Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN Theater Critic
Posted September 1, 2009
He’s only been in San Diego two years, and already he’s gone back to Memphis . That would be “ Memphis ,” the musical he premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Christopher Ashley , who took over the reins as artistic director of the Playhouse in October 2007, is about to open the roof-rattling musical in New York , at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. For him, it’s coming full circle.
“That was the theater where I saw my first Broadway show,” Ashley says by phone from New York . “It’s a beautiful theater. I still get chills when I go in there.”
“ Memphis ,” with music and lyrics by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, and book/additional lyrics by Joe (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) DePietro , has been altered quite a bit since it played here to sold-out houses and rapturous applause exactly one year ago. Some changes came during and after a run in Seattle , at the cavernous, 2200-seat 5th Avenue Theatre; more tweaks are occurring in New York .
“It has the same heart, but a lot of different limbs,” says Ashley, in his gentle, soft-spoken way, a demeanor that masks a roiling passion for what he does.
There’s at least one new scene and four new songs in this chronicle of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, as told through the life of the first white DJ to put black music in the center of the radio dial.
“It’s wild to be doing this in a time when the country is changing so much,” says Ashley. “We did the show in La Jolla in the middle of the election season. There was the question of Obama and how much of a change moment we were experiencing. Since his election, the extreme changes within the context of the play really suit this moment in our history. It becomes especially relevant during the ‘Change Don’t Come Easy’ moment.
“I love the cast and creative team,” Ashley continues. All the creators and major players remain the same, though about half the ensemble has changed.
“I’m having a really good time. But there are few things more pressurized than mounting a new musical on Broadway. Maybe being a general in the war in the Middle East ,” he adds, with a chuckle. “You have to marshal all your troops and make sure everyone knows the plan. Then the lieutenants follow the plan. It’s like Art-war!”
Ashley isn’t a novice at this formidable activity. He directed the Tony Award-nominated Broadway production of “ Xanadu ,” based on the terrible 1980 film with the inexplicable cult following. The musical opened in New York in June 2007 and ran for more than 500 performances. It was a hit in San Diego , too, when Ashley brought the wacky, fantastical, rollerskate show to the Playhouse last winter.
That was just one in a long line of successes. In the 23 years since he graduated from Yale, Ashley has directed more than 60 productions.
THE EARLY YEARS
When asked where he grew up, the 45 year-old director quickly responds, with a laugh, “I never did.”
He was born in Chicago , but spent time in North Carolina , upstate New York , Michigan and Portugal .
“My parents were quite young,” he explains. “They were moving around, pursuing college, grad school and post-docs.”
Both are professors; his mother teaches Medieval Literature at the University of Southern Maine , and his dad teaches Philosophy at the State University of New York at Cortland . The family past is a bit … unconventional.
“My mother grew up in Angola ; she was a missionary kid, and it was a colony of Portugal at the time. She did a Fulbright in Portugal . As a kid, I spoke Portuguese really well. Now, I speak a 14 year- old’s version of the language, hipster talk from 30 years ago, full of slang. It’s the equivalent of a 1970’s version of ‘ Yo , Dude! What up?’
“I had diverse school experience, which ranged from public schools to prep schools to strange, hippie/druggie schools. One teacher in grade school once said of me, ‘He’s so well rounded, he rolls down the hall!’”
In terms of his college majors, well, that was a little unusual, too. His Yale degree, 1986, cum laude, was in both Math and English.
“That really serves me well as an artistic director,” Ashley avers. “You need the creative, impulsive, artistic part of the brain for making the art, and the methodical, organized, systematic part to deal with the jigsaw-puzzle part of the job, in terms of who’s where and who’s doing what, and of course, budgeting.
“It’s amazing how many military or diplomatic brats there are in theater. That kind of transient life trains you to make friends fast, gives you instant social skills. It’s just like doing a show: you have intense relationships and then it’s over.”
While he was at Yale, he directed ten shows in four years, and acted (“very badly”) in four plays as well.
“I never thought I’d go into theater as a career; I was too sensible financially. But in my senior year, I started to get a backbone and decided to give it a try.”
He had one especially memorable experience at Yale, a school he chose primarily because a good friend was a student there. She turned out to be roommates with Jodi Foster.
“This weird guy was always hanging around the dorm, approaching anyone who was going into the building, pleading, ‘Can you get a note to Jodie?’ He was kinda creepy. He turned out to be John Hinckley.”
Hinckley , you may recall, was the somewhat unstable individual who tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981, as the culmination of his effort to impress actress Jodie Foster . He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has remained under institutional psychiatric care ever since.
