Site-specific Storytelling: La Jolla Playhouse’s Theatre Without Walls

Introduction Process Impact



La Jolla Playhouse (The Playhouse) offers an annual subscription series of six new plays, re-imagined classics, and musicals. Since 1983, the Playhouse has produced 56 world premieres and commissioned 32 new plays. Many of its productions have gone on to Broadway, Off-Broadway and international venues, earning 26 Tony Awards. More than 100,000 patrons and 24,000 students from throughout San Diego County and Southern California attend productions each year.

About the Project

Theatre Without Walls (WoW) is a site-specific initiative designed to remove the physical limits of typical performance venues by immersing audiences in theatrical work in a variety of community settings. WoW features individual productions, as well as an annual three-day Festival. A rotating cross-departmental committee designed to provide professional development opportunities for staff at all levels develops and produces one event annually.

Starting Conditions

The Playhouse had always been proud of its success in producing audacious and diverse work, yet in a difficult economy, leaders felt pressured to offer a subscription season that appealed to a wide audience. Were they focusing on programming to avoid financial risk rather than stretching their artistic muscles, they wondered?

Previous experience in producing experimental work had carried some hard lessons. Even with grant support for projects, success had been difficult to sustain. “It was a cautionary tale,” says Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, “because when funding ended, we never did the program again.” Their experience led Playhouse staff to plan more carefully in preparation for the Innovation Fund grant program, since they knew that if they wanted to explore a new approach to artistic work, they would also have to explore creative ways to support it financially and structurally.

As staff began imagining what this might look like, they asked themselves several questions. How could they brand the Playhouse as the art it produced rather than the four-wall structure in which the art was contained? How could they remove barriers for people who did not live near the Playhouse’s campus? How could they build on their established relationships with technology leaders to open up a whole new gamut of storytelling tools and better incorporate technology as a springboard for creating theatre and engaging audiences?

The answer, they believed, lay in the promise of site-specific work, and they saw tremendous opportunities in San Diego. “San Diego seemed like the perfect place for this work to take root,” says Ashley. “We have amazing weather, the Playhouse grounds are extraordinary, and we have a very adventurous audience.” Ashley’s vision resonated for other Playhouse staff who were excited at the possibility of offering challenging new work that was not being regularly produced in the area. “Creating one-of-a-kind experience was our goal,” they say. “You can certainly do that inside a theater, but it’s really exciting when it’s in your neighborhood, down at the beach, or out in the world.”

Production of El Henry at La Jolla Playhouse's Theatre Without Walls
Production of El Henry at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theatre Without Walls

As encouraged as they were about the possibilities, staff still felt a good deal of trepidation. “When we first received notice of our Innovation Fund grant, we were very excited,” they say. “That quickly became terror when we started asking ourselves how we were going to do all this adventurous off-site programming and still have our subscription season. What would it mean to work in ways we had never worked before?”

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The WoW Task Force was determined to take a systematic approach to planning. But where should they begin? Cautioned by EmcArts lead facilitator Melissa Dibble to start small, they soon realized they didn’t have to do everything at once. Says one staff member, “If you start with a big project with lots of different variables, you’ll never know why something succeeds, and if it doesn’t, you won’t know what to fix.”

Seeing research as a key to success, The Playhouse established a subcommittee of seven mid-level staff members and charged them with identifying artists and organizations doing site-specific work, developing a list of potential artistic partners for the Playhouse, and visiting neighborhood spaces that might offer creative performance spaces. To build awareness and excitement, The Playhouse also had extensive internal conversations about the vision for the initiative, making WoW a regular agenda item for board and staff meetings. The organization also worked with San Diego State graduate students to survey students about their interest in site-specific work.

After considering six locations throughout San Diego, The Playhouse ultimately selected the San Diego Botanic Gardens in Encinitas for its first WoW project. Susurrus—developed by playwright and director David Leddy—ran for 10 days as part of Arts Month San Diego. Without actors or a conventional stage, Susurrus was part radio play, part avant-garde sonic art, and part stroll in the park. Listening on iPods, audiences heard comments about opera, memorial benches and botany—all designed to fit together in a poignant story.

