‘What Happens Next’ brings veterans’ stories to La Jolla Playhouse’s WoW series


Over its nearly decade-long history, the Without Walls series — La Jolla Playhouse’s ongoing showcase for boundary-busting modes of performance — has hopscotched from a botanical garden to a martini bar to a beach to the insides of both cars and elevators.

So at first glance, putting up a show in a multipurpose room of a local community agency might not seem to carry the same kind of “can they pull it off?” intrigue.

But to playwright Naomi Iizuka, the setting of her world-premiere work “What Happens Next” is emblematic of the idea that transcendent events can (and do happen) in even the most ordinary of places.

That includes, actually, the art of theater, which often unfolds in some pretty unassuming surroundings — and which, as it happens, is partly what “What Happens Next” is about.

The play, which begins a 10-day run at the Challenged Athletes Foundation in Sorrento Valley next week, centers on military veterans who are participating in a drama-therapy course — the kind of offering that’s not uncommon in community centers like the one where the play is being staged.

“I think what’s kind of interesting about it, and absolutely spot-on for play, is it’s a room that different things happen in — a basketball game, an after-school program, maybe a community event,” says Iizuka, who has headed the graduate playwriting program at the University of California San Diego for a decade.

“There’s a way in which what’s happening there is ephemeral, which is apt for theater. You’re making this thing, you’re connecting with people sometimes in deeply intimate ways, but it’s happening in a gym, or in the basement room of a Lutheran church.

“And at times you’re having a very profound experience.”

What makes the play particularly intertwined with its subject is the fact several of its cast members are actual military veterans.

“What Happens Next” is being produced in association with L.A.’s Cornerstone Theater Co., which has focused on pairing theater artists with community members in nontraditional spaces for more than 30 years.

The Playhouse-commissioned piece is directed by Cornerstone’s artistic chief, Michael John Garcés.

“Cornerstone is committed to having at least half of the cast be members of the community,” Iizuka says. “And I love that. It brings a kind of a root system, and a tremendous amount of authenticity.

“On one level it’s making sure the way you tell the story is as right as you can make it.

“But also, it’s just so much richer for having people who’ve actually lived through those experiences playing those roles.”

Iizuka adds that there’s nothing amateurish about their performances.

“I actually defy anybody to be able to tell who is a community member actor and who is not,” she says. “Because the community members, they just rock. They’re so good in their roles — they’re just riveting.”

Iizuka’s own role, she says, “is to make sure that the characters and the world of the play are as true to everyone’s experience as can be. That’s my job.”

Taking time to get it right

The play has been a longtime labor of love for Iizuka, who has been developing the piece off and on for six or seven years. Several of the cast members have been with the project nearly as long.

“I had done work like this before, but not with this community,” says the playwright, describing how she spent time with families connected with meatpacking plants along the Ohio River while developing what became her 2004 work “At the Vanishing Point.”

“It’s been a very long process, because there are a lot of stories, and a lot of different communities within communities. There are veterans, there are wives and husbands of veterans, the children, people who are active and those who are not active now.

“There are so many layers of stories that it just took a long time to do.”

The Encinitas resident, by the way, has also been a little busy heading up the writing department of one of the top MFA theater programs in the nation, while working on her other plays as well.

Her works include “36 Views,” “Polaroid Stories,” “Anon(ymous),” “Language of Angels,” “Aloha,” “Say the Pretty Girls” and “Skin,” among many others.

Iizuka — herself a 1992 graduate of the UCSD MFA program — continues to be produced around the country, which makes it a mystery why her plays rarely seem to get staged here in San Diego.

Her play “Good Kids” was staged last October at California State University San Marcos; that piece was commissioned by the schools of the Big Ten Conference and deals with sexual assault on campus.

The CSUSM production was directed by Judy Bauerlein, an associate professor who is now part of the cast of “What Happens Next.”

(Bauerlein is joined by Nick Borelli, Hannah Logan, Francisco Martinezcuello, Nico Marcolongo, Jeannie McFarling, Kionte Storey and Bruce A. Lemon, Jr.)

One aspect of “What Happens Next” that particularly fits the Without Walls mode, Iizuka says, is the way the piece puts playgoers practically right in the action.

“The actors are very close to the audience,” she notes. “The audience and the actors are all sitting together; there’s a tremendous amount of intimacy.”

The piece, Iizuka says, pivots on the broader idea that everyone has a story.

“So if you’re a retiree who has never particularly thought of yourself as a playwright or a storyteller or an actor, actually your story is epic,” she says.

And telling stories — whether in a therapeutic setting like the one depicted in “What Comes Next,” or in the realm of theater — can be a powerful act of catharsis and connection.

“It’s just fascinating to see the ways in which storytelling and performance and overcoming your fears, and telling your story — (even) the parts of the your story you don’t want to tell,” can inspire and enlighten, Iizuka says.

“All of those things we think about in making theater feel really, really resonant with the stories of this particular community.

“That’s been endlessly revelatory, frankly.”

‘What Happens Next’

When: Preview performance April 19. Opens April 20. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through April 29.

Where: Challenged Athletes Foundation, 9591 Waples St., Sorrento Valley.

Tickets: $10-$20

Phone: (858) 550-1010


Twitter: @jimhebert