OUT AND ABOUT
When Ashley was in his late 20s, he directed the New York production of Paul Rudnick’s “Jeffrey,” a gay comic drama whose tagline was, “ Love is an adventure when one of you is sure… and the other is positive .”
“It was very seminal, very gay,” says Ashley. “The first comedy in the world of AIDS. You just couldn’t be in the closet and do that play; it was so political. All about ‘What do you do if you don’t have the courage of your convictions?’ The atmosphere around the production was so gay-positive and political that anyone who was gay wound up talking to the press about it. I was written about in the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine. My parents knew I was gay, of course. But I hadn’t told my grandparents. It was a shocking way for the larger family to find out.
“My parents were really liberal. They couldn’t have been lovelier when I came out to them, at about age 20. It was such a non-drama for them. It’s amazing how much has changed in the last 20 years. Now, it’s such a non-issue, especially in the theater.”
SEMINAL THEATER EXPERIENCES
“Jeffrey” was one of more than a half-dozen plays Ashley directed for the WPA Theatre Off Broadway. After the successful 1993 premiere, he went on to direct the 1995 feature film of “Jeffrey,” whose cast included Patrick Stewart, Robert Klein, Nathan Lane , Sigourney Weaver and former San Diegan Kathy Najimy .
His first positive review from the New York Times came with his very first directing gig with WPA. It was for a a Southern Gothic play called “The Night Hank Williams Died” (1989). Mel Gussow said his production was “ staged with scrupulous attention to realistic detail.” And that’s when his directing career really took off.
While he was at the WPA, he won a Princess Grace Award for promising young artists. Twenty years later, by dint of his ‘consistent excellence’ in creating theater, he received the Princess Grace Foundation’s highest honor: the Princess Grace Statue Award.
“It was a very glamorous event,” Ashley recalls of the gala at the Waldorf Astoria, attended by royalty including Prince Albert II of Monaco . In addition to a monetary gift, he was presented with a bronze statue. “It’s a statuette of Princess Grace in a ballgown , prominently displayed in my bedroom in New York .”
During the early years, Ashley received directing fellowships from the Drama League and NEA/TCG (the National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group). And the plaudits started piling up.
In 1993, he earned OBIE and Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Direction of Anna Deveare Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror,” and in 2001, Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for Best Direction of a Musical for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He also directed the stage version and subsequent American Playhouse production of Claudia Shear’s “Blown Sideways Through Life.” He helmed the Broadway debut of the Elvis musical, “All Shook Up,” and at the Kennedy Center in Washington , D.C. , as part of the 2002 Sondheim Celebration, he directed “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Sweeney Todd,” for which he won a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Direction of a Resident Musical.
Ashley has a strong sense of loyalty, and likes to maintain long-term collaborations with playwrights, such as Rudnick, Shear, Doug Wright and Douglas Carter Beane .
Of Rudnick, with whom he’s done four plays, he says, “He’s the funniest person I’ve ever met.” And right up there in the comic stratosphere is Beane , who wrote the book for “ Xanadu ” and, like Ashley, garnered a Tony nom for his work.
“I really like eccentric writers, who see the world from a skewed point of view,” Ashley says. “Straightforward, naturalist kitchen-sink theater is not of interest to me. I like using theatricality in a production, and asking the audience to use their imaginations to see the world freshly, in a way they’ve never seen it before.
“I love to challenge myself every time,” Ashley continues. “A lot of times, people offer you pretty much the same play you just did. I want a new challenge every time, to tell a new story.
“It’s the same for me as artistic director. I want every show to be fresh, so each time the audience walks into the theater, they have an experience that’s new and unexpected.”
His 2009 season at the La Jolla Playhouse is a mix of dramatic genres, including comedies, dramas and musicals. There are two world premieres that were commissioned by the Playhouse (“Restoration” and “Creditors”), a world premiere musical (“Bonnie and Clyde”), a West coast premiere (“Unusual Acts of Devotion”), and a comic thriller that’s still running on Broadway and on the West End (“Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps”).
One of Ashey’s early acts at the Playhouse was initiating the Theater Residency Program, to welcome and support small local theaters that have no permanent homebase .
“I’m really proud of the Residency Program,” he says. “I talked about that during my interview process. The applications have been fantastic – strong and passionate. We’ll have candidates for years to come.”
The first resident theater, which presented two shows at the Playhouse in 2008, was Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. This year’s resident is Moxie Theatre, whose production of “Drink Me, or The Strange Case of Alice Times Three” continues through September 27.
The new play workshop project, the Page to Stage Program, had already been in effect when Ashley arrived in San Diego . But he was instrumental in starting the more experimental EDGE program.
