Political Speech at La Jolla Playhouse

Originally published in San Diego Jewish Journal, Dec. 2016

By Natalie Jacobs

Amidst an unprecedented and exhausting election year, La Jolla Playhouse sprinkled hilarious political comedy into its already killer 2016-2017 season. The decision to host John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons,” The Second City with “Free Speech (While Supplies Last),” and Mike Daisy’s “Trump Card” all in the same season wasn’t rooted in a desire to take a political stance against one candidate or another, says Associate Artistic Director Jaime Castañeda. Instead, he suggests that this season’s off-subscription programming was more about pushing American theater to be a better reflection of what American culture is right now.

Whatever the motivation, the choice stands out as a bold one in this city.

Castañeda says that all the shows from this season, but particularly the political ones, are part of the Playhouse’s larger goal of speaking to urgent, contemporary issues more directly and through living artists who, in many cases, have a direct connection to San Diego.

“Theaters should be potentially a place where we can get involved with political issues and where we can support artists that have something to say,” Castañeda says. “That’s really what we’re doing, we’re a huge voice for artists that are scratching an itch.”

He says the artistic team at La Jolla Playhouse is asking itself how the theater can “become a little bit more of a place where we [can] speak to urgent issues. … How do we become a little bit more agile in our operations and be able to switch to something happening now?”

The limited-engagement productions – those that happened to be political this year – which target single-ticket buyers, are one way the Playhouse is accomplishing this.

Castañeda, who marked his second anniversary with the Playhouse on Nov. 1, is a first-generation Mexican American whose professional theater experience is primarily with new works. He says he’s most interested in art that “might surprise you, and different representations of cultures and races.” His directorial project this season, “Tiger Style!,” set in Southern California and China, written by Mike Lew, a La Jolla native, was a testament to that. So too was “Guards at the Taj,” Castañeda’s Playhouse directorial debut last season.

Mike Daisy’s “Trump Card,” a monologue that explored Donald Trump the man, not only Donald Trump the politician, was also produced at the Playhouse as a result of Castañeda’s encouragement.

“I think ‘Trump Card’ was a really specific example of something happening now and us being able to have a conversation about that now, and also being able to support artists who are speaking to that now, which is very difficult for some theaters to do.”

A quick look back at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Facebook posts that linked to web pages about “Trump Card” showed mostly positive comments from people who either saw the production and loved it, or people noting their excitement about seeing it soon. There were a few negative comments, mostly simple notes that this one wasn’t for them. Castañeda says some negative emails also came through to Playhouse staff.

“In most of those situations,” he says, “we try to reach out to those audience members and the people that will send us an email and invite them to the show. … That conversation is also healthy for us.”

The Playhouse finishes out its 2016-2017 subscription season with “Miss You Like Hell,” a world premiere musical commissioned by the Playhouse and already getting a lot of attention from Broadway, and Disney’s “Freaky Friday.” “Miss You Like Hell” is extended through Dec. 4 and “Freak Friday” runs Jan. 31-March 12 (also an extension).