SOLANA BEACH, CALIF.: Not everyone in San Diego’s pristine, upscale North County is at the beach or on their yacht 24/7. Some area residents are also avid theatregoers, and when they’re not in the mood to venture down to the big LORT houses in La Jolla or Balboa Park, they’ve got the cozy North Coast Repertory Theatre (not to be confused with another theatre of the same name in Humboldt County’s Eureka, Calif.) to tide them over (pun intended). The company’s home, a Spanish-style building on a tidy lot, sits among verdant hills between a country club and a shopping center.
We spoke to North Coast Rep’s artistic director, David Ellenstein—scion of the late, great actor and teacher Robert Ellenstein and brother of another theatre leader, Peter Ellenstein—about the theatre’s unique niche and how he keeps it filled.
Who founded North Coast Rep, when, and why?
North Coast Repertory Theatre was founded in 1983 by Tom and Olive Blakistone. It was Olive’s dream to have a theatre, and as the population of North County San Diego was exploding, the idea arose to create a quality theatre alternative to the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse in North County. Tom made that reality happen for Olive and for San Diego County.
Tell us about yourself and your connection to your theatre.
I was hired as artistic director in January of 2003. My only direct association to the theatre before that was having attended one play here. My work in the area was known to several of the larger stakeholders of the theatre and in the theatre community at large, particularly a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night that I directed. I was asked to apply for the a.d. position. After many years as a freelance regional theatre director and actor, my wife and I were parents to our first child and it was time to settle into a home base that required less travel. Our theatre has since evolved into a fully professional year-round organization.
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
We seat only 194 and yet hire 85 percent Equity actors. We not only cast from the top talent in the local pool but bring in top professional actors and directors from the national scene. Our intimacy, eclectic play selection, outstanding actors and attention to every detail in our productions make the experience at North Coast Rep a unique one in our area. We also have a brilliant resident set designer named Marty Burnett.
Who is your audience?
We draw from across San Diego County. Our subscriber base is mostly North County residents who tend to be older and more affluent, but depending on the play title and production, we also draw a younger and more culturally diverse audience. We have a loyal and passionate audience base that considers North Coast Rep their “home theatre.”
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
That’s a hard one. I admire so many for the great work that they do. I admire Anita Stewart and the Portland Stage Company for the holistic way in which Anita leads the company. The artists and staff feel empowered to create their best work and everyone truly feels part of the process and the team. It is a great model for our collaborative art form.
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
It is a balancing act. I keep a master list of plays I would like to produce at some point, which at any time might contain upwards of 100 titles. I add to it all the time. I read new work and revisit classics. I speak with my colleagues around the country about what they have done or are about to do. I put a season jigsaw puzzle together that takes into account my artistic taste and what I believe my audience will enjoy. As I am a fan of most genres of theatre—the more varied the mix, the better. I always strive to make each production as different from the previous one as possible.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?
Our annual budget is $2.1 mil. We employ approximately 60 artists per season.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
We are in rehearsal for Gunmetal Blues, a film noir musical set in a dive bar. Reviving Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Side by Side by Sondheim are upcoming highlights in this season. I am excited about the premieres we will be presenting next season. Stay tuned!
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
A patron in the front row at the beginning of Act 2 of Dames at Sea vomited onto the stage. The tap dancers had to stop to avoid stepping in it. A strange moment, not to be forgotten by any involved.
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
I am spending time with my family. I am a very lucky person to make my living in the theatre and have a terrific wife and two amazing sons. Hanging out with them and being Dad is my favorite time away from theatre. I believe my experience as a father has deepened my work as an artist, as the world that is impacted by my theatre work now includes my sons.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
The theatre offers the unique quality of intimacy and immediacy that no other art form does; the live nature of the art “in the moment” that will never be the same again. No matter the technical innovation or social or political commentary of the time, the human-to-human contact is the power that is inherent in our theatrical storytelling. That is our universal that will never change as the methodology morphs and evolves. “Passion and a board” will always be the essential ingredient of the theatre, 20 or 200 years from now.