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Meet David Ellenstein, Laguna Playhouse’s New(est) Artistic Director


David Ellenstein is the new artistic director of the Laguna Playhouse. He had been artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre from 2003 on when the board of Laguna Playhouse appointed him interim artistic director in October 2022. The position was made permanent on May 1, 2023, as Ellenstein continues to run both companies simultaneously. Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse and David Ellenstein
 

For just over a year now, David Ellenstein has served as the artistic director of Laguna Playhouse – at first in an interim capacity before his tenure was solidified this past spring when the theater company’s board made the appointment permanent.


Ellenstein is only the fifth person in just over 60 years to occupy that position at the vaunted coastal theater company. Culture OC caught up with Ellenstein and also reached out to those familiar with him and his work and with the board chairs of an Orange County theater institution that began in 1920.


Exit Wareham and Richard, enter Ellenstein

Laguna Playhouse saw its artistic director, Ann E. Wareham, announce her exit in late 2021, prompting a search for a replacement. Then, in August of 2022, Ellen Richard, the Playhouse’s executive director of more than six years, announced that she, too, was leaving.


Wareham’s and Richard’s departures left a vacuum in the company’s top leadership. That void paved the way for the entrances of Ellenstein as artistic director, replacing Wareham, and Bill Kerlin as managing director, replacing Richard.

Who HAVE BEEN Laguna Playhouse’s Artistic Directors?

Ellenstein made it clear during our interview that he was at first reluctant to accept the post of A.D. in Laguna Beach. On Jan. 1, 2003, he began working as the artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theater, a 194-seat venue in Solana Beach that opened in 1983, and had zero desire to leave that post in favor of filling the same position at Laguna Playhouse.


Steeped in show-biz from birth

Ellenstein’s dad Robert was a career character actor in movies and television who also worked heavily in theater as an actor and, later, director, acting teacher and founder of the Los Angeles Repertory Company theater. While Ellenstein might not exactly fit the definition of a Broadway baby, or even a backstage baby, he’s the prototype of a soundstage baby.


Robert Ellenstein was born in New Jersey, then migrated to New York. Son David was born in Manhattan’s upper east side, yet, as he related, “my dad was being flown to L.A. every two weeks or so for filming, so we moved there before I was a year old.”


That was in the late ‘50s. Ellenstein grew up in West L.A, and as a child during the ‘60s, he was constantly at his dad’s side during TV and movie shoots – everything from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “Bonanza” and “The Wild Wild West” to “Mission: Impossible” and “‘Columbo.” (The elder Ellenstein also had a role in “North by Northwest,” as one of James Mason’s henchmen.)

Early experiences Ellenstein found intoxicating

Despite the constant beck and call of movies and TV, Ellenstein’s father “continued to do that throughout his life” – and theater was the path Ellenstein chose for himself.


Expanding beyond acting, and a place in Solana Beach

While still a student, Ellenstein said he “wrote, directed and starred in a play for sixth grade graduation, played the role of the Stage Manager in ‘Our Town’ in ninth grade, and attended a performing arts high school and did 10 plays there.” After high school, he “chose not to attend college” and began working as a professional actor at 18.


He started directing “occasionally early in my acting career. I directed many readings of plays and the occasional full production. Little by little, the jobs started to veer toward more directing,” which he said was more stable and also more lucrative.

PHOTO 1: Ellenstein and Jacquelyn Ritz starred in North Coast’s 2015 production of “Chapter Two.” Photo courtesy of North Coast Repertory Theatre/Aaron Rumley. PHOTO 2: Ellenstein starred with Patricia Houton in a 1987 Los Angeles production of “Hamlet” directed by his father, character actor, director, acting teacher and artistic director Robert Ellenstein. Photo courtesy of David Ellenstein. PHOTO 3: One of Ellenstein’s early acting career headshots from the mid-’80s. Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse/David Ellenstein

 

He has worked as an actor and director across the U.S. at such venues as Paper Mill Playhouse, Portland Stage, the Meadowbrook Theatre and Colony Theatre and gained experience as artistic director at L.A. Repertory Company, the troupe his father founded, then the Arizona Jewish Theatre and, finally, North Coast Repertory.


Andrew Barnicle, Laguna’s artistic director from 1991 to 2010, said his and Ellenstein’s careers “have been intertwining for decades” – even before they first met in 2000 when Barnicle directed “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and cast Ellenstein as Albert Einstein.


As it turns out, during the 1980s, prior to coming to Laguna Playhouse, Barnicle was associate artistic director at North Coast Repertory Theatre. When that company began a search for an artistic director to succeed its retiring founder, Olive Blakistone, Barnicle was invited to be on the search committee.


Barnicle notes that Ellenstein “was one of the leading candidates.” NCRT’s board ultimately selected Ellenstein as artistic director. He took the helm on Jan. 1, 2003, and has been at it ever since.


Since then, Barnicle has “acted in productions he directed, seen many other productions he directed, directed for his theater, hired him to direct in Laguna, and acted at his theater in productions he didn’t direct.”


