Danny's Kids Page
with Danny Stricker (age 13)

Interview with Des McAnuff,
Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse
August 2003

Getting to know
Des McAnuff, La Jolla Playhouse

Danny Stricker

Danny: I’m here with Des McAnuff, Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Mr. McAnuff, you’ve been extremely successful in the Playhouse. What do you think is the most important thing that makes you successful?

Des: I don’t think I worry too much about being successful. I think there’s a danger that comes with having some success as an artist. I think the danger is, once people recognize you a little bit, you think: “Gee, this feels pretty good, maybe I’d like to be recognized for everything I do”, and that’s a real danger, because it’s inevitable as an artist, you fall in step with fashion at some point, if you do things you really believe in, at some point you’re probably going to be fashionable. But that isn’t necessarily what makes great work, so I think it’s very important to just listen do yourself and do what you think is important even if people consider that work a failure, that you work from your heart and follow your own conscience, and you don’t listen too hard to other people. Now, the worst thing about critics is that they can stop you from criticizing yourself, and the most important kind of criticism is self-criticism.

Danny: What do you think the steps are for success?

Des: I think the important thing is to strive to do good work that you are passionate about and work that you care about. That’s probably the most likely way to achieve success. But I think it depends also on how you measure success. Do you measure success by a lot of people liking what you do? You know, when you look back through history, sometimes some of the greatest talents, Bach, for example, the composer, his work was shunned for the last part of his life when he was doing his greatest work because he wasn’t necessarily in fashion. In the theater, I think to be successful, you have to be able to collaborate. Our’s is a collaborative art form, so you need a playwright, a director, actors, audience, critics to actually create a complete theater. I’d say that’s also important, that you have to be able to work with other people.

Danny: What advice do you have for kids on becoming successful?

Des: You know, I think the most important thing, in terms of what I do with kids, my advice to kids would be to find your own people. You know, you can’t do theater or make movies by yourself, you have to do it with your peers - find your peers. It’s important to have good teachers, that’s really important, but it’s even more important to be able to work with your fellow students, and to value them and again to collaborate with them, to work as a team. So if you want to be a playwright or a director, you need to find young people who want to be actors or designers and so on and work with them. That’s my advice to young people, if you want to go into the arts, particularly into the theater or performing arts, find your people.

How do you decide on what plays to do?

Des: That’s a really great question. There are four ways that we choose plays. The most important way is that I talk to my peers, other directors, playwrights and find out what they want to do, what they’re passionate about. And when I can do a play like that, there’s a play we’re doing right now called “The Country” which the director, Lisa Peterson very much wanted to do. We’re doing a play called “Beauty”, which is an adaptation of “Sleeping Beauty” by a director named Tina Landau - in both those cases, the directors initiated the projects. We read a lot of plays. Believe it or not, we read 500 plays a year. And sometimes we find a play that way, that we come across. A play called “Eden Lane” that we’re doing right now is a play that we actually a writer that we’ve been tracking named Tom Donaghy and we found the play that way. We also commission playwrights which means that we go to a playwright that we really admire and we say “What do you want to write?” and we pay them some money, so we buy some time for them to go off and write a play. Then we’ll develop the play. We just did a piece, which is closed now called “The Burning Deck”, in workshop. The critics didn’t come to see this, but we produced it fully, this is a play we commissioned so that the writer would have a chance to work on it in workshop. The fourth thing we do is we occasionally invite a really important theater company. There’s a company coming here called the Aquilla Theater Company, and they’re doing Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” - you’re going to like this production, I hope you get to see it- it’s a definite kid friendly version of Shakespeare, there’s a lot of slapstick comedy. So we invite important theater companies, usually we do that once a year, one company a year to kind of influence us and so we can share their talents with our audiences.

Who was the best actor or actress you’ve ever worked with?

Des: You know, I think working with actors, that’s hard - it’s true with projects too- not that I would want to consider actors my children, because they would kill me for that. I think, you know you would never want to choose your favorite child. But I can name a couple of actors I’ve really admired. One of the actors that I’ve really enjoyed working with is an actor named Jefferson Mays, who was the star of “Tartuffe” for us here last year. He’s going to Broadway, he’s going to be at the Lyceum Theater with a play that we developed here called “I Am My Own Wife”. A very strange play, a wonderful play about a very interesting character from Berlin, a historical character. He was my student, and then I started working with him when he was a young actor and he was in my first feature film, which was called “Cousin Bette”, so he’s a particular favorite because I’ve watched his career develop from the time he was a young artist. My favorite motion picture actor that I’ve worked with is Jessica Lang. I did a movie called “Cousin Bette” with her. She was just a fantastic creative partner on that project.

: What was it like working with Robert DeNiro?

Des: I should say that Robert DeNiro is also obviously a fantastic actor, of course I was directing him as “Fearless Leader”, a cartoon character, so perhaps the role doesn’t compare to “Mean Streets” or “Taxi Driver” or some of his really ambitious performances. He was wonderful to work with and he was surprisingly collaborative himself - a star of that magnitude, you’d think that he’d made so many movies that he would not be interested in feedback or direction, but he was actually very welcoming in that way. Also, I obviously learned a lot from him, too, so that was gratifying.

What was it like making a big movie like “Rocky and Bullwinkle”?

Des: I loved making the movie. I loved all aspects of it, even though when you’re working with live action and animation, it’s very complex and time consuming. So I worked on that movie solidly for two years, with no breaks, virtually. I think I took one week’s vacation in two years, the rest of it was often six or seven days a week, sometimes twelve, fourteen hours a day, because cartoons are very slow and it just takes an enormous effort. But I gotta say, I loved every moment of it. We did 700 visual effects shots in that movie, that’s probably more visual effects shots than most filmmakers do in their entire career. The disappointment with that, is with a big summer movie like that, you want it to perform at the box office, and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” didn’t perform very well. And unfortunately, even though it was very popular with kids, it didn’t have a great opening weekend. With a big summer movie like that, it’s all about that first weekend, unfortunately. It didn’t used to be that way, but it’s become that way now. So it’s kinda like going to the racetrack. You spend two years of your life on a project and you kinda roll the dice and hope that it lands, and it’s disappointing when it doesn’t.

What’s your favorite book?

Des: Gosh, that is a very, very difficult question. I guess, since I’m talking to you, I would say I think the most important American book for young people to read, certainly one of the most important books - the others, there are lots of them – “Catcher in the Rye” and so on - but I think “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a must read. This is really about the darkest side of American history, in that it’s about slavery, But, Mark Twain was our most enlightened nineteenth century thinker, and also a great wit, so I would say that’s my favorite book when talking to young people.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid?

Des: You know it was probably like millions of other kids, it was probably “The Lord of the Rings”, and “The Hobbit” as well, which is not getting as much attention now because of “The Lord of the Rings”. Then as I got older, I grew up in Canada, I became enamored with a lot of the Canadian writers. Mortokai Richler, actually Miklen Dochle, who I ended up becoming friends with. And Leonard Cohen wrote a novel called “Beautiful Losers”, which I really liked when I was young.

What is your favorite Jelly Belly?

Des: I’m not sure, I’ll have to find out. You’ll have to ask me after I consume these….

: I’m Danny Stricker and I was just here with Des McAnuff.