Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Christopher Ashley Celebrates 10th Anniversary At La Jolla Playhouse


'Come From Away' concert will be part of gala tribute to artistic director

La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley Celebrates 10th Anniversary
Christopher Ashley Celebrates 10th Anniversary At La Jolla Playhouse
La Jolla Playhouse's Christopher Ashley reflects back on his 10 years as artistic director and looks forward to an exciting year of productions.
Christopher Ashley Celebrates 10th Anniversary At La Jolla Playhouse
GUESTS: Christopher Ashley, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

Christopher Ashley celebrates 10 years since artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse. He had the daunting task of following in the footsteps of this Mac and often by the theater in 1983. We spoke with Ashley about his 10 years at the Playhouse during a break from rehearsals of freaky Friday that opens next week. This is going to be your 10 year anniversary here at the Playhouse. How does it feel to reach 10 years? It's amazing to be 10 years in. I've always wanted to run the theater. I think I was in my 20s. I love the staff here. Extraordinary people who show up to work every day ready to have an adventure and make vets speak to the world. Audiences, they are so came to see something be born. When he came here 10 years ago what kind of goals and ambitions that you have? I have always loved the history of La Jolla Playhouse. The new work in the plays and musicals that will go on to have a huge impact on the American theater scene -- theater scene. I love new work and new place a new musicals. Since I have been here we have created the DNA series. I continued with the page to stage program and ways of developing new work from readings and commissioning programs and workshops. I have a real love of site specific theater. Theater out in the world do not necessarily within the bounds of our theater. The while program has always been near and dear to my heart. It has been exciting to see it take flight. For those who are not theatergoers, if it's not Jersey boys they have heard about our wow programming. Wow is without walls It is theater that's not in the traditional brick-and-mortar area. It's out in the garden next to the theater or down in little Italy or in Hillcrest or in East Village. It is in bars and outdoors on a street corner. It is usually telling stories that really come from that community. It is saying hey, we will bring theater to your doorstep. Do you feel you have achieved these goals or are these goals ongoing? You never achieve everything you set out to do. It's always a process. You are always shooting for something and you never quite achieve it but you discover new things along the way that excite you. I am proud of this theater and hopefully our new work will keep taking flight. Hopefully we keep having greater and greater impact on the national theater scene. Hopefully we keep growing our audience. There is nothing more exciting than telling stories about the world as it evolves and changes. How was it starting? Were you daunted at all or just excited by it? I have never seen a director be as generous as he was when I arrived. He set me up for success. Jersey boys adjusted probably when I arrived. The energy around that show created a lot of energy here at the Playhouse. He was generous about how he offered it ice but never backseat drove. It was like it's your theater so take it and drive with it which I really appreciated It's different than I thought it was going to be, running a theater. The process of identifying new work and new artists never ends. The people that you know are suddenly middle-aged. You always have to be finding out what is new and what is next. That is a phrase from our mission statement that I have always loved. You have to look what his neck does look for what is next in American theater. So reevaluating and discovering the new thing coming into being. You can take your eye off that ball. You got to keep committed to that. I have loved coming from the world of freelance directing where you arrive at a place, a pack your suitcase and your relationship with the audience last for the two hours of the show. I love putting a season together and having a conversation with an audience that last for a season and as of now a decade. I have done 70 shows in the 10 years that I have been here. I love 70 different artists 70 different worldviews and all of those stories that create a rich tapestry about America right now. That is really sad is rising. As artistic director you're not just responsible for plays but you direct some of them as well. Do you have a particular favorite in terms of what you have directed or something you have brought in? A particular favorite is tricky. I feel like it's parenting and you're not allowed to have favor children you have to love them all. I do have a particular passion for the new work although I have incredible fun directing Midsummer nights dream and that was a real high point working with the Symphony. The magic of going into the forest was gravity reversing and I said that I wanted a grand piano to float and turn upside down and I want someone to be able to continue to play the piano. They did it. This grand piano levitated and turned upside down and the person continued to play a concerto straight through that moment. Nothing is more satisfying than going to see a pop tour in grade school. When a walker show that's been developed here at the Playhouse before an audience of eight-year-olds and for many it's the first time they've seen a play. The look on their faces and the possibilities of storytelling and watching their imaginations and dates is deeply satisfying. Do you feel like you're leaving a personal mark on the theater? Do you have a personal style are the kind of play you feel is unique to you? I'm sure if you put all the place a program together that there is an artistic directorial voice and that. I am interested in the eclectic medicine the difference in different artists way of telling a story and what interests them. I like it when someone says wow, that last play was unlike anything I've seen before. I like it when the audience has a new and fresh experience. I do think and I take seriously the language in our mission statement about trying to be a safe harbor for unsafe work. I think that there is a desire to play with form, to bite into whatever is happening in the culture right now. Many of the place have a political aspect. Or they have a social awareness and cultural relevance that they are aspiring to. I often think about why I do that play now. What is it about that play written 100 or 500 years ago the speak to the current moment? Do you see any particular challenges coming ahead in your next 10 years? Is there anything you see as a challenge and maybe has to do with the new Trump presidency and potential funding or support? I have no idea what the next four or eight years will bring. Certainly America is incredibly divided right now. As I am looking at plays in the last month or two since the election I spent a lot of time thinking about what kinds of plays can bring people together. What kinds of plays create dialogue. What kinds of plays create community as opposed to just inflamed division. I think a lot of artists I know take very seriously the importance of speaking up on behalf of your values. And I think whatever happens in the next couple of years, being unafraid to say that this is important to me and this is the kind of society that I think I see and hope to be part of and I'm going to fight for that. And so community and activism I both think are going to be part of my life and I suspect a real value of a lot of the artists we hire here. Are you planning anything special for your 10 year anniversary? Our gala this year is a concert presentation of come from away. It is the day before the Broadway cast heads off to New York for Broadway rehearsals. [Music] What are my the most proud of? I love it all. The generosity and compassion of the people in response to having that terrible week after 9/11. And telling a story right now in the current world about people who say I don't know you. I don't understand your language. I don't know your culture. I don't share a religion with you. I can take care of you and treat you like a member of my family. There is something in the current divided world that is great and a story that everyone needs to hear Thank you very much. You bet That was artistic director Christopher Ashley. That come from away gala is on February 4 and is in honor of the play going to Broadway and in honor of Ashley's 10 years at the Playhouse.


