September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

In 1984, just before the 492-seat La Jolla Playhouse began its summer-long season, director Des McAnuff opened rehearsals for Big River by reading Mark Twain’s essay on onanism to the cast. For the iconoclastic McAnuff, it was a characteristic gambit—designed to open eyes, puncture pretensions and attune the actors to his rambunctious spirit. Characteristically the strategy paid off. Less than a year later, the attention-grabbing, homespun, rollicking Big River—based on Twain’s Tom Sawyer—made the remarkable transition from La Jolla to Broadway and grabbed seven Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Director. The kudos served notice that La Jolla is no ordinary summer theater and McAnuff (pronounced mac-enough) no by-the-book director.

Traditionally summer theater invokes images of yesterday’s stars performing rubber-stamp versions of waning Broadway hits. Abandon those notions when you enter the state-of-the-art La Jolla Playhouse, located on the suburban campus of the University of California, San Diego (the UCSD drama department uses the theater the rest of the year). During his three-year tenure as artistic director, McAnuff has turned La Jolla into one of the country’s most exciting theaters—a lure for such adventurous and diverse talents as director Peter Sellars, actress Amanda Plummer and clown Bill Irwin. The 40-foot-wide stage, computerized light board and fully equipped scenery-building shops are a magnet for the best theater technicians. This season alone, composer Stephen Sondheim showed up to revamp his 1981 Broadway debacle, Merrily We Roll Along, now headed for a second crack at New York; John (Crazy Like a Fox) Rubinstein came to star in Merrily, and Phoebe (Lace) Cates is now stretching her wings in The Seagull. At La Jolla, says Cates, the keynote is “daring production.”

Give the credit to 33-year-old McAnuff. A joke-cracking, risk-taking visionary who prefers Budweiser and ham-and-cheese sandwiches, Des wears baggy WilliWear suits and mixes plaid and stripes a lot and pretends he’s Springsteen on his Martin D-35 guitar: “There’s a part of him that’s American rock ‘n’ roller, flamboyant and hip,” says Robert Blacker, La Jolla’s resident dramaturge. “But there’s also the Canadian side, with all the traditions of British theater and a real respect for the text.”

Canada sort of sneaked up on McAnuff. Six months before he was born in Princeton, Ill., his veterinarian father was killed in a car crash. Until he was 4, Des lived with his maternal grandparents in Buttonville, Ontario. His mother, Ellen, worked in Guelph. When she remarried, Des went to live with his mother and stepfather, John Nelson Boyd, a French horn player who inspired his interest in music. He learned to play the recorder at 8 and began to study music seriously at age 11. Only a few years later he was playing guitar with Joni Mitchell and Arlo Guthrie in Toronto clubs. When Hair toured Canada, a hopelessly stage-struck McAnuff turned to theater—attending the theater department of Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto and working as a composer, playwright and director on local stages. In 1976 he moved to New York, and by the time La Jolla tapped him in 1982, McAnuff had established himself as an innovative, award-winning director (Gimme Shelter, Henry IV, Part I) and playwright (Leave It to Beaver Is Dead, The Death of Von Richtofen As Witnessed From the Earth).

Innovation and reputation were needed at La Jolla. Founded in 1947, the playhouse had seen the likes of James Mason, Talullah Bankhead and Groucho Marx strut its boards. In time, however, the quality of talent declined and the facility became obsolete; the doors closed in 1964. Revival started in 1980, when the playhouse board of directors and UCSD began building a new $5.5-million complex. McAnuff was hired upon its completion, and the curtain rose again after a 19-year intermission.

Applause was not immediately forthcoming. The theater’s initial offering was a dazzling experimental production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Visions of Simone Machard. The community’s cabana crowd, more accustomed to Neil Simon or Rodgers and Hammerstein, left in droves. Only 41 percent of the season subscribers renewed.

“The first year was difficult,” admits McAnuff’s wife, actress Susan (Smithereens) Berman, 29, who met Des in 1978 in New York City. But his style eventually won out. “He directs with a lot of love,” adds Berman. “He creates this wonderful company feeling that makes people thrive.” And when the cast thrives, the audience responds. Subscriptions have jumped from 2,500 the first year to 7,300 this season.

McAnuff’s winning approach consists of affection and humor. “If I like somebody’s work, they know about it,” says Des. And when he doesn’t like it? “I turn into Mr. Hyde and get cankers all over my body.” With typical whimsy, McAnuff asked playwright pal Robert Coe—who holds credentials from the Universal Life Church—to officiate at his wedding, which took place Jan. 1, 1984, on the La Jolla stage.

It was a fine choice of venue, since the playhouse seems conducive to success. Big River-type acclaim, however, can lead to muddy waters. “It gives people the impression that we’re rich,” worries McAnuff. “It’s made it even trickier to raise money.” But the director acknowledges that success has “given us credibility. I think we proved that we’re representing the mainstream of tomorrow.”

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