Round and round before landing in Laguna

While Wareham’s and then Richards’ departures left a void in Laguna Playhouse’s leadership, Ellenstein’s route to becoming artistic director became not less circuitous, but more. He found himself interacting with various board members at Laguna. When that body proposed he run Laguna during the interim, until a permanent candidate was found, he reported the offer back to North Coast’s board.


“The idea,” he said, “was that I was just going to do this for a couple of months – but then the search dragged on, and after about three months, (Laguna’s board) asked me if I had any interest in the permanent job.”


He at first turned this offer down “because I’d have to leave North Coast and would only stay if I could continue” in Solana Beach.


Another key factor in his decision was Ellenstein’s suggestion to Laguna’s board that he have a managing director to help carry the workload, and that Bill Kerlin, his M.D. at North Coast, be that person.


Once Ellenstein was appointed as artistic director by Laguna Playhouse’s board, he suggested the board bring in North Coast’s managing director, Bill Kerlin, to hold the same position at Laguna. The two were officially appointed on May 1 of this year. Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Ellenstein said the board referred his idea of bringing in Kerlin to the search firm they were using, a fact confirmed by board co-chair Lisa Hale.


Hale said the search to fill both artistic and managing director needs was a nationwide one and that interviews with “roughly 10 candidates” consumed six months, after which “we came to the conclusion that everything we needed was here in our backyard.”


On May 1 of this year, Laguna Playhouse announced that Ellenstein had been appointed artistic director – minus the “interim” prefix – and that Kerlin was being brought in as managing director.


Hale said “the ultimate driver of the decision to recommend that the Playhouse hire David as its new artistic director was, and is, his unwavering commitment to excellence on the stage,” noting that the move “is just what the Playhouse needs as we go forward into our next hundred years.”


Barnicle’s perspective of Ellenstein is that “as an actor, he’s sharp as a tack, and experienced and confident enough to know how to navigate the most difficult part of acting: interacting with the director. As a director, he is very prepared, and also confident enough to allow actors and designers to collaborate. As an artistic director, his record speaks for itself.”


Laguna’s new regime

Kerlin was director of administration at Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, where Ellenstein had guest-directed numerous times, for 16 years. When North Coast needed a new managing director in 2011, Ellenstein offered him the job.


Ellenstein said he and Kerlin “have an established dynamic” between them and “complement each other very well, respect each other’s strengths, and stay in constant communication so there are no surprises.”


Asked about staffing changes at Laguna, Ellenstein reports that “for the most part the staff is still the same as when I arrived. A few changes have occurred, some based on people choosing to leave and some where we made changes in staff.” He estimates that “80 percent” of the staff is unchanged.


Among the newest hires are Karyn Philippsen and Michael G. Murphy, their appointments announced on Nov. 28. Philippsen is the new community relations liaison, while Murphy has the newly-created position of director of advancement.


Running two theater companies simultaneously

Ellenstein observed that between Laguna Playhouse and North Coast, “the venues themselves are the most different.”


Laguna “is a beautifully built theater that was built for no other reason than putting on plays, while North Coast is a commercial space where the ceilings are low, the stage isn’t very deep and the backstage area is very limited, so you’re limited as to what you can do scenically and in terms of cast size.” He can “do things technically” at the 407-seat Laguna Playhouse that he can’t do at 194-seat North Coast.

Laguna Playhouse invited North Coast to bring its production of “Chapatti,” starring Mark Bramhall and Anabella Price, to Laguna Beach in January 2017. Ellenstein, NCRT’s A.D., was the key, directing it in Solana Beach, then restaging it at the larger Orange County venue. Photo courtesy of Laguna Playhouse/Aaron Rumley
 

Both venues, he said, “benefit, financially and artistically” from transferring a show from one venue to the other, as he has already done several times in re-staging a North Coast show at Laguna Playhouse.


A production moving from North Coast to Laguna “has essentially been through a five-week out-of-town try-out and is far more polished than a three-week rehearsal can allow.” With such a move, a show “must be re-teched and (be given) some restaging, but all the elements are there.”


Decisions as to whether to produce a new show’s world premiere at Laguna or North Coast are being made “on a case-by-case basis.”


He calls the challenge of running both companies “a master game of scheduling” and “a fluid formula that changes week to week depending on what is happening at each theater.”


Sacrificing creativity for calling the shots?

You might think someone so steeped in the creative side of theater might find running two companies to be a burden, but Ellenstein said he enjoys the work and the challenge.


He said both the nuts-and-bolts work and the more creative activity have their “own kind of satisfaction and creativity. I still direct fairly regularly, so that creative urge gets satisfied.” He also referred to administrative work as carrying “creative oversight” of the entire process.


Ellenstein calls his theater tastes “extremely eclectic” and wants to create “theater that will appeal to the tastes of those who attend.” His long-range goals for Laguna Playhouse include “creating world-class theater for our region and attracting the best theatrical talent available.”


“Creating a varied season where most of the plays will appeal to most of the patrons, then doing whatever the material is – and doing it extremely well – is a balancing act. Even if you don’t care for a particular play, you will still marvel at the artists that have created it.”


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