By Marlena Chavira-Medford
The North Coast Repertory Theatre, now its 29th season, has a longstanding tradition of raising the performing arts bar locally and throughout the region. In fact, this season features a whopping seven San Diego premiers, like the current show “2 Pianos 4 Hands,” a comic recital about the would-be careers of two concert pianists.
The theater’s continued success is thanks in large part to its artist director David Ellenstein, who has been at the helm for eight years.
“The whole reason I got into theater was to use this art to have a positive impact on audiences,” said Ellenstein, who has been on the stage since he was 4 and is the son of the late Robert Ellenstein, a well-respected director, teacher and artistic director.
Because he began working as a paid actor by 17, one of Ellenstein’s first goals was to see to it that the North Coast Repertory Theatre become a professional-grade operation, offering fair pay, working conditions and benefits — something that is not a given in this industry.
“My other goal was to build a new home, but that one is still on the horizon,” he said.
North Coast Repertory Theatre is currently housed in a 194-seat venue at Lomas Santa Fe Shopping Plaza, which Ellenstein described as “great for watching live theatre in because it’s so intimate that there isn’t a bad seat in the house, but less than ideal for performing in.”
“We have outgrown this space,” he said of the building that only has one dressing room for all its actors. “The quality of art we create is hindered by our lack of space,” he explained and then added that the limited square footage means larger-scale performances with two-story sets or trap doors are out of the question.
American Assets Inc., which owns the shopping center, has offered the theatre a ground lease on which to build a new home as part of a major renovation of the entire plaza. The vision for that new theatre includes an approximately 30,000-square-foot complex with two theaters and multiple classrooms for its acting classes, workshops and children’s summer camps. Those plans, however, are on hold indefinitely until the economy picks up.
In the meantime, Ellenstein is pushing forward artistically, continuing to find ways to do more with less. He’s got big plans for the theater’s upcoming 30th season, and though he couldn’t reveal the details just yet, he encouraged everyone to “stay tuned for some exciting announcements.”
No doubt, the small theater continues to make a big name for itself, attracting more than 40,000 people per year with its year-round performances — but Ellenstein said he’d like to see more of that audience be Solana Beach, Del Mar, Carmel Valley and Rancho Santa Fe residents.
“I think because we’re hidden back in the corner we tend to be out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for me to bump into people who have lived or worked down the street from this theater for years and never set foot inside this place, which is a shame.