Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham Offers a Peek Backstage

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

After nearly three decades working with luminaries of the theater world at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, petite, glamorous, yet down-to-earth Ann E. Wareham was delighted to accept the position of artistic director at Laguna Playhouse in 2011.

“I’d built great relationships over the years with some of the smartest people in the business,” Wareham says. “I was excited to bring those connections and what I’d learned to regional theater in Orange County. Already, Laguna Beach had a well-earned reputation for supporting and caring about the arts. And from a personal perspective, I wanted to take on new, exciting challenges.”

Actor Donald Sutherland, playwright August Wilson, and fashion designer Bob Mackie are just a few industry stalwarts Wareham has watched in action. She has seen tempers fly, tears shed, and many a joyful standing ovation. She has been witness to the genesis of iconic plays including “Angels in America” and Wilson’s “Radio Golf.”

Yet Wareham knows well that the magic on the stage belies a great deal of practical, hard work by dozens of people behind the scenes. There are often glitches large and small during a run—most are invisible to the audience, though not all.

“But theater folk are resourceful,” Wareham says. “During a production of ‘Putting It Together’ at the Mark Taper Forum, we had a technical glitch with the scenery. Carol Burnett, who was starring in the production, headed to the stage and did 20 minutes of comedy and conversation with the audience until the problem was solved.”

Technical problems aside, it’s no secret actors can be temperamental. During a production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures” at the Mark Taper Forum, stars Tony Curtis and Dinah Manoff were in the midst of a contentious relationship.

One night, they both stormed out of the theater during intermission and didn’t return.

“The stage manager had followed them to the parking lot, where they both got in their cars and took off,” Wareham says. “So we told the audience that we would be experiencing an extended intermission, have a drink on us, we’ll be back.

“The stage management team quickly got the understudies ready to go on for the second act. Funnily enough, the first line of the second half of the show, uttered by Joyce Van Patten’s character (Tony Curtis’s sister in the play) to the understudy now playing Tony Curtis’s role, happened to be ‘Well, you’ve changed.’ The whole audience exploded in laughter, it broke the ice, and then it was ‘on with the show.’ ”

Regional theater has its own unique challenges, particularly in casting star actors. Wareham has had significant success in that regard, with the likes of Melanie Griffith, Leslie Caron, and Rita Rudner gracing the Playhouse stage.

“People here may recognize celebrities, but they don’t hound them,” Wareham says. “Also, it’s a great place for actors to try out roles somewhat under the radar. They see us as a lovely, safe, supportive community, which we are.”

But accomplished actors sometimes have expectations that aren’t easily met when finances are limited. Caron inquired who her draper might be in the production of “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” Drapers are used to ensure the clothing fits well on actors—but in regional theater, it’s too costly to hire someone dedicated only to that task.

“For Leslie, the way her clothes fit and move is an integral part of her stagecraft,” Wareham says. “But draping is a highly specialized talent. Not to mention drapers are hard to find and expensive. Thank goodness, Leslie had a long-standing relationship with Bob Mackie, and I had worked with Bob on ‘Putting It Together.’

“He very generously let us borrow some beautiful pieces from his collection, hand-picked by Leslie. That’s not something he’d do for everyone, and I was profoundly grateful. Along with our costume designer, Kate Bergh, who actually is a brilliant draper, the designs were perfect for Ms. Caron and perfect for the production.”

Rudner, who lives in South Orange County, is an audience favorite in Laguna Beach. For three consecutive years before the pandemic, she did a popular New Year’s Eve comedy show at the Playhouse and is often seen in the audience on other occasions.

Wareham emphasizes that relationships and connectivity with stars like Rudner is “what it’s all about.” She cites her relationship with Griffith as another example.

“Melanie came to see her son in a production of ‘I’m Still Getting My Act Together.’ Melanie loved the theater and was interested herself in getting back onstage. She mimed ‘Call me!’ ”

Which Wareham happily did.

“Thus began a friendship with Melanie I continue to have and enjoy; within a few years, she came down and starred in our production of ‘The Graduate’ in 2018.”

Plans for Griffith to star in “Barefoot in the Park” were derailed by scheduling issues, but future roles remain a possibility. Wareham says Griffith loves Laguna Beach and calls it a “jewel of a city.”

One of Wareham’s most precious memories involves watching Kirk Douglas rehearse for his one-man show, “Before I Forget,” based on his book, “My Stroke of Luck.”

“At the time, Kirk was 92 and had worked for more than a decade to bring his health and speech back to its previous form. He was incredibly agile, mentally and physically, but there were certain words from the script he’d written (and which he had completely memorized) that, sitting out in the house of the theater, the director and I, along with Kirk’s longtime speech pathologist, couldn’t understand,” Wareham says. “Every time we encountered that issue, he would stop, work through the word, insisting he clarify it. Only then would he move on.

“He was a meticulously hardworking actor and a brave and brilliant human being. I was grateful to have been in his and his beloved wife Anne’s life.”

Wareham has admiring words to offer about many celebrities she encountered during her long tenure as producing partner with the Center Theatre Group.

“The presence of playwright August Wilson in my life and career was immeasurable. To have had a ringside seat to the manifestation of every one of August’s Century Cycle of plays, well, it was a privilege,” she says.

Deciding which plays work for the Playhouse is a demanding job. In pre-pandemic times, Wareham was out and about viewing new productions and networking, or in her small office, where a flotilla of index cards adorned with names of productions are stuck on a board directly across from her desk.

“That’s how my mind works; it’s a visual mulling over of the possibilities. I move the notes around all the time. Ellen (Richard, executive director) and I sometimes stare at them as we talk about season planning. We have a great team at the Playhouse, which makes my job so much easier,” she says.

The Playhouse normally averages 330 performances a year, from dramas to musicals to comedies to the annual Lythgoe Family Panto.

“We had a great lineup planned for 2020, our hundredth anniversary. Then COVID-19 happened,” Wareham says wistfully. “But in the theater, we’ve spent our whole lives pivoting. So that’s what we did. We pivoted and managed to keep our patrons engaged.”

During the pandemic, the Playhouse streamed numerous shows, including some one-man performances by the versatile Hershey Felder.

“Some of the most popular virtual work for us was ‘The Gin Game’ with Joe Spano and JoBeth Williams, and the piece we did with Wendie Malick and Dan Lauria, ‘Sitting and Talking,’ ” Wareham says. “Wendie was a delight to work with—so real, so smart.

“We’re all acutely aware that much has changed in the way we work, during and post-pandemic. As the world, and the unions, sort through all of this, we’ll continue to produce work on our stage in whatever way we safely and effectively can. Despite challenges, I believe our theater will continue to be a valuable and sustaining part of this wonderful artistic community.”

Wareham is excited about the Playhouse’s still-developing plans for the 2021-22 season, even if it needs to be somewhat truncated. One of her hopes for the future is to bring a deaf musical to Laguna Beach. Her work in the deaf community is one of her greatest passions, particularly the work of L.A.’s Deaf West Theatre.

“Those productions can be a life-changing experience,” she says. “And that’s what theater’s all about—the house lights go down, the stage lights come up, and, for a few hours, you are transported … and sometimes transformed.”

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