La Jolla Playhouse's Christopher Ashley reflects back on his 10 years as artistic director and looks forward to an exciting year of productions.

Ten years ago, Christopher Ashley had the daunting task of following in the footsteps of La Jolla Playhouse's artistic director Des McAnuff who had revived the theater in 1983.

Ashley met the challenges and confessed, "I always wanted to run this theater. I applied the first time Des left the first time as artistic director, when I think I was in my 20s, so it's good they didn't give me the job then."

But he did land the job in 2007 when McAnuff left for a second time to become one of three artistic directors at Canada's Stratford Festival.

La Jolla Playhouse’s mission statement includes a line about being a “safe harbor for the unsafe and surprising.” Those words are on the wall at the Playhouse offices. And Ashley takes them to heart everyday.


“I think there is a desire to play with form, to bite into whatever is happening in the culture right now. Many of the plays have a political aspect or they have a social awareness and cultural relevance that they are responding to,” Ashley said.

He’s also inspired by another part of the mission statement that says you always have to be looking for what’s new and what’s next.

“I love new work, new plays new musicals, since I have been here we’ve created the DNA series, I’ve continued with Page to Stage, all these ways of developing new work,” Ashley stated.

U-T theater critic James Hebert appreciates that commitment.

“He is really very serious about building American theater from the ground up,” Hebert said. “So we are talking about commissioning plays there, developing them sometimes over several years.”

Then reaping the rewards of nurturing those new works. Shows like “Memphis” and now “Come From Away” have won national attention by going to Broadway.

One of Ashley’s innovations at the Playhouse has been Without Walls, also known as WoW.

“I also have a real love of site-specific theater,”Ashley added. “So the WoW program is near and dear to my heart. It is theater not inside the traditional brick and mortar of a theater space.”

Hebert has attended the WoW festival.

“It’s really fun stuff. The WOW festival, which they have done twice now, is this kind of festival of really out there ideas,” Hebert explained. “There was a piece where you were blindfolded and taken all around the theater district under the conceit that you were on this tour of a village in India. It’s really ground breaking stuff.”

For Margaret McBride, Chair of the Board of Trustees, Ashley has also provided the Playhouse with great leadership.

“And leadership by being inclusive. Not being a leader and telling everyone what to do but by bringing out the best qualities in everyone who’s involved,” McBride said.

Managing director Michael Rosenberg agrees.

“Watching him in a rehearsal room it doesn’t matter if you’re an A-list celebrity or a high school student intern who is there to just watch. Chris engages with you and Chris wants to know what you think,” Rosenberg said.

Emma Hunton stars in “Freaky Friday” that Ashley is currently directing at the Playhouse.

“He’s really great about letting you try something, a couple times. Even if it’s not the right thing he’ll let you really work it out in your own head so it makes sense to you,” Hunton said. “Then he will come in and put finishing touches on it. He really makes you feel like you have a say and are being heard.”

But when Ashley chooses to speak McBride said it is memorable. She printed out something he said from a meeting after last November’s presidential election. Here she quoted Ashley: “One of the things that theater does beautifully is invite people into a room to think about lives and society together.”

Which raises the question of what lies ahead for Ashley and the Playhouse in light of potential cuts to the arts under the Trump Administration.

“I think he does face an important challenge to think about the kind of stories that need to be told against the backdrop of this administration,” Rosenberg said.

But the challenge excites Ashley.

“Certainly American is really divided right now and I as I am looking at plays in the next month or two since the election I spend a lot of time thinking about what kinds of plays could bring people together what kinds of plays create dialogue, create community as opposed to inflame division,” Ashley said. “A lot of artists I know take very seriously the importance of speaking up on behalf of your values but I think whatever happens in the next couple of years being unafraid to say, ‘This is important to me, this is the kind of society I see and want to be a part and I will fight for that.’ So community and activism I think are both going to be a part of my life and a value of the artists that we hire.”

The Playhouse will host the "Come From Away" Gala on Feb. 4 in honor of the play going to Broadway, and in honor of Ashley's 10 years at the Playhouse.