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It’s nice outside.

That’s one of the biggest forces arts groups in San Diego say they must fight when trying to fill up their theaters, populate their exhibition spaces and build their audiences. Some days it does seem criminal to go inside; I remember being especially struck with the collective decision some 2,800 people made to enter the darkened Civic Theatre on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in April for the opening performance of San Diego Opera’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” It turned out to be my favorite of the opera’s performances last season, but still.

It’s not the primary reason the La Jolla Playhouse launched its “Without Walls” series of plays set in places outside of its traditional stages, but it’s a big plus for outdoors-lovers.

The first play from the series is happening now, running through Oct. 23. It’s an audio drama that winds its way through the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas. Ticket-holders pick up an iPod shuffle and a map at a booth at the entrance of the garden, push play and pause for a snippet of the story to unfold at eight locations throughout the garden. The play’s called “Susurrus,” the word for a rustling sound, like a gentle breeze through the trees, and was written by Scottish playwright David Leddy.

I enjoyed the experience of listening for the story’s next wrinkle in different places around the garden — shadowy paths, benches, waterfalls, under towering bamboo. Leddy took the operatic adaptation that composer Benjamin Britten made of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and centered several characters around the music, each revealing perspectives on family tension and love, jealousy and scandal. (The Playhouse recommends the story for mature audiences.)

This play has been presented in more than a dozen other locations around the world; the Playhouse brought Leddy to San Diego to pick the place it could work here. Leddy told the Union-Tribune this is one of his favorite settings for the play. Here’s a bit more about why he writes theater to be experienced differently:

I know the feeling that I want to try to induce. So sometimes that’s about using new technology like the MP3 players in ‘Susurrus.’ Sometimes that’s about sending an audience into a particular space. And sometimes that’s about asking them to do something they wouldn’t normally do.

What makes something theater? This piece makes you wonder. In this case, the actors are recorded, the audience is staggered throughout the route, up to six at a time in 15-minute intervals. But each person has a slightly different, and live, experience with the story, because the story is being tied to these particular locations as you listen.

The play is part of a multi-year project for the Playhouse. With a $900,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, the theater is hoping to present theater specific to different sites around the county over the next few years. “Susurrus” wasn’t written originally for San Diego. But for a future play, the Playhouse is hoping to work with artists to make new theater pieces for this series.

“There are really interesting traditions in other countries where this kind of thing happens,” said Mike Rosenberg, the Playhouse’s managing director. “Do we always need to have them come to us?”

San Diego’s climate makes it a good place to experiment with the idea in the United States, he said.

Leddy’s work uses a broad definition of theater, Rosenberg said. But just because people aren’t sitting together in rows of seats, watching action unfold on a stage, doesn’t mean the piece doesn’t fit in the evolution of theater.

“I think there is very much a live aspect, the garden itself being a living breathing thing,” he said. “And what you experienced in that garden I can promise you is different than what I experienced.”

The play has been popular enough that the Playhouse extended its run for a few weeks from the scheduled closing date at the beginning of this month. Now you can see it through Oct. 23.

Rosenberg said this first play has been helpful in figuring out the logistics of site-specific performances: including setting up a box office 30 miles from the Playhouse offices on UCSD’s campus, and coordinating the start times so people don’t end up bunched together in the stops along the way.

But the effort is also pushing the Playhouse to make connections in different neighborhoods around San Diego, asking where this kind of outside or site-specific work is already being done, and asking communities if they’d even want this kind of thing in their neighborhoods.

The last thing the Playhouse wants to do is monolithically decide that Neighborhood X will host their next play. For one thing, these kinds of experiences aren’t entirely new for San Diegans; the “Trolley Dances” pieces by Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater have been going for 25 years, Rosenberg acknowledged.

“We’re not wanting to just helicopter in and do this,” he said.

Though that might itself make a pretty dramatic piece of aerial, site-specific theater.

What locations in San Diego do you hope groups like the Playhouse will present performances? A pier? A particular sidewalk? Leave a comment below or on Facebook.

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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