Innovation that Lasts: Seven Years of Theater Without Walls

The set of Mimi Lien’s MODEL HOME, performed at the 2017 WOW Festival

In 2010, San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse already had a stellar reputation. They were (and still are) known for producing world premieres of plays and musicals that would go on to Broadway, Off-Broadway, and international venues, winning numerous Tony Awards. Leaders at The Playhouse had a hunch, however, that they could expand on this success even further with more artistic experimentation and enhanced community engagement.

Looking to break outside the box, the Playhouse applied for and received a grant from the Arts Innovation Fund of the James Irvine Foundation, which was coupled with facilitation from EmcArts. With this support, they embarked on a journey to explore the possibilities of presenting theater outside the physical bounds of their theater building, creating site-specific productions that connected with audiences in new ways.

The cast of the WOW production of What Happens Next, by Naomi Iizuka, directed by Michael John Garcés, produced in association with Cornerstone Theater Company

The result was a new program, Without Walls (WOW), which has since become a central part of the Playhouse’s annual programming. From the beginning of this new program, Playhouse leaders were encouraged by their EmcArts facilitator to maintain an adaptive, experimental approach, trying multiple ideas and learning from the results. “We learned that we had to accept some ambiguity in the planning process,” said one staff member. “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?”

Beginning in 2011 with a single experimental production, Susurrus, which audiences participated in by listening to iPods while walking through the San Diego Botanic Gardens, WOW quickly grew, with the first WOW Festival taking place in 2013. At the same time, the program gave rise to a newly-created subcommittee, made up of staff members from across the organization, who collaborated and shared responsibility for generating, researching, and testing new ideas. “What I love about the subcommittee is that everything is new,” said one subcommittee member. “There’s so much excitement, so much passion about it. It’s the opposite of jaded. Everything is a brave new world.” You can read a detailed case study of the development of the WOW program on ArtsFwd here.

In 2018, WOW is still going strong. The program has grown significantly over the last seven years, and now forms an ongoing part of the Playhouse’s core programming, with support throughout the institution – from artists and audiences to staff and board members. Over time, the Playhouse has become adept at off-site producing, as well as partnering with various host organizations and communities, resulting in seven stand-alone WOW productions and three WOW Festivals to date. The now-biennial WOW Festival has grown into one of the most highly-anticipated arts events in San Diego, attracting thousands of attendees each outing and receiving major local and national press coverage. The most recent festival, in October 2017, was produced off-site for the first time, in several locations in and around downtown San Diego.

Keith A. Wallace, creator and performer of THE BITTER GAME, co-created and directed by Deborah Stein

Every new site presents unique challenges, but each for each WOW project, the Playhouse has learned more about how to make the production a success for artists and patrons alike, through site visits, community engagement, surveys, etc., resulting in excellent partnerships with new organizations and neighborhoods. Moving the most recent WOW Festival downtown also presented new challenges and opportunities, as organizers worked with five different “hubs” simultaneously. This model didn’t allow for the same “Festival Village” environment from past Festivals, but did offer the chance to build many new relationships and reach a variety of new audiences in different downtown neighborhoods.

“The WOW program has attracted a brand-new audience to the Playhouse, but there is still an ongoing challenge to attract more of our traditional subscription audience to WOW productions,” says Becky Biegelsen, Director of Public Relations. “However, subscribers have come to recognize the WOW program as part of the Playhouse’s core programming, and we’ll keep making efforts to make them feel as welcome off-site as on-site in the Playhouse’s theater spaces.”

Key to the success of WOW has been its integration into the organizational fabric of the Playhouse, with an ongoing place in the artistic budget. Over time, they have developed excellent muscles for producing off-site work and has built ongoing partnerships with location sites and communities. The outreach into these new communities has allowed the Playhouse to attract new audiences, and in general, for each production or Festival, 50% of WOW patrons have been new to their database.

THE SPHERES, by Australia’s Strange Fruit, part of the 2015 WOW Festival; photo by Daniel Norwood

The collaborative, experimental mindset of the initial work with EmcArts that led to WOW has also persisted, even as the program has become a more formal part of the organization. Each WOW Festival still has an “all hands on deck” spirit across all departments, which opens up new ideas and creative directions. In addition, the subcommittee continued to evolve, shifting its research and experimentation focus to questions of how to create fun and immersive audience engagement experiences for each production in the subscription season. The Playhouse is also beginning to focus more on building their commissions by artists of color to tell more diverse stories and reach new audiences, as well as on trying to achieve gender parity on their creative teams.

With a new Managing Director recently appointed, and planning already starting for the next WOW Festival in 2019, La Jolla Playhouse’s journey of finding creative ways to connect with their community is continuing in new and exciting directions. “You have to listen to the community,” said former Managing Director Michael Rosenberg. “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.”

You can read about recent WOW productions here, and find out more about The Playhouse’s current season here.


Ben Sachs-Hamilton is the External Relations Coordinator at EmcArts.