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Saturday, April 22, 2006 | Two-time Tony Award-winning director and writer Des McAnuff has done it all. He’s directed big-time Hollywood movies, written and directed some of the most popular plays to ever come out of San Diego, and transformed the La Jolla Playhouse, where he’s been the artistic director for more than 15 years. He even plays the guitar and sings a mean bit of rock ‘n’ roll with his band.
He’s a hard man to track down, and an even harder man to get to sit still, but we cornered him one day at his new office in the Playhouse and forced him to answer some tough questions about “Jersey Boys,” hip-hop musicals and where he buys his snazzy suits.
The La Jolla Playhouse now has three theaters. Isn’t that a bit over-the-top, and do you plan to build more?
There are no plans at the moment to build an additional theater. One day, in the quite distant future, the Playhouse could probably gain from having a larger proscenium arch theater, a theater with a larger auditorium. When we run a larger show like “Zhivago” or “Jersey Boys,” we tend not to have enough seats and we have to literally turn a lot of people away and that’s a great shame.
I think the three theater complex is linked directly to our mission. It didn’t happen by happenstance, it was very much by design and the design went back to the mid-80s. In fact, one of the staff showed me something I had written to the National Endowment in 1987 that described this very complex.
We like to represent all of the American genres of theater art, from new vaudeville to musical theater, to psychological realism – and forms that haven’t even been invented yet. We want to offer theater artists the most popular types of theater spaces and that would be a proscenium arch, a thrust theater and a black box theater. When you consider, of all the major theaters in the country, we’re the only theater in our league that shares space with a graduate program. So there’s a tremendous amount of demand on the space, the three theaters are never empty for very long.
You recently announced the 2006 season. There’s a very wide variety. Do you foresee the Playhouse putting on productions that are across the board, or do you expect to narrow things down and specialize in a certain genre?
No. We definitely will not. I think we’re a reflection, at our best, of the best in American theater. If Tina Landau comes along with a great project, we want to support her. If Stephen Sondheim comes along with a great project – and I think he’s got a couple of great projects left in him – then we want to be open to that.
I like to think the Playhouse is about excellence, and also content. And once in a while you want to do something fun, like “How to Succeed in Business” or “The Wiz” (a forthcoming play). This has not been just the last few seasons. I think we’ve been eclecticists from the beginning.
There are two major aspects of our body of work that have evolved. One is that we do far more developmental work; we commission a lot more plays and adaptations of plays. We currently have about half a dozen works in development. And of the shows we’re doing this year, three of the six main shows are brand new scripts. Fully 60 percent of the projects we’ve done since I returned (in 2001) have been brand new material and that’s profoundly different. We wouldn’t have had the unmitigated gall to do that 20 years ago.
“Zhivago”, the first show you are putting on this season, came out of the Page to Stage program. Can you tell us a bit about Page to Stage and give a brief summary of what “Zhivago” is all about.
Page to Stage is pretty much entirely unique. There are workshops at other theaters, and there are festivals where they will quickly produce plays. It is a fully-protected environment. When we do a Page to Stage workshop production, we rehearse for several weeks, we tech for a full week and we throw production elements at it. There are costumes and sets and so on that are generally less elaborate than a full production, but they are there. Then the press generally don’t cover it, they don’t review. And we stay in rehearsal all through the performance schedule, so if you saw the very last performance, chances are it would be very different to the first performance. That’s the basic difference, it’s really a laboratory where the audience participates and we do lots of talk-backs, and try and let the audience in on the process but also learn from them.
“Zhivago” is a very important step. Doing the Page to Stage workshop musical was a very big step last year, entering into the unknown because musicals are larger and more complex than most plays, so that was a bit scary, and we worked very quickly. But this show does show tremendous promise, we did a reading of “Zhivago,” incorporating the changes we made after the workshop in New York and crusty, seasoned cynical New York members of the intelligencia actually stood up (and applauded) and I’ve never had people stand up at a reading that I can remember. So I just hope I don’t mess it up.
“Jersey Boys” hit Broadway last year to excellent reviews. What is it like to shepherd a production from a West Coast theater to the world’s most prestigious theater district?
When it goes well, it’s a lot better than when it goes badly. It’s a fantastic feeling when it goes well and it’s obviously devastating when it doesn’t. I’ve had really remarkably good luck on most of the musicals on Broadway, I’ve had very good fortune.
To be truthful, I think as you get a little bit more mature, you try not to let the highs get too high and similarly you try not to crash and burn emotionally or spiritually if something doesn’t go well. I think you learn to realize that there’s another day and there’s going to be another show.
The point to me is really to keep the work going. What really inspires me and gets me up in the morning is, frankly, working with these actors in rehearsal. That and the process of working with writers and designers, that’s where I get my kicks. The nice thing when shows go well is that you know you’re going to get to do a lot of them.
How on earth are theaters going to keep attracting young audiences with all the entertainment options competing for their attention?
I think you have to, first and foremost, free artists. Artists are always going to be the vanguard that attracts younger audiences. I don’t think you can turn to a marketing survey and learn what you should be doing in order to stay ahead of the edge, I think the only way you can do that is by supporting imaginative people who are going to be innovative and hopefully are interested in their times and are going to shed light on it and are going to be exploring new genres.
I just saw a terrific piece of theater by Will Power, which is a hip-hop musical called “The Seven,” inspired by “The Seven Thieves” – the same thing as “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Seventh Samurai,” the same source material. It was just stunning, and when I see something like that I just think: How can I get this to young audiences, because there are millions of young people out there that are going to love this.
The thing about live theater, that we have going for us, is that very thing: It’s live. You can’t get it on a screen. There’s a social side to it. Frankly, it’s continued to become increasingly popular over the last 30 or 40 years, unlike live sports events, for example. I’m a big sports fan, I love Formula One racing and I love going to the races, but really, it’s better to watch it on TV. I think that’s often true of baseball or the NFL, but I think that’s not true with theater. You want to be there, just like a rock ‘n’ roll concert. There’s something that you just can’t get over the net – that we can provide. It’s an event; it’s real life.
I think the reality is that very little art lives on forever. Some composition, some plays, but I think most of us have to accept that we’re mortal, and going to the theater is a celebration of the undeniable profound value of live itself.
You have a penchant for snazzy velvet jackets and other eye-catching couture. Who’s your tailor and where do you buy your clothes?
I’d love to tell you. I actually shop mainly at a store run by a British designer named Ted Baker. He has a shop in Los Angeles and a shop in New York and when I’m in London I go to visit him. I tend to only buy things that are on sale, but they lick their lips when they see me coming, because they know I really love his clothes.
Also, if we’re lucky enough to get any Tony nominations this year, he’s going to dress me and the “Jersey Boys.” We’re going to wear Ted Baker tuxedos. So they’re already taking measurements.
– Interview by WILL CARLESS