La Jolla Playhouse names artistic director

Times Staff Writer

With repeat off-Broadway successes but a less-proven record in commercial theater, stage director Christopher Ashley will become La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director in October, succeeding Des McAnuff, who turned the playhouse into a developmental workshop and launching pad for a series of Broadway hits.

Announcing the 42-year-old New Yorker’s appointment Tuesday, the playhouse’s board chairman, Ralph Bryan, said a wide-ranging search had yielded “an accomplished theater artist ... with a fantastic reputation and ... experience in both large-scale productions of musicals and edgy works in development.”

In a prepared statement, Ashley, a career freelancer who never has run a theater company, said he planned to expand the existing play-development work that helped spawn such shows as Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” and Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays.” Both had their first public stagings in the playhouse’s Page to Stage workshop program; “Jersey Boys,” the McAnuff-directed 2006 Tony winner for best musical, premiered in La Jolla in 2004.

Ashley said he also aimed to offer residencies for other area groups to produce plays in the three theaters the La Jolla Playhouse shares with UC San Diego. “My goal,” he said, “is to create laughter and argument. Anything but a yawn.”


McAnuff’s last day is Sunday. Ashley, who is directing a Broadway musical, “Xanadu,” and working on “Last Call,” a documentary film about piano bars, will be artistic director designate until October, when his 3 1/2 -year contract begins.

McAnuff established La Jolla as a regional theater force from 1983 to 1994, then returned in 2001. He announced last year that he would step down to pursue independent projects, as well as serving as one of three artistic directors at the Stratford Festival in Canada, starting in 2008.

“Chris has the artistic credentials and the political skills to make a superb artistic director,” McAnuff said in a statement.

Ashley, a 1984 Yale graduate, is experienced in one of McAnuff’s specialties, musicals with a rock music score. He earned a Tony nomination as director of a well-received 2000 revival of “The Rocky Horror Show”; less successful was his foray into the “jukebox musical” format with “All Shook Up,” based on Elvis Presley songs. He’ll give rock-theater crossover another go in June, with “Xanadu,” an adaptation of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John film musical, with a score partly written by Jeff Lynne of the rock band Electric Light Orchestra.


Ashley won an Obie Award in 1993 for his direction of Anna Deavere Smith in her one-woman play “Fires in the Mirror,” about ethnic strife between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn. He also was instrumental in helping to launch Claudia Shear’s career as a writer-performer, as director of her first off-Broadway success, “Blown Sideways Through Life.” In 1992 he directed Paul Rudnick’s off-Broadway hit, “Jeffrey,” about gay romance in the shadow of AIDS, and went on to direct the 1995 film version.

In 2002, Ashley directed two of the six plays in the Kennedy Center’s “Sondheim Celebration.” Last year, he directed Laurence Fishburne in Alfred Uhry’s “Without Walls” at the Mark Taper Forum.