Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 2002

“Formulas,” exclaims Des McAnuff, “are the path to mediocrity, the death of arts institutions.”   The recently returned, widely heralded artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse is talking about the 2002 season.

“We’re very much an artist-driven theater,” he says. “We don’t ever pick plays and then assign artists to them. We’re always writer-driven or director-driven. It’s such an unbelievably cautious period in the arts. We want to be an oasis for artists wanting to take risks. Our audience expects us to take them to new places.”

The 2002 season at the Playhouse boasts five world premieres, a San Diego premiere, and Des McAnuff directing his first Molière play.

All of the new endeavors come from writers who’ve worked at the Playhouse before, coupled with high-profile directors. The season opener, McAnuff’s only directing outing this year; was a frenetically farcical look at Molière’s classic comedy, “Tartuffe.”

Then came “A Feast of Fools,” a new work by Geoff Hoyle, the plastic-elastic New Vaudeville clown, best known for originating the role of Zazu on Broadway in “The Lion King.”

Close on its heels comes Heather McDonald’s “When Grace Comes In” (through September 1), directed by Sharon Ott, artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. McDonald’s heart-rending earlier work, “An Almost Holy Picture,” which went on to New York, also premiered at the Playhouse. Her provocative new play concerns a woman’s life-changing mid-life journey. “It’s an extraordinary play,” says McAnuff, “a beautiful, magical piece… a family play, deeply personal, very poetic. A kind of twist on [Ibsen’s] ‘A Doll’s House.’ It’s about the path not taken — something any adult can relate to.”

Award-winning playwright Charles L. Mee is up next. Mee, according to McAnuff, “is truly one of the finest minds in the theater, very articulate, with tremendous insight and a lot of heart… the darling of the intelligentsia. He’s the hottest playwright around, with his three “Love” plays” [the first of which, “Big Love,” made its brilliant premiere at UCSD and went on to success in New York]. Mee’s latest venture, also directed by longtime collaborator and UCSD faculty member Les Waters, is “Wintertime” (August 13-September 15), a farcical adult comedy about three couples who sneak away one weekend, each anticipating a secret rendezvous, and then they all unexpectedly collide. McAnuff considers it to be ” laugh-out-loud funny … a Chekovian comedy, but wilder.”

The season concludes with “Adoration of the Old Woman” (September 22-October 20),

a commissioned work by Jose Rivera, who’s premiered three other productions at the Playhouse. Fresh from their New York collaboration, acclaimed director Jo Bonney will shepherd Rivera’s latest creation. “Adoration of the Old Woman” concerns the matriarch of a Puerto Rican family, the ghost that haunts her, her rebellious American great-granddaughter, and two passionate young men. In this case, the Playhouse serves as producing organization, seeing the piece through further work at the Sundance Institute and beyond.

That, says McAnuff, is exactly what the new Page To Stage Project is all about. The program debuted last year with a brilliant workshop production of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife.” The program was established to enable artists to develop a script while giving theatergoers a unique opportunity to be part of a new work’s creative process.

“I’m very interested in developing young audiences,” McAnuff says. “And the way to do that is to bring in artists who appeal to young people. We have a close, symbiotic relationship with the Department of Theatre and Dance at UCSD. Becoming a teaching institute elevates the quality of our work, and having a new, experimental space will help, too.” [Groundbreaking is set for this fall].

The 2002 Page To Stage project is “I Think I Like Girls” (September 3-22), written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski, co-writer of the heart-stopping Tectonic Theatre Company production of   “The Laramie Project,” which last year broke all Playhouse records for attendance at a non-musical. This new piece was created in a similar fashion, based on interviews, court documents and print media. In text, dance, and original songs, it explores the issues surrounding growing up gay and female in America. To McAnuff, the play is ” funny, moving and touching. The lesbian community has been very under-represented in the arts. A lot of the mainstream population still feels uncomfortable about sexuality among women. This is a very important and exciting piece.”

There won’t be any big, splashy musicals this season, though McAnuff is convinced that anyone who loved “Dracula: The Musical” or the recent multi-Tony Award-winning “Thoroughly Modern Millie” will adore the San Diego premiere of the highly acclaimed “Peter and Wendy,” presented by the world renowned Mabou Mines company (September 29-November 10). The show, says McAnuff, has “lots of singing and real spectacle. It’s not a formal musical, but it’s absolutely magical, and the use of puppetry is more imaginative than ‘The Lion King.'”

All in all, as McAnuff sees it, “the 2002 season demonstrates that the Playhouse is continuing its tradition of providing a home to innovative artists of the highest caliber, valued friends and new friends, all of whom we hope will consider the Playhouse their home.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

©2002 Patté Productions Inc.