In another stunning example of the New York Times finding its asshole to be the center of the universe, the following:
“A Tiny Theater in San Diego and Its Director Supply a Steady Flow to Broadway.”
Oh, for God’s sake. The La Jolla Playhouse is one of the well-regarded theaters in America and has been for years. It’s possessed of an enviably upper-middle class subscriber (and potential subscriber) base and some truly committed wealthy donors. Its presence at UCSD spawned what has become one of the most-touted (note I didn’t say “best”) graduate MFA programs in the country.
Stating that the La Jolla Playhouse is a “tiny non-profit theater” is like George Lucas’ infamous self-portrait as an “independent filmmaker from San Francisco” who “doesn’t have a lot of resources.”
The Playhouse was originally founded in the 1940s by movie stars Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer, who wanted to do upscale summer-stock in the cool San Diego breeze. It was revived in the early 1980s by very rich La Jolla locals (a redundant description, I realize) who wanted San Diego to have some Real Culture.
They hired a young, very talented hot-shot, Des McAnuff, as Artistic Director. He immediately brought stellar people to for the opening season–Peter Sellars, Robert Woodruff–truly, some of the great directors of our time–to do exciting productions (years after the opening season, I heard breathless descriptions of Woodruff’s Ajax, which used a deaf actor in the title role, signing, at the end, in a lucite box full of blood.)
I grew up going to the Playhouse during the glory years, when it was holding a fair balance of big fabulous entertainment, awesome guest artists, and even some experimental/complex work. The Playhouse kicked downtown rival The Old Globe’s ass in those years, easily–the plays always excited me, challenged me. They made me want to have a life in the American theater.
Then, Des McAnuff, whose increasing reputation and power had also given him increasing access to famous people, convinced Pete Townsend to adapt his rock-opera Tommy to musical theater.
That’s when things changed. Anyone around UCSD or the Playhouse at that time would talk about how things were “before Tommy.” The show was a blasting success that also blasted the Playhouse into a huge financial hole. Des merrily skipped away from such troubles and headed instead for Hollywood.
A few years, a few troubled Artistic Directors, and a few stinkers later (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, anyone?), Des returned, with great fanfare and no small relief (it was just never the same without him, really, you could hear the board members whisper).
They’ve had some mediocre seasons ever since. Des still steadily moves product to Broadway, though of decreasing quality and memorableness (Dracula? Jane Eyre?) My mom, a truly passionate and forgiving theater-goer, is increasingly loathe to throw good money after bad and only grudgingly buys a couple tickets each season when the telemarketers call. Last year, she saw a play she said was the worst she had ever seen–which I would take less seriously except that a close colleague said the same thing. This year, Mom called and told me, wistfully, that another play there was fine, but not a single word in it said anything new.
There’s always potential where there’s funding and access to talent. The Playhouse has never really had a problem with that, not really, not like true “tiny non-profit theaters” who live and die by one lucky check or one tenacious artistic director living on cheese sandwiches and love. And if ever the LJP didn’t deserve a puff piece in the Times, it’s now.