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From the beach to Broadway

From the beach to Broadway
UC San Diego Department of Theatre and Dance (Jim Carmody/UC San Diego Publications)

At first glance it may not seem like the road to Broadway goes through La Jolla. But when you look at the number of original hits and smash revivals that started in the California shoreline town before taking Manhattan by storm, it's clear that the La Jolla Playhouse is not your average regional theater company.

Founded in the late 1940s by La Jolla native Gregory Peck and actor friends Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire, the Playhouse was originally a venue for Hollywood stars to practice their craft. But under longtime artistic director Des McAnuff, it became a creative cauldron where Tony Award winners like "Jersey Boys," "Memphis" and "The Who's Tommy" got their starts.

Perhaps the most critical factor in the theater's success is its "art and education" partnership with UC San Diego, launched in 1983 when the playhouse moved to the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the university's campus, kicking off a collaboration that entails shared facilities and production staff, and training of theater artists.

During that time, the UC San Diego Department of Theatre and Dance has evolved into one of the top three programs in the nation with more than 30 faculty, six performance spaces, and around 75 graduate students and 200 undergrads at any given time.

"Thanks to their experience in student productions and the training they receive, our alumni make significant contributions in film, television, Broadway, off-Broadway and at major regional theaters," said Arthur Wagner, the department's founding chair.

The relationship between UC San Diego and the La Jolla Playhouse has always been symbiotic — the theater nourishing the university with visiting artists, innovative new works and high production values while the university lends the energy and idealism of youth, a world-class arts faculty and an invigorating intellectual environment to the Playhouse.

Author Rex Pickett (a 1976 alumnus of UC San Diego) was the brainchild behind the Playhouse's latest hit: a stage version of "Sideways," Pickett's semiautobiographical novel about two buddies in the Santa Barbara wine country that became an independent movie hit in 2004. McAnuff returned last summer to direct the play, which drew rave reviews at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

The current partnership agreement between UC San Diego and the La Jolla Playhouse, which runs through 2050, works on all sorts of levels. The Playhouse provides residencies each year for 20 to 25 graduate students in acting, directing, design and stage management. Playhouse artistic, administrative and production staff teach in UC San Diego's graduate theater programs.  Student productions at UC San Diego are integrally tied to both department curriculum and the Playhouse, providing students vital hands-on experience.

"It's no exaggeration to say that I would not have a Tony Award sitting above my desk right now had I chosen to train elsewhere," said Paloma Young (MFA 2006), who captured a costume design Tony for her work on "Peter and the Starcatcher."


—Joe Yogerst, Brand Publishing Writer