According to staff, Susurrus was a good opportunity for The Playhouse to experiment with a single idea and test a limited number of variables. “We tested not having live actors. We tested using technology to tell the story. And we tested having the audience move. All this taught us what it was like to actually produce off-site.”

What they learned was to have almost immediate impact on future planning. While Susurrus had been successful as a stand-alone event, Playhouse leaders were looking for even more impact. Led by Ashley, who had just attended the FiraTàrrego Festival in Spain, they decided to move away from a series of plays scattered throughout the year to a festival featuring multiple events. And so the WoW Festival was born—a two-week festival on Playhouse grounds in October 2013, featuring 15 artists and companies. “We didn’t change our plans,” says Ashley, “just our focus.”

Shifts in Assumptions

Was the Playhouse ready for the rapid shifts in thinking that occurred throughout the innovation process? Staff members admit they had to let go of preconceived notions. “We learned that we had to accept some ambiguity in the planning process,” says one. “It’s okay to use the information we do have to inform our decisions, even if we don’t understand the full picture. Innovation is accompanied by risk; otherwise, what is the purpose of doing it?”

Getting to this vision was not immediate. When staff began planning WoW, they focused largely on technology, believing it would play a significant role in increasing interaction between artists, audience, and the work being presented. Soon, however, they agreed that it was the art, not technology, that should drive their efforts, and they shifted their focus to site-specific work. In the end, they honed their focus even further. “Projects that involve audience members in the art-making are the most impactful, most engaging, and receive the best feedback,” says one staff member, “and we now ensure that the Festival always includes participatory productions.”

Production of Seafoam Sleepwalk on the beach at La Jolla Playhouse
Production of Seafoam Sleepwalk on the beach at La Jolla Playhouse

An even greater shift in assumptions occurred as staff began working more closely with both artists. “The program has really evolved,” says Marike Fitzgerald, WoW Associate Producer. “Originally, I thought we were going to do this once a year or every other year, and now it’s a huge part of our programming. I also thought it was going to be largely national and international artists, but we have seen a huge groundswell of interest from local theatre companies. The first time we did the Festival, we had three applications from other companies to participate; for the second Festival, we had 42 proposals.”

Others were surprised by the number of local cultural and civic leaders who saw WoW as a significant benefit to them. “I was surprised by the people who saw this work as an opportunity to shine a light on their communities, to engage their local neighbors, to make something happen where nothing was happening before,” says one staff member. What this meant for the Playhouse was a dramatic shift in their perception of outcomes and impact. What had begun as a project to draw attention to The Playhouse was fast becoming an effort to serve community.

Obstacles and Enablers

Playhouse leaders weren’t surprised to encounter significant challenges. “We have a long history of producing new theatre works in our building,” says Ashley, “but this is a very controlled space. We know how it works. We know where things are. We know the quirks. But suddenly, we found ourselves outside in venues that were not under our control, working with partners that weren’t even necessarily theatre companies.”

Explaining how to make work happen in this context was challenging for staff, and it was sometimes difficult to find the right vocabulary to communicate effectively with partners. Relinquishing absolute control was also difficult, even though staff realized it was critical to both efficiency and good partner relations. “The question of quality when working with outsiders is always an issue,” says one staff member, “but maybe the real question is not how to ensure that all festival pieces are of a certain caliber, but instead how to embrace the varying levels of artistic quality within the festival.”

The audience for site-specific work proved much harder to identify than the team had expected. Managing the flow of people coming to events was especially difficult, since attendees were generally last-minute single ticket buyers. Given that performances had widely different capacities—from five to 500—it was difficult to plan on the number of people who would be on site at any given time. According to one staff member, “the Festival introduced a whole new logistical challenge with regard to the patron experience. When audiences travel from place to place, how will they purchase tickets? Where will they park? How will they get from point A to point B? What is the comfort zone—physical, mental, emotional—for a typical American, and where does this comfort zone begin to be challenged?”

Production of Kamatchka at La Jolla Playhouse
Production of Kamchatka at La Jolla Playhouse

What was the key to overcoming these obstacles? Leaders say it was the unique subcommittee structure that evolved during the process. “If you tell our staff to produce a musical in collaboration with two other theatres,” says Managing Director Michael Rosenberg, “we know exactly how to do that because we’ve been doing it for a long time. If you say to us, produce a project with another theatre company in an abandoned lot, we have to be open to the idea that we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to figure out things on the fly, and that everything may not be sorted out by opening night.”