“I can’t take the main credit,” he says humbly. “Shirley [Director of Play Development Shirley Fishman ] was pursuing this idea before I got here. But I was wholly supportive. It’s an opportunity to program shows that aren’t for everyone; they’re adventurous and challenging and sometimes really out there.”
That could definitely be said of the first three presentations: “Most Wanted” (10/07), a world premiere musical about Andrew Cunanan , the young former San Diegan who murdered Gianni Versace. Then there was “ Continuous City ” (3/09), a multimedia cyber-drama. That was closely followed by “ Dogugaeshi ” (6/09), a re-creation of an arcane Japanese screen/puppet artform.
The fourth EDGE program premieres this month, a “presidential rock concert” entitled: “Hoover Comes Alive!” Inspired by Elvis’ 1968 ‘Comeback Special,’ t his interactive concert features the 31st President, who’s been in political disgrace for 70 years, making a return visit to reclaim his legacy — and save America .
“These shows attract a more diverse audience,” Ashley says, “in terms of age, race and geography. It’s a great theater entry point for people.”
Some of those people are UC San Diego students, who show up for EDGE productions more than other Playhouse work.
Ashley wants very much to expand the interaction of the Playhouse and the University.
“It’s an important part of what the La Jolla Playhouse is. We’re on the campus; we have to make what we do appealing to them. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, the most glamorous date was going to Yale Rep (the Yale Repertory Theatre, which maintains a close relationship with the Yale School of Drama). We’re not communicating to them well enough yet, but we’re working on it.”
Last year, Ashley taught an acting class in the UCSD Department of Theatre and Dance. During this academic year, he’ll be the Quinn Martin guest director. For his directing project with the students, he’s chosen “The Revenger’s Tragedy” (1606), a vivid, cynical, violent portrayal of lust and ambition in the Italian court. Ashley sees it as “ a Jacobean reality show. This group of people is trapped in their court, and they get madder and madder. Everyone’s totally out of control. It’s the first reality show. The way we’re doing it, the audience will surround the action, and they’ll also be able to watch the show mixed for TV.”
As if all this activity isn’t enough, in his “copious free time,” Ashley is editing a documentary. “Last Call,” which he shot before coming to La Jolla, is about piano bars in New York .
At some point in his life, he says, he’ll go back to film. But right now, the Playhouse is a “totally consuming job.”
LOCAL AUDIENCES, THEATER COLLEAGUES
“I love watching the La Jolla Playhouse audience,” Ashley says. “They’re smart, adventurous. They really pay attention. At talkbacks, they see everything, get everything. The detail is incredible. I’m always amazed at how complete their understanding is. And God bless ‘ em for staying after a show they didn’t get!”
He’s also thrilled with the staff at the theater: “They’re smart, dedicated, and I love their taste. There’s nothing more fun than putting a season together. That’s the juicy part of the job. Determining what stories we want to tell, what artists we want to invite, what conversations we have with the audience.
“What’s great is , we’ve got spaces you can do any kind of play in. There’s no play we can’t do here. The technical staff can do extraordinary things. And this audience will go with the goofiest comedy or the most serious drama.”
He won’t say much about the managing director transition. Steven Libman , who’d been hired during Des McAnuff’s tenure as artistic director, was here when Ashley came, but now he’s gone. And Michael Rosenberg took over this spring.
“He’s someone I’m really really excited to work with,” Ashley says of Rosenberg . “The Board and search committee looked at a very very wide field of candidates and I’m thrilled that they picked Michael. I’ve known him for about 12 years. He was Managing Director at the Drama Dept (a New York Theatre collective), where I directed four or five plays. We already have an excellent relationship. He’s fearless about telling me ‘No” when he has to, and raising money to make great theater. I’m a big fan of his.”
Right now, Ashley’s focus is the Broadway opening of “ Memphis .” But he’s got his toe – and his heart — in La Jolla .
“I’m really proud of this year’s season, and I’m always proud of the work the Playhouse does. I LOVE this job! It suits me really well. I’m such a New Yorker; I lived there for 20 years. [He still maintains an apartment in the City]. I thought it would be hard to adjust to life here, but it wasn’t. I have a cute bungalow by the beach in La Jolla , and a dog from the pound. But the Playhouse is a high-energy, nonstop environment, as energized as anything in New York .”
Ashley’s production of “ Memphis ,” which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse, begins its Broadway previews at the Shubert Theatre on September 23. The official opening is slated for October 19.
The La Jolla Playhouse season continues with the EDGE production of “Hoover Comes Alive!” (9/8-13); “Creditors,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug (“I Am My Own Wife”) Wright (9/29-10/25); and the world premiere musical, “Bonnie and Clyde ” (11/10-12/20).
Tickets and information at: (858) 550-1010 ; www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.