Christopher Ashley on the "DNA New Work Series"
In late January the La Jolla Playhouse presents their new play development initiative, the "DNA New Work Series". The project includes six-weeks of workshop productions and readings of new plays and musicals. The idea is to allow playwrights and directors the opportunity to develop a script by providing rehearsal time, space and resources, culminating in a workshop production or public reading. Helping a writer elevate his or her words off the page, that process of creation and evolution, is a true passion of La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley.
Tell me about your vision in creating the "DNA New Work Series."
I hope this will be an explosion of new work at the La Jolla Playhouse. The idea of new work is very much embedded in our Mission Statement; we are all about the new. This January through February series is really an opportunity to explore a huge variety of emerging and established voices, a very first look at new plays and new musicals. We are giving a start to playwrights, who have in them a major American play. "DNA" includes everything from first time readings with scripts in hand, to workshop productions that have one set piece and three of the costumes. Imagine being there the first time a play is heard. This will be an extraordinary process, to get to be a Yenta, a matchmaker of audiences and plays, to peek behind the curtain and see how a play gets made. We hope over the course of a year or two audiences will see how the show develops. They’ll come back to see the full mounted production and see how a character got split into two or how a play that was confusing, with a mix of funny and sad elements changed when the playwright made a commitment to make it funny.
What excites you most about theatre?
I’ve been a director for 25 years in New York and around the country. When I got out of college I focused on new plays and new musicals. It is fascinating, what the writer puts on a blank page. Before putting that piece of paper in the typewriter, or using a word processor, nothing existed before, creating a story out of your mind is magic. Storytelling is extraordinarily important for playwrights, actors and audiences. I love to investigate new stories. It is high-stakes and nurturing for artists and audiences to be part of raw, active creation. This is why I am in theatre, it’s really exciting to be part of something being born, newly created.
Tell me about directing Chasing the Song.
It has the same writing team that created Memphis, Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and David Bryan (music and lyrics). The show really reflects the DNA theme. It showcases song- writers creating amazing music in the early 1960s in New York’s legendary Brill Building, active creation is happening in four different writing rooms. They create melodies, pitch ideas, some are top hit singles; some never see the light of day. Then their whole world is changed by the so called "British Invasion," creativity just blossoms. A young woman ar- rives at this music publishing company, so the play also is a nod to women breaking the glass ceiling; she runs her own company and writes her own songs. It has a nod to Carol King. It’s no longer songs like "I Will Follow Him" but songs that express the female voice, her own personality as a writer/singer.
Give us a teaser for a few of the other shows.
There are two other centerpiece shows- one being "The Tall Girls" written by Meg Miroshnik. It takes place in a desolate town in the depression era and it centers on a girls’ basketball team; there is a political storm that swirls around them. The second workshop production will be "Brahman/i, A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show," by Aditi Brennan Kapil, directed by Jeremy Cohen. It has a stand-up comedy feel with an Indian intersex narrator, a boy or girl caught between multiple worlds, both gender and culture-he/she must negotiate an American public high school-it is funny, irreverent.
Tell me about the play selection process.
Our Literary Director Gabe Green arranges the main season of six plays and in a given year looks at four to five thousand different projects. So out of the thousands that we look at there are dozens and dozens we get excited about. Some are not yet ready to open to press or there is some element of the show still being explored, some of what we review was written last week. These playwrights need a chance to explore; to have a night in the white hot light. We felt they needed a shot, an experience, a talented director and wonderful actors. Playwriting doesn’t just happen in the writing room, to finish a play you need to see it come to life. Five years ago the DNA idea came into focus for us, as soon as I said yes, we can do it this year, 200 scripts landed on my desk.
La Jolla Playhouse has an exceptional track record of developing new work and sending it to Broadway. Did you have that in mind while choosing which shows would get be part of this new work reading/staging?
For this program, not at all. Some of this work is eccentric, odd, unexpected and if it would work as a full production, sooo bold. For it to work on Broadway, hundreds of thousands of people have to see that show. The nice thing about our theatre is if 1,000 people come to see it, that’s a big hit here, that knowledge is really, really freeing. It’s truly a vibrant experience that allows for individuality of voice. To never worry, "Is this show for everybody?"
What would you say to people who are unsure about seeing an "unfinished" work?
What I’ve said, unlike film, unlike television, theatre has at its core the word and the actor- amazing actors expressing the language of a playwright. It is not about the spectacle, not about the technical; at the center of theatre is a group of people coming together to watch an actor speak words. It’s about the community created between actor, word and audience. It’s a rich experience for the audience.
What do you do on your days off?
Currently I’m making a movie-I shot a musical movie entitled "Lucky Stiff." I am editing here in San Diego, so when the day is done here, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. I switch-over to my recreational film life. It will be at a festival six months from now.
"The DNA New Work Series" runs Thursday, January 24 through Sunday, March 3 at the La Jolla Playhouse. For tickets and more information call 858.550.1010 or visit them online at lajollaplayhouse.org.