La Jolla Playhouse's POP Tour takes a leap into space with 'Light Years Away'

Letting kids decide who they want to launch into space might seem a dicey idea: Won’t they just vote to send their annoying little sisters and brothers, or maybe that classmate who always cuts the lunch line?

As it happens, the elementary-school students who attend performances of “Light Years Away” don’t get to dispatch just anyone to another planet. Laura Schellhardt’s play — the latest La Jolla Playhouse-commissioned work in the theater’s long-running Performance Outreach Program Tour series — allows audience members to vote only for one of the story’s three main characters to take the trip.

But director Jacole Kitchen says some surprises came out of the voting process when she and Schellhardt starting workshopping the production, which continues a 30-year-plus tradition of taking POP shows on the road to schools around the county.

(While “Light Years Away” has public performances at the Playhouse this weekend, it also continues to visit schools through March 30; for booking info, contact the theater’s Bridget Cavaiola at bcavaiola@ljp.org.)

The play, set in 2068, centers on a mission to send earthlings to a newly discovered, habitable planet called YOLO 6 — and yes, the acronym for “You Only Live Once” is intentional.

Three fifth-graders are in contention: The driven and science-minded Ida (Ciarlene Coleman); the contrarian, tough-gal Cal (Nicole Marie McEntee); and the golden boy Leo (Wilfred Paloma). They’re joined in the story by Carina (Amanda Arbués-Gille), a kind of futuristic version of Amazon’s Alexa.

What startled Kitchen and her team is that initially, “the kids did not vote for the smart, ambitious, science-loving girl who knows everything about YOLO 6 and really wants to go there. They voted unanimously for the kind of bad-ass rebel girl who doesn’t want go to YOLO 6, and who hacks the lunch menu at school.

“She’s like, ‘You guys have ruined Earth! I want to stay here and write computer programs to fix Earth.’”

The play has three different endings that depend on which character wins the most votes, so Schellhardt tweaked the piece in the interest of not getting the same ending every time. That changed the balance a bit — although Kitchen says Cal still tends to get the most votes, which the director compares with the real-life phenomenon of elections hinging on charisma or popularity rather than candidates’ actual qualifications.

Voting aside, the people behind the POP Tour are folks you might want to recruit for your next space mission: After all, they’re skilled enough to get an entire stage show in and out of a 16-foot truck and set up in 60 minutes flat.

This year’s edition has several new tech elements, says Kitchen, the Playhouse’s artistic programs manager and local casting director, and a gifted stage artist who’s making her Playhouse directing debut.

Among the advances, “we’ve gotten to use video in a more intimate, integral way than we have before,” she says.

But because tech isn’t always 100 percent reliable (maybe it will be in 2068), the team has contingency plans to do the show the old-fashioned, “unplugged” way as well.

What’s been heartening to Kitchen is that on the rare occasions the show has had to resort to that backup plan, “We know we’ve done something right — because the kids are almost more in awe.”

“Light Years Away”

When: Public performances, 1 and 3 p.m. March 9-10.

Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Rao and Padma Makineni Play Development Center, Playhouse/UCSD Theatre District, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive.

Tickets: $12; $9 for age 12 and under

Phone: (858) 550-1010

Online: lajollaplayhouse.org

jim.hebert@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @jimhebert

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