Who’s On Center Stage?

    What began as an idea for a regional theater that would be part of the new UCSD campus in the late 1950s has now evolved into a full-fledged theater district. The La Jolla Playhouse grew from the original Mandell Weiss Theatre to the latest addition, the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center with the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. Throughout the years, the La Jolla Playhouse and the UCSD theatre and dance department have kept a partnership that is unique and has enabled both entities to grow into their own. But the ride has not always been smooth.

    PHOTOS BY BRYAN SMITHWICK/Guardian
    The Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center (above) opened last year and includes the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre and additional rehearsal spaces that are among the shared facilities between the La Jolla Playhouse and the UCSD theatre and dance department (below).

    “There have definitely been some growing pains,” theatre and dance department Chief Administrative Officer Mark Maltby said. “But we eventually learned to co-exist and mutually learn from each other.”

    The La Jolla Playhouse first began as the La Jolla-San Diego County Theatre and Arts Foundation in 1954, founded by film stars Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer. On the other hand, plans for a theater for the future UCSD campus became bogged down by lack of money, lawsuits and land development issues.

    In the 1970s, with the establishment of UCSD’s theatre and dance department, plans resumed and in 1983, almost 30 years after the original idea, the theater was established. Today, the La Jolla Playhouse is made up of the Mandell Weiss Theatre, the Mandell Weiss Forum, the Sheila Hughes Potiker Theatre and the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio.

    With the completion of a theater, a unique relationship was born, where the department’s graduate students in design, stage management, directing and acting are able to participate in professional productions and receive their residencies with the La Jolla Playhouse. The two also share facilities and a joint technical staff. Maintenance is provided by UCSD, while the Playhouse has helped raise money for past facility constructions.

    Similar setups can be found in other universities, but none where a professional theater and a university department act in such close partnership but still maintain independence from each other with completely separate administrative staffs.

    The partnership between the two, brings with it a negative side along with the benefits. However, La Jolla Playhouse Director of Operations Ellery Brown said that both entities are able to work seamlessly together with communication and forward planning.

    “Neither organization could ever afford to staff year-round, and by sharing, they keep everyone employed,” Brown said.

    But with the department producing 10 shows during the academic year and the Playhouse producing six main-stage shows, what arises is the question of whether there is enough space to go around.

    “On the downside, there is the space and the overproducing that two companies can do that can lead to some scheduling issues,” Maltby said.

    Space allocation for the facilities has changed dramatically from the original agreement and vision of the original theater. According to an agreement in 1977, the university was intended to have the space all year with the La Jolla Playhouse only producing in the summer.

    In the latest agreement, however, the university has the use of the Weiss Theatre during the winter quarter and the Playhouse throughout the rest of the year. The department and the Playhouse also take turns in the Forum Theater, the Potiker Theatre, rehearsal spaces, Galbraith hall classrooms and shop spaces.

    Brown said that the newest addition, the Jacobs Center, which includes the Potiker and additional rehearsal spaces, was opened last year and is designed to allow for more flexibility in space arrangements between the university and the Playhouse.

    “Another benefit of the new space is the Playhouse’s ability to schedule a production during the winter time period when we are normally dormant, giving us more of a year-round presence in the community,” Brown said.

    Because of the multiple productions coming out of both the theatre department and the Playhouse, some say that student productions can sometimes take a backseat to the professional productions.

    Scene design graduate student Steven Kemp recalls one time during the past year when the building of certain set pieces for a student show was delayed since Playhouse staff was busy with other productions. Kemp said that there is a “large strain” on the shops, where set pieces, props and costumes are created, as both the Playhouse and students are putting on productions at the same time. When that happens, Kemp said, that’s when students have to go through negotiations and compromise with the staff.

    “As much as we’re treated as professionals, we’re still just students,” Kemp said. “But in the real world, that’s what happens. Shows get backed up and [making compromises] is still part of the education.”

    Former stage management graduate student Alexis Olsen also observed that the joint staff does not seem to have the same downtime as others would get in another theater. Olsen said during that “dark period,” employees usually take much-needed vacations and production is at a minimum or stopped altogether.

    “There is no such break for the Playhouse/UCSD joint staff,” Olsen said. “They work long hours year-round and sometimes they pull double duty building shows for the Playhouse and UCSD at the same time. When that happens, it can be a tug-of-war to see who gets the resources they need. Sometimes the students lose.”

    But both Olsen and Kemp say that working at the Playhouse has given them valuable experiences.

    “It’s exciting to draw plans, bring it over to the staff, share ideas and have those ideas executed,” Kemp said.

    As part of the upside, students in the Master of Fine Arts programs for scene design, stage management, acting and directing can take their residencies or professional training through the La Jolla Playhouse. Actors can take part in professional productions and are given roles while directors, stage management and design students take positions as assistants with professionals working for the production.

    Both Olsen and Kemp spoke about being able to travel to New York and work with renowned theater professionals in set design and stage management. These experiences have allowed them to develop relationships with the professionals that could eventually lead to future work.

    Those at the Playhouse have also seen the value in working with UCSD students.

    “Having the UCSD graduate student designers and actors working on our productions alongside professionals is inspiring,” La Jolla Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Shirley Fishman said. “They all come into their work at the Playhouse with a commitment to learn and attain the level of expertise, creativity and professionalism of the pros.”

    According to department Chair Charlie Oates, the reputation of both the La Jolla Playhouse and the department has helped in recruiting students into the graduate programs.

    “It’s really part of an ancient relationship, when students learn directly from actors and playwrights, designers through apprenticeships,” Oates said.

    Both the Playhouse and the theatre and dance department have received national acclaim. The Playhouse has successfully seen several of its productions go on to Broadway, including Jersey Boys and I Am My Own Wife. Meanwhile, UCSD’s theatre and dance department was ranked as the third- best graduate program in the country according to U.S. News and World Report.

    As both entities continue to grow in national prestige, each recognizes the need to learn from one another.

    “The life of the arts institution is organic,” La Jolla Playhouse production manager Peter J. Davis said. “We adapt, we grow, we adjust, … Both institutions have gone through a lot, made some mistakes, learned a few hard lessons and, I like to believe, gotten a little bit better at what we do.”

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