“Theater matters because it’s the only place where one can find hope. Films are manufactured for us, but in the theater, the actors and the audience are getting together to manufacture a narrative, and to me, that’s where hope resides.”
— Moises Kaufman, playwright, 33 Variations, The Laramie Project, etc.
Kaufman’s friend Christopher Ashley, currently in the midst of his first season as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, concurs. For both men, the folks in the seats are not merely a crowd of spectators; they’re participants. “For me,” says Ashley, “there is nothing like being in a live audience, with an actual person on stage, experiencing emotions in front of you. There’s a sort of tightrope thing that happens — everything is being made up in the moment, and anything could happen. There’s a communal experience that’s part church, part circus, and part book club.”
When 9/11 hit, Ashley was running a revival of The Rocky Horror Show on Broadway. “It’s totally ridiculous — a story about how transsexual aliens take over the world. As unpertinent to 9/11 as it’s possible to be.” Pertinent or not, it shut down just like the rest of New York City theater in the attack’s immediate aftermath. “But when we started up performances again a week later, the audience watched it with this electric, jubilant presence: ‘I’m out of the house, and no one has tried to attack me, and I’m together with people, and I’m celebrating being part of a community.’ Going to the theater that night was necessary and important, whether it was light entertainment or serious drama. People needed to be part of a community, together in a theater. When people watch a movie, they’re mostly in their own heads, immersed in the movie. I think people watch a play together…. You’re aware of yourself enjoying the show with other people.”
Of course, that’s coming from a self-diagnosed sufferer of “what Jean Cocteau called ‘the red and gold disease.’ ” By which Ashley means a theater addiction: a love for the red velvet curtain with gold braid. “I suffered from a very early age,” attests Ashley. “Acting as one of the workhouse boys in a production of Oliver! at the Cortland Repertory Theater in upstate New York, it seemed impossibly glamorous at age eight. The sense of community in an acting company was addictive, and staying up four hours past my regular bedtime seemed incredibly bohemian.”
Cortland gave way to Ann Arbor, and Ann Arbor led to Yale, and Yale led to Broadway, and Broadway, after 20-odd years, led to La Jolla. Ashley had wanted to come here ever since the mid-’90s, when artistic director Des McAnuff, the man who had revived the Playhouse in 1983, took what ended up being a five-year break from the position. Ashley applied (unsuccessfully) for the job; he was 30.
Even back then, he recalls, the Playhouse “had a reputation for an adventurous spirit.” He keeps a poster advertising the 1986 season on his office wall; among other shows, the season included a new translation of Sophocles’ Ajax, directed by Peter Sellars. The setting for the play was shifted to the present-day United States, and the final line about the inscrutability of the future was changed to a warning about the future’s ability to “wipe us out” if we aren’t careful. (And of course, in a nuclear era, there are no more godlike warriors, only diabolical weapons.) Also produced: the West Coast premiere of William Hauptman’s Gillette. Hauptman had won a Tony in 1985 after writing the book for Big River. In 2002, Bruce Weber panned a revival of the play in the New York Times:
“I wish I had seen it [in 1986]; perhaps I would now have a clue what Mr. Hauptman had in mind. But as it is, the script is so riddled with juvenilia, borrowed character types and misguided flights of poetic fancy that it feels like the work of a teenager who has seen too many B movies. Either that or Mr. Hauptman was intent on writing a straight play with the cartoon heart of a musical.”
Gillette may not have been entirely successful — or perhaps it merely failed to age well — but Weber’s last sentence does sound like evidence for that “adventurous spirit” Ashley admired. “Those playwrights and directors were such an exciting crowd to bring here. I use the poster to remember what’s become a kind of rule for myself: bring in the most exciting artists you can find, and make sure they can do their best work.”
Moises Kaufman was one of those artists. When Ashley learned in April of 2007 that his second attempt at landing the artistic directorship had proven successful, he was already committed to three directing jobs, including the Broadway musical version of Xanadu (a roller-disco story that had flopped at the box office in 1980, only to be reborn years later on stage in all its glittery glory). “I arrived in La Jolla, and I had about two months to program our first season. The first thing I did was sit down with the staff, and we wrote down on three-by-five cards every project we could think of that would be fun to do. We filled a wall. Then the question was, ‘How do we trim that to six subscription shows, two Edge shows, and a couple of Page-to-Stages?’ ”
Kaufman was an easy choice for Ashley. “Part of my application process was that the board wanted to know what artists I was interested in bringing in. That’s one of the great things about being a producer; I get to support other artists in a way I never could as a freelance director. I developed a list of about 150 writers, directors, designers, and actors, and Moises was right at the top. I’ve known him for 15 years; he’s one of the people I would invite in to dress rehearsals when I was directing to give me supportive feedback. I love his eye, and he’s kind and critical in a really good mix.”