The willingness of Ashley and Rosenberg to let staff learn “on the fly” was a powerful incentive. Initially, the subcommittee turned all its initial research over to the artistic department, but members soon began asking for more involvement. “That was a turning point, says Fitzgerald. We actually put together three proposals for WoW projects and pitched them to Mike and Chris. They chose one, we gave them a budget, and they told us to go and make it happen.”

In the process, everyone learned that innovative ideas can come from unexpected places, and that realization has been a big enabler of success, creating a community of staff members, many of whom were traditionally excluded from the artistic process and all of whom have learned how to work together in new ways. “What I love about the subcommittee is that everything is new,” says Fitzgerald. “There’s so much excitement, so much passion about it. It’s the opposite of jaded. Everything is a brave new world.”

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By the Numbers

When The Playhouse received the Innovation Fund grant from Irvine, staff were very intentional in considering how they would sustain WoW projects once the funding ran out. Today, with no more support from the Foundation, they continue to do the Festival, as well as two stand-alone projects annually—all with funding derived from the organization’s budget. The results have been significant. Data show that 50 percent of audiences for the WoW Festival are new to the database, and many live in the neighborhoods where projects occur.

The Playhouse’s site-specific work has produced new communication channels, too. Seafoam Sleepwalk, a project with puppeteer Basil Twist done on the beach in San Diego, drew 200 people the first day and grew to 1,000 for the eighth and final performance four days later. “It was word of mouth in the most visceral way,” says one staff member. “I loved that it was public. I loved that it was happening at this very unconventional space out of the ocean. I loved that the community that surfs, swims, takes their family or walks the dog on the beach kept spreading the word. The project got this fan base over four days—very exciting.”

In addition to local success, the WoW Festival and other site-specific projects have generated national attention in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and Time Magazine, enhancing the Playhouse’s profile as an organization dedicated to innovative work. The organization has also received new funding, including a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for El Henry, a rewrite of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, which imagines what the future would look like if there were no barrier between the United States and Mexico. The project was performed in a dirt lot in San Diego’s East Village with an all- Latino/Latina cast. Thanks to the project, the dirt lot has become has a focal point for neighborhood activity—busy five to six nights a week with concerts, farmers’ markets, and other community events.

New Pathways to Mission

WoW is a significant new pathway for delivering theatre to the San Diego community. Ashley describes the Festival as a very impulsive, improvisatory theater-going experience for the audience. “I love that for three days in October, audiences get to program their own time impulsively. They go to see a show, they have a drink, they have a meal, they go see another show. They hear that there’s a hot show happening across the street, and they run over and see if they can get a ticket. I love that sense of anything is possible and the audience gets to take initiative.”

The project also has enabled a richer dialogue between the Playhouse and the community. “You have to listen to the community,” Rosenberg says. “You have to listen to what their needs are, what stories are coming out of that community. In order to make art there, you have to hear their needs as well. I feel like we are much better listeners since Wow.” The Playhouse is now collaborating with a greater variety of organizations and inviting an increased number of theatrical and non-theatrical partners to the table.

Providing a strong structural foundation for the Playhouse’s innovative work was a goal from the beginning, but no one expected the exceptional new producing model that has emerged. The success of the subcommittee has led The Playhouse to recruit members from throughout the organization, as well as hire Fitzgerald as WoW associate producer. Subcommittee membership now rotates, with each new committee producing one show on its own, and staff believe the structure has moved the organization forward—not only in the way it works but also in what it creates. Rosenberg cites Fitzgerald’s experience as evidence of the powerful role the subcommittee has played in professional development. “Hers is a great success story,” he says. “She started as a very junior member of the artistic department, but because of WoW, we’ve been able to create a career path for her that means she stays with us.”

WoW is still a work in progress, but Ashley is pleased with how quickly WoW has become central to the mission of the Playhouse and changed the way the organization thinks. “One of the really satisfying things about this kind of work is that it allows you to break out of the idea that we just make a product,” he says. “We’re making something that’s public art, and we’re making something that is responsive to the needs of a community. That means we’re in service, too.”

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