A few short days after winning the 1985 Tony award for directing a musical ("Big River"), and being toasted by tout New York, Des McAnuff was back at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, scrounging up pots and pans for a visiting makeup artist's temporary lodgings.
"That's about as far away from tuxedos as you can be," he said. "That's what keeps me normal."
McAnuff, in town for the opening of "Shout Up a Morning" at the Kennedy Center Tuesday, is one of the "hot" young directors of the American theater. With his pal American National Theater artistic director Peter Sellars, McAnuff is "working on the front lines of contemporary culture . . . seen by many as the most forward-looking element on the theatrical horizon," according to critic Don Shewey in American Theatre magazine.
Now 34, McAnuff has headed the La Jolla Playhouse for four years, producing or directing a body of work that has been provocative and occasionally outrageous as well as commercially successful. Subscriptions at the one-time summer theater -- now expanded to a five-month season -- are up fourfold -- to 8,500 -- under McAnuff's administration. "Big River," produced at La Jolla after a brief sojourn at another theater, ended up sweeping the 1985 Tony awards and becoming the surprise hit of that Broadway season.
But McAnuff is of the school that generally eschews Broadway, finding little in its rank commercialism to interest him. Although he spends half the year in New York, he is more likely to be hanging out with Joseph Papp than David Merrick. Both he and Sellars talk about "reinventing the mechanism" of theater -- often in such similar terms that McAnuff says they "rip off" each other's thoughts.
Artistically dressed in a loose white linen jacket, jade green shirt, tan pants and red Reeboks with bright blue socks, McAnuff talked ld,10 SW,-2 SK,2 about his theater and others with rapid intensity, smoking Rothmans cigarettes and jiggling one leg like a fidgety schoolboy.
Normally at this time of year, he lives in an "outrageously beautiful" beach-front apartment with his wife, actress Susan Berman. Southern California, he says, "is the next center for western culture." And he really means that. As he sees it, the confluence of geography and climate is producing a critical mass of "talent pools," artists coming to California for the film, television or music industries, who create both an appetite for the heartier culture that theater can offer and the talent that feeds it.
"The Northeast is struggling, certainly in terms of support for the arts," he said. "Artists have been flocking in from New York for the last five years, although New Yorkers would tell you differently." And the image of the Californian as the quintessential airhead is inexact, he says.
"Not everyone there is a Nazi surfer," he said. "There is a tradition there of Neanderthal political thinking, of course, but I meet airheads wherever I go . . . There is a sense of isolation that creates a kind of desperate sales pitch, but that's a kind of hunger, too."
And the climate, rather than sun-bleaching your brain into a unproductive mush, produces a creative state of relaxation, he said.
"In New York, by the time you get to the theater to rehearse, 18 hassles have already happened to you. At first the notion of palm trees and theater seemed like a profound contradiction to me, but I've found that people really work harder there because they are relaxed."
Mind you, this is a man who has lived in Southern California for four years without learning how to drive.
"When a friend of mine found out I couldn't drive, he said, 'Don't ever learn!' I get around in taxis, or with other people, or by walking . . . When I was a teen-ager, I had friends who practically dropped out of school because they were working to make their car payments. I figured out when I was 19 and first living on my own that if I spent $50 a week on taxis it was still cheaper than owning a car. And you don't have to worry about parking or insurance, and you can really get to know a city by talking to cab drivers."
McAnuff grew up in Toronto, where he spent his teen years as a rock 'n' roller, sidling into theater as a related form of spectacle. He began composing music when he was 14, wrote his first play at 18 and started directing a year later. His last visit to Washington was in 1975, when he did the music for a production of "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" at the Folger.
At 23, with five years of writing, composing and directing in Toronto behind him, he moved to New York, finding work at the Chelsea Theater Center, the Dodger Theater group and then the Public Theatre. His play "Leave It to Beaver Is Dead," set in a drug clinic that has become a kind of performance space, was produced in a workshop at the Public Theatre in 1979.
Three years later, Papp spent $500,000 on "The Death of von Richthofen as Witnessed From Earth," a McAnuff extravaganza that included a 7,000-foot free fall. McAnuff wrote the book, the music and the lyrics and directed it -- to mixed reviews but considerable interest.
Sellars, who met McAnuff in New York, was one of the first people McAnuff hired to direct in La Jolla. People are still talking about Sellars' production of Bertolt Brecht's "The Visions of Simone Machard." As Shewey described it, "When one scene took place on a catwalk directly overhead, a man down the row from me exclaimed, 'Now I've seen everything!' " McAnuff directed a production of "Romeo and Juliet," starring Amanda Plummer and John Vickery, set in contemporary California and posing the lovers as spoiled kids ruined by their parents' wealth.
Beyond the choice of plays and the interpretation of them, McAnuff has tried to be unconventional in other ways. He rejects, for example, the popularly held ideal of a resident company, which is expected to produce superior work by having a well-rooted ensemble. He thinks such companies, in a country where career opportunities often lie thousands of miles apart, are unrealistic, and can lock a theater into choosing plays to provide appropriate roles for company members. He also prefers not to work "toward an opening night," seeing the entire run of a play as a chance to keep working on it.
Although McAnuff is as fond of making provocative pronouncements about the theater as Sellars is -- "most plays are about middle-class liberals," for example -- his productions have proved to be more popularly successful than Sellars' have here. "Shout Up a Morning," which is coming here as part of an East-West exchange program funded by a $1 million grant from AT&T, played to enthusiastic audiences and got reviews ranging from "vibrant, vigorous and exciting," to "an overlong, overly sentimental piece" that was nonetheless "inventive," "sleek" and "a Roman candle."
"Ajax," the contemporary rendering of Sophocles' Greek tragedy that is the American National Theater's part of the exchange, was drubbed by the critics and the audience stayed away in such droves it closed its five-week run early. But McAnuff says he liked the show and its flaws were those of realization rather than conception.
"Shout Up a Morning" is a rendering of the legend of John Henry, the black laborer who died trying to beat a machine. The music, first released in 1975, is by Nat and Julian (Cannonball) Adderley, with new lyrics by Diane Charlotte Lampert and a book by Peter Farrow. It has a large cast and a scope to match. McAnuff has no plans to take the show beyond Washington, but after "Big River" there will surely be Broadway scouts visiting the Eisenhower Theater during the next few weeks.
It's ironic that someone who rejects the conventional measures of success should have them so easily in his grasp. He admits to some interest in film -- but not television -- and is working on a project to produce small-budget movies that would be developed by the writers, designers and performers that come to work at the La Jolla Playhouse. He acknowledges, somewhat ruefully, that much theater today does not seem to appeal to young people, who do not, as he puts it, see anything on stage that they want to imitate. That is something he hopes to change.
"The kind of theater I run is that if someone wants to fire an MX missile on stage, we'll try to find a way to do it," he said. "Our real ambition is to blow the roof off the theater."