David Ellenstein, the new artistic director at Laguna Playhouse, looks to breathe new life into the iconic theater, one eclectic season at a time.
By Jennifer Pappas Yennie
When he was only 4 years old, David Ellenstein made the decision that theater would be his life. Fast-forward, and with 300 productions and five decades of experience under his belt, he has successfully brought that premonition to fruition. Now, he’s charting fresh territory as the new artistic director of Laguna Playhouse while also continuing his tenure in the same role at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, California.
With 103 years of history notched in its timeline, Laguna Playhouse has a reputation for implementing a multifaceted approach to the theater, producing everything from classic tales and musical comedy to off-Broadway hits and experimental stand-up performances. It’s here where Ellenstein, a self-proclaimed “eclectic theater guy,” is ready to make his mark.
Laguna Beach Magazine: You have an extensive history in theater arts. How’d you get to where you are now?
David Ellenstein: My father was a well-known actor and director, so I grew up in it from day one. I did theater my whole life, working as a fledgling actor; I did film and TV when I was younger as well. Then I transitioned into directing. I worked in most of the major theaters across this country—I like to say everywhere from Miami to Anchorage[, Alaska,] and San Diego to Portland, Maine, and most places in between. As I became a little older, I transitioned into artistic director and simultaneously ran the LA Repertory Co. and the Arizona Jewish [Theatre] Co. Shortly after my wife and I had our first child, I was offered the position at North Coast Rep. I thought it’d be a short stint, but I’ve been there 20 years now.
LBM: What drew you to the artistic director position at Laguna Playhouse?
DE: I have a long history with Laguna Playhouse. I was good friends with Andy Barnicle, the artistic director here until about … . I worked here as an actor, playing Albert Einstein in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” back in the … ’90s. Then I came and directed “Alexandros,” a world premiere Laguna did in the … 2000s. … So when leadership changed, I said, “You know, I could probably hold the reins for a while until they find somebody.” I was just going to be the interim, but then they started asking if I was interested in doing it [full time]. I was flattered, but didn’t want to leave North Coast. The idea started to hatch: Could I do both? I thought it would be a lot easier if my managing director, Bill Kerlin, also did it. The board decided that was the best way to go for Laguna Playhouse, so here we are. So many theaters around the country are struggling right now. This is a model that makes sense to keep us all healthy and strong.
LBM: Which shows are you looking forward to at the playhouse this season?
DE: Because the playhouse is going through a transitional period, I wanted to put together a season that was audience-friendly, surefire. Looking at the season, all of the plays except one, I’ve had something to do with before. For example, “The Rainmaker” I produced at North Coast 19 years ago. “The Angel Next Door” is a world premiere, but we’ve done two plays by Paul Slade Smith before, so I commissioned him to write this play, and it’s really funny. “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” we produced at North Coast to great success. “A Shayna Maidel” I’ve directed twice before, and “Tartuffe,” I’ve actually never produced, but was in once as an actor. It’s a great show and the kind of fare I want Laguna to dip their toe in. Lastly, “Holmes & Watson” is the second-biggest seller we ever had at North Coast. It’s really good: a whodunit, keep-you-guessing, on-the-edge-of-your-seat-right-up-until-the-very-end audience-pleaser. So it’s a really eclectic season.
LBM: I’m glad you use that word, because that’s exactly what I was thinking—what diverse offerings.
DE: My dad, who was a great theater guy and my biggest inspiration, used to say, “You want to have the audience be surprised every time they come to the theater.” I don’t want to be a theater that’s known for one kind of thing. I want to be known as a theater that can do all kinds of things well.
LBM: How would you describe your approach to directing such an iconic local playhouse?
DE: It feels like, partly due to COVID and partly due to reasons I don’t even understand, … the identity of Laguna Playhouse has gotten a little murky. What is it standing for right now? I want to get the playhouse back to being known for doing great plays well. Do great plays well and the audience will come.
LBM: We are inundated with media in all aspects of our lives. In your opinion, why is theater important?
DE: Because it’s a live event where people gather together and experience art in one room, happening in front of them, which can’t be replicated by anything technological or electronic. Theater has survived for thousands and thousands of years because it brings people of all kinds together—people of different political views, different races, different ethnic backgrounds, into the same room to experience a story together that will never happen exactly like that again. It’s the power of “now” that makes theater so important and why it’s never going to go away. It’s my lifeblood and I truly believe it will recover from what it’s going through now and come back stronger than ever.
LBM: Last thoughts?
DE: Come back to the playhouse. If you’ve come in the past and not had a good experience here, please come back and try again. It’s a new era; we’re excited to bring old friends back and create new ones.