World Class Theater on the Cheap?

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Without a doubt one of the biggest perks we have here is the La Jolla Playhouse. This jewel of a theater complex is home to some of the most extraordinary productions, many of which premiere here and go directly to Broadway to win Tony’s. You would never guess that hidden away on the tranquil campus of UCSD in the eucalyptus grove, with the ocean air breeze and the magical hidden succulent garden out back is this powerhouse of theatrical influence.

Shortly after moving back to the San Diego area we began to get season tickets for the Playhouse. We were amazed to discover that we could get the whole season for a little more than the price of seeing one show on Broadway. We go the frugal way, as is our pattern, by getting them in the “preview” period and on a weekend matinee, but still. CHEAP! We like that matinee because we can do dinner afterwards. Nothing in the La Jolla area is open late enough to do a leisurely dinner after an evening theater performance and we don’t like to eat early enough to make a 7:30 or 8:00 curtain. Previews can be interesting to those of us with curious minds because you occasionally get what is affectionately termed a “train wreck”. That has been explained to the audience as when something, usually something technical with the set or a prop, goes very wrong and the production has to be stopped. It is interesting to us because it gives you a glimpse into the nuts and bolts of the production. We see enough theater to not need it all to be perfect. We are interested in the art of it and these rare glimpses, always handled with humor and grace, are fascinating and somehow reassuring to the mere mortals in the audience.

Almost every production has someone we recognize in it. BD Wong is a recurring actor here, John Leguizamo, Billy Crystal, Gregory Harrison, Keith Carradine and so many from Broadway productions and TV shows (oh my gosh, am I the only one that hasn’t been on a CSI or Law and Order episode?). This is definitely not community theater! The plays themselves range from the rather traditional Our Town or Glengarry Glen Ross to plays that were conceived, written, developed and produced on location at the Playhouse. The latter, called Page to Stage productions are an interesting opportunity for members of the community to see the work at various stages of completion, interact with the artists and then view the completed work.

The three theaters each have their own character, but they all have one marvelous thing in common. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. Each is small enough that it remains what could be called intimate (under 500 seats) and every seat is as close to the stage as the furthest orchestra seat in a Broadway theater is. The theaters are not so small as to be awkward though, the audience size is more than adequate, usually sold out and almost always appreciative so the experience is fantastic. We are completely spoiled because we have had our season tickets for over 10 years now. We are in the third row a little right of center and they keep trying to move us up. I love our seats and am not budging! In most cases I like the slight space between us and the actors. The one time we moved up to the front row because we switched dates worked out perfectly. It was for Sideways and they had wisely set up a wine bar in the lobby and allowed us to bring wine into the theater to enjoy during the show. We felt like we were on a wine tasting trip with the cast through the Central Coast for that whole play and we, with the rest of the first couple of rows, cleaned the wine bar out of Pinot at intermission! No one dared touch the Merlot…

Probably our most memorable experience so far at the Playhouse was early in our subscription. In 2004 Des McAnuff was the Artistic Director and he personally directed this production as well. We just happened to be at the first public viewing of the show since we buy such er, economical, tickets. We also hadn’t been season ticket holders for very long so we were on the aisle a couple rows from the back. The show was a brand new, world premiere and the audience was packed, which was a tribute to Des’ reputation and talent. As the production got underway the enthusiasm of the audience was palpable. Laughing, dancing in their seats, applauding, murmuring in approval…it was all there. And the guy behind us was getting out of control. I was definitely into the show, and doing my own version of the theater seat boogie but this guy was yanking on the back of my chair, kicking it, accidentally pulling my hair, involuntarily yelping with what appeared to be glee. Glancing back I couldn’t help but smile, as obnoxious as he was, he was having the time of his life and the mood was infectious! He was on the aisle, and in the aisle, and leaning over the guy next to him to talk to someone three seats down. He had a clipboard. And a script. Wait a minute. He looked familiar. OMG. That’s Des! Dan. Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan Dan. I pointed to his picture in the program and back behind us and repeated that gesture a couple times. Dan’s mouth formed a perfect “O” followed by a big grin and we enjoyed the production even more, floating on Des’ triumph as he experienced his first audience go mad for Jersey Boys.

Not every experience has been as grand as that. Some have come very, very close. There have been incredibly moving pieces that have changed that way that I look at people and the world like The Laramie Project, The Tallest Tree and Ruined. And there have been some that we haven’t stayed past intermission, or wished that they had given us an intermission so that we could have gracefully exited. But that is part of the experience as far as we are concerned. I am sure that some of my favorites have been other patrons least favorite and vice versa. Art in all its glory is still open to personal interpretation and we are better for being exposed to all of it. Sometimes we learn more from the stuff we don’t like. Sometimes we just get a little nap and a crick in our neck.

Mostly, we are guaranteed a couple of afternoons of theater a year for a very reasonable price. Most of the time, especially in the last couple years, the shows are amazing. We occasionally get to brag to our New York friends that they need to go see such and such play because we saw it at the LJP and it was terrific. We turn the days into date nights and enjoy great restaurants in the area and we are still having fun!

 

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