One Era Ends and Another Begins at South Coast Repertory

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Martin Benson and David Emmes
It's not exactly a seismic shift, but whenever two main forces behind a major artistic institution decide to step down, it's a very big deal.
 
And that's what's happening at South Coast Repertory, a theater that (sorry, Will Ferrell and Jenna Haze) is, hands-down, Orange County's greatest artistic contribution to the world.
The announcement that Martin Benson and David Emmes, the two San Francisco State theater-arts graduates who founded the company in 1964 and served as its artistic co-directors for all that time, would be stepping down came in February 2010. It's taken a year to find a replacement: Marc Masterson, who was named Wednesday as the new creative force. 


Masterson comes with solid credentials. For the past 11 years, he's served as artistic director for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, an institution that, like SCR, has long-championed new play development, primarily through its Humana Festival of New American Plays, the most prestigious new-play festival in the country.

Benson and Emmes haven't really been running the theater on a daily basis for several years. The business side is handled by Managing Director Paula Tomei, who is now SCR's co-CEO, while the creative side has been greatly influenced by John Glore, who runs the literary department.

Benson and Emmes will continue to direct one show per season and serve as Founding Directors for the next five years, although either one can retire earlier, should he choose. Masterson seems like a great fit. SCR has prided itself on producing and developing new work, and he seems just as committed. In the official SCR press release naming Masterson as the new AD, Benson said half of the 200 plays produced by Masterson at the Actors Theatre were world premieres.

The occasion of the two pillars of SCR stepping down warrants a quick reminder of the phenomenal journey they've taken together. Here are a few of the more salient bullet points:

1) 1963. Fresh out of San Francisco State, where they studied with Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, Emmes and Benson gather a few friends and stage Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde at a theater in Long Beach.

2) 1964. Productions of The Hostage, Major Barbara and The Alchemist in Long Beach convince them of a future in Southern California. In November, they stage Moliere's Tartuffe at the Newport Beach Ebell Club, the first official SCR production.

3) 1965. With Disneyland having put Orange County on the map, and with the University of California coming to Irvine, as well as the Los Angeles Angels moving, Benson and Emmes make their greatest decision: renting a two-story marine-hardware store on the Balboa Peninsula and converting it into a 75-seat theater. The first production opens March 12, 1965: Waiting for Godot.

4) 1967. SCR converts a Costa Mesa variety store on Newport Boulevard into a 217-seat theater, where it remains until 1978.

5) 1976. SCR joins the League of Resident Theatres, meaning they can hire professional actors. Shortly after, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation spurs SCR into serious new-play development. Around the same time, thanks to a gift from the Segerstrom family, SCR embarks on a $3.5 million building campaign, the largest capital campaign by an Orange County arts group at the time.

6) 1978. SCR's 507-seat theater opens. The next year, a 161-seat theater opens.

7) 1985.  Thanks to a $350,000 grant from the NEA (What's that?), SCR begins its Collaboration Laboratory, which would support all new-play development in the future. That same year, SCR begins its NewSCRipts play-reading series and the Hispanic Playwrights Project.

8) 1988. SCR receives a Tony Award for excellence in regional theater.

9) 1998. SCR launches its Pacific Playwrights Festival.

10) 1999. Margaret Edson's Wit, which premiered at SCR in 1995, wins the Pulitzer Prize. The next year, Donald Margulies' play Dinner with Friends, which received an important production at SCR in its early stages, also wins the Pulitzer.

11) 2002. A $50 million campaign results in SCR's current theater, the Folino Theatre Center, a 79,000-square-foot facility that includes the 507-seat Segerstrom Stage, the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage and the 94-seat Nicholas Studio.

12) 2007. David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole, a play commissioned by SCR, wins the Pulitzer.

A chronological listing of what SCR has accomplished under Benson and Emmes fails to mention the human impact of their work: the acting students who have signed up for their workshops; the tens of thousands of people who have taken a break from their daily drudgery to sit in one of its theaters and enjoy any number of powerful dramas or comedies; the relationships it has forged with local theater companies such as the Chance (although, from this corner, that's about 10 years too late).

And Benson and Emmes have been there every step of the way. When I first started reviewing theater for this august publication (I've been here since issue one, folks, and I ain't going away any time soon), I had a long conversation with Jan Herman, a former entertainment writer for the Los Angeles Times, who covered Orange County theater. At that time in 1995, there were only a handful of theaters in the county: SCR, the Laguna Playhouse, a bunch of pedestrian community theaters and a few genuine storefronts. Herman said there were many weeks when the quality of theater was insufferably frustrating. But he did say that every time he reviewed an SCR show, he knew at least one night wouldn't be an ordeal.

The level of quality among the county's theaters has greatly risen since then. The storefront-theater scene has survived fickle audiences and a shitty economy, and while no theater seems close to stepping up to SCR-status any time soon, every one of them has the perfect model for success to aspire toward.

On a personal note, I will miss Benson and Emmes greatly. I didn't talk to David that often, but every time I interviewed Martin, it was a joy, whether I was interrogating him about why SCR doesn't choose more overtly political plays, or hearing him talk about a new playwright who fired his creative juices. They are both smart, talented and authentic men who, if there's ever an Orange County Hall of Fame, would be no-brainer inductees for the inaugural class.
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