Published in KPBS On Air Magazine December 2003

From the time he first saw his father perform, David Ellenstein wanted to make magic onstage. Robert Ellenstein, a noted film and television actor, inspired all his children. David became a sought-after stage actor and director. His brother Peter runs the William Inge Theater Festival in Kansas. His sister organizes arts festivals in Illinois.

Now, after years as an itinerant theatermaker, David has found a home at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. He and his wife, Denise Young, and their 17 month-old son, Jamie, left L.A. when David became artistic director of North Coast Rep earlier this year. He’d served as part-time artistic director of the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company and the Los Angeles Repertory Company his father founded. But, says the boyish, affable Ellenstein, “I’d always wanted to run a theater and be an artistic director.” He got what he wanted, but he also stepped into a bit of a rat’s nest.

Besides the unexpected resignations by its artistic director (Sean Murray) and managing director (Sue Schaffner), the theater was in worse financial shape than Ellenstein (or anyone) knew. “Last year was a disaster in all ways,” he concedes. “There were fences to mend all around. The personnel problems were not about bad people, but bad communication. The financial deficit was serious. That’s why I chose the season I did.”

Ellenstein’s first season has been a safe, mainstream affair, but it’s paid off. Subscriptions are up 45%. “I like every play I chose,” he says, “but I wouldn’t necessarily put them in the same season.” He was right, though; audiences flocked to “Charley’s Aunt,” “Sight Unseen” (in which Ellenstein reprised the role he’d played magnificently in San Diego a decade ago); then Alan Ayckbourn’s early comedy, “Relatively Speaking.”

Next up is the groundbreaking “Story Theatre” (through Dec. 21) followed by the romantic evergreen, “The Rainmaker” (Jan. 8-Feb. 15) and that musical perennial, “The Fantasticks” (February 26-April 25), winding up the 22nd season with David Mamet’s “A Life in the Theatre” (May 6-June 20), starring San Diego favorite, Jonathan McMurtry.

Ellenstein’s plans for the future of North Coast Rep are expansive — literally. He’s in final negotiations to move to a new space — either in Solana Beach or Encinitas —   in order to double the seating (from the current 194 to 400). He recruited an old friend in Denver, Craig Stout, to be his managing director. He expects to make the theater fully professional, “striking a deal with Equity,” the Actors Union, so that the permitted number of Equity actors will increase each year, from the current one per show to an “ideal 50-50 ratio” of union and non-union players. He intends to continue to hire “a vast majority of locals,” but also wants to bring in guest directors and actors. “I’m a great believer in cross-pollination,” he says. An active member of Equity since 1979, Ellenstein knows how the system works, and feels confident that he can pull all this off.

Meanwhile, back onstage, he plans to “take a lot more risks” with his next season, “as long as I appease the audience, too. I believe in theater as a means of entertainment as well as self-examination, growth and artistic beauty.”   So far, he plans to re-mount “The Chosen,” Aaron Posner’s adaptation (with the author) of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed 1967 novel, which he will also direct this winter (with Theodore Bikel in the lead), at Florida’s Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

Also under consideration for the 7-play 2004-5 season are a David Hare play (very likely provocative), a classic by Molière or Shaw, a world premiere and perhaps a Neil Simon for good measure. But first, he’s directing “Story Theatre,” Paul Sills’ celebrated 1971 improvisational retelling of fairy tales by Aesop and the Brothers Grimm.

“I saw the inaugural production when I was 14,” says Ellenstein, “and I was amazed, that without costumes or props, ten different worlds were created just by imagination.” The play originally had an oblique anti-war message, which may or may not come through today. Though developed through improv, the piece is now fully scripted, but requires considerable dramatic flexibility; each actor plays about 15 roles, including people, animals and inanimate objects. Ellenstein, admittedly a rather “hands-on director,” is working in a different way with his cast of eight, “trying to let them be as free as possible and shaping as we go. I want to set them on fire and turn them loose.”

This is a family, holiday production, but it’s not just for kids. “There’s still hope and innocence in all of us,” says Ellenstein, “no matter how jaded we get. This is all about imagination, dreams, going to fantastic places. Some of the stories are silly, some are scary and some are downright dark. I think theater is all about making the world a better place. This is essential theater… magic created before your eyes.”

©2003 Patté Productions Inc.