be doing it with Kansas city rep.
CAVANAUGH: How is this different from a musical?
ASHLEY: Musicals have a kind of rhythm where there's a song every six minutes. Scenes tend to be very efficient to get you to the next song, and the meat of the show happens in the song. All the emotional high points and all the turning points. Because this is about a musician, music weaves in and out, but it is really a play where music is the central part as opposed to that kind of musical form, which is, you know, you know from Rent and many of the musicals we do at the playhouse.
CAVANAUGH: Now the world premiere of the tallest free in the forest opens October 9th. Sideshow is another thing comes to the playhouse. This is a musical.
ASHLEY: This is a musical. It was a musical that was on Broadway in the '90s. Signed of a cult hit. It's about two conjoined twins in the sideshow world. And there are questions of do they try to separate or live their lives as one. And they're both trying to have separate romances which is very complicated.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you've got some Hollywood talent coming?
ASHLEY: The director has been thinking about and working on this project and reimagining this musical for a decade. His name is Bill Condon. If you're a moviegoer, you will know him from Gods and Monsters, which he wrote and directed. He wrote and directed Dreamgirls, the movie, and wrote the screenplay to Chicago. And the last three twilight movies. So he's a heavy-hitter in Broadway.
CAVANAUGH: Side show opens November 15th and runs through December 15th. Then there's a play that comes right out of La Jolla Playhouse. The who and the why. You loved this when it was in its nascent state, and you wanted to develop it and bring it into this season.
ASHLEY: We had a new program this year called the DNA Series. And the idea was we were going to let our audiences peek behind the curtain at the development of a new play and do readings and workshops of brand-new scripts, and to look for material for upcoming seasonings. And one of the plays in its first reading was called the who and the what the. An extraordinary voice. A story about a young Muslim American writing about women and Islam, and the character is very much caught between her religious fundamentalist Islamic family and a secular American culture, and trying to figure out where she stands and who she wants to be a part of. That's a theme, caught between two cultures and two worlds.
CAVANAUGH: And this playwright won the Pulitzer.
ASHLEY: He did, he won it for Disgraced.
CAVANAUGH: We were able to get through the entire season, I didn't know whether or not we would.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ASHLEY: You definitely got us right through in a compact amount of time!
CAVANAUGH: Well, we do have a minute left. I want to ask you about this extended run for Accomplice. The playhouse's without walls, where people try to unravel the mystery of the play at various locations in little Italy. It's been so successful!
ASHLEY: It has. We just extended it for a third time. And you get a call on your phone if you decide to go see it from a mysterious voice telling you what street corner to meet on and not to tell anybody. And it's basically ten audience members together go on this journey and are decoding clues and figuring out the mystery together. It's a real bonding experience. People have made real fast friendships out of spending these two hours together.
CAVANAUGH: And that's called Accomplice. Thank you for taking us through this entire new season at the La Jolla Playhouse.