The South Coast Repertory Story
A Dramatic History
The 50-year Odyssey from Beachfront to Broadway
Founding Artistic Directors David Emmes and Martin Benson. Photo by Doug Gifford.
Broadway had a hold on American theatre by the mid-20th century when a revolution began. Young theatre artists began founding independent professional theatres to make classic and new works available to more people. It was called the "resident theatre movement," and by the early 1960s it was taking root in cities across America.
In California, David Emmes and Martin Benson had attended San Francisco State College, where two faculty members—Jules Irving and Herbert Blau—ran the Actor's Workshop, a model for resident theatre advocates. Having gone separate ways after graduation, Emmes and Benson held jobs in academia, the social services and the peripheries of entertainment before the duo gathered a few San Francisco friends in summer 1963 to stage Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde at the "Off-Broadway Theatre" in Long Beach. The chemistry worked and the theatre's board invited the troupe back to mount a series of plays the next summer.
The group of actors returned with The Hostage, Major Barbara and The Alchemist. The process of staging these three productions transformed the talented friends: the pressure they put themselves under to excel, and the creativity that emerged, marked the 1964 summer in Long Beach as a crucible. The band of hopefuls fused into a company.
Emmes and Benson were convinced there was a future for them in theatre. One night at a diner—using a napkin for paper—they sketched out a four-step plan to create a theatre company. The first step would involve touring to rented stages. In November 1964, the company—now formally named South Coast Repertory—staged its first production, Moliere’s Tartuffe, at the Newport Beach Ebell Club.
The second step would be their own location, which would expand over the years. They chose to locate it in Orange County, virgin territory for a major arts institution. Its population, only 100,000 before World War II, by the early 1960s was more than one million. The University of California was coming to Irvine, and the Angels were coming to Anaheim. Also in Anaheim was Walt Disney's theme park, less than 10 years old. If the leaders positioned their theatre right, the coming swell in population and sophistication could carry them with it.
SCR's Second Step Theatgre
They rented and converted a two-story marine hardware store on Balboa Peninsula into a 75-seat proscenium stage. It opened on March 12, 1965, with a production of Waiting for Godot.
Confident of their ability to continue, the young artistic directors sought to convince their adopted community of SCR's future importance. An "Artistic Manifesto"—displayed in the Second Step lobby—boasted SCR's model of growth: the first season of touring, the present location's 75-seat stage, and two more transformations that would lead to a major regional center for theatre arts and education.
While the goal of running a nationally renowned arts institution with a fully professional staff and company spurred them on, the young company went about the business of surviving. For years, everyone maintained full-time day jobs and worked nights and weekends at SCR without pay. They designed and built their scenery, sold the tickets, ushered, and—of course—acted. Among the first acting company members were Don Took, Martha McFarland and Art Koustik, joined over the next seasons by Richard Doyle, Hal Landon Jr. and Ron Boussom. These six became the theatre's Founding Artists.
SCR's Third Step Theatre
Within two years, artistic and financial momentum picked up and SCR looked toward its Third Step: a converted Sprouse-Reitz Variety Store on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa. The 5,000-square-foot building, adapted to hold 217 seats, opened in 1967, and played a full season in addition to performances at the Second Step on Balboa Peninsula. However, the logistics of running two theatre locations were too demanding, and the Second Step closed after the first joint season and a total of 23 productions.
During this period of the Third Step (1967-78), SCR moved from a local group to a regional force, maturing both artistically and organizationally. Operating income more than doubled—from $20,000 to $55,000 in the first two seasons. By the fifth season, paid staff had grown from one part-time business secretary to a staff of five: a business director, an administrative director, two box office employees and a full-time technical director. A first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) went to expanding the business staff. The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (LADCC) gave SCR its first award in 1970 for "consistent achievement in production." In a little more than a decade, SCR would be sweeping LADCC Awards ceremonies. In 1976, SCR joined the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) and was able to contract with members of Actors' Equity, the union of professional stage actors and stage managers.
The theatre's interest in new play production, which had been exhibited as early as the first season with the premiere of Chocolates, got a boost in the mid-70s when the Rockefeller Foundation funded the "production of work by new American playwrights."
SCR's Fourth Step
But by that time, the company was outgrowing its space again and its budget was over $250,000. A year later, there were more than 9,400 subscribers and capacity was pushing 99 percent.
Emmes and Benson addressed the question of SCR's future and the long-anticipated Fourth Step Theatre. They formed a new board of community leaders to address the realities of funding, designing and building Orange County's first resident theatre facility. The Segerstrom family made a gift of land on which the theatre would be built and this became the catalyst for the entire campaign. The Fourth Step Theatre complex began making Orange County history even while it was still on the drawing table. It would be funded by a $3.5 million Building Campaign, which was the largest capital campaign to date by an Orange County arts group. It became a model for subsequent major campaigns at SCR and elsewhere.
In September 1978, the theatre opened with a production of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life.
At first, there was only the 507-seat Mainstage. But by 1979, the large rehearsal hall had been converted into the 161-seat Second Stage and enabled SCR to reach its reached its long-sought goal: a two-theatre complex, owned and operated by the company itself. The Artistic Directors Emmes and Benson, writing about the new facility's goals, said:
The new theatre complex will allow SCR to expand the scope of its presentations... providing a rich balance and variety of the best plays in theatre... and undertake the technical challenges of almost any play written. The Second Stage will add further vitality to the company's artistic life by permitting SCR to offer works in progress by American playwrights, experimental plays which seek to broaden our perception of theatre, and other challenging projects. Additionally, the second theatre will present conservatory and children's theatre productions.
The board that had become so instrumental—in the creation of the Fourth Step Theatre—now helped steer the company to corporate and foundation funding and, by the early 1980s, into the first of its endowment fund campaigns.
It was also during the 1980s that SCR's interest in new play development moved to the forefront. A grant from the foundation of the Dramatists Guild/CBS spawned an entire Second Stage season of premieres, including work by Elizabeth Diggs and Romulus Linney. In 1985, the NEA awarded SCR a $35,000 challenge grant, which helped finance the start-up of the Collaboration Laboratory, or Colab, which would support all play development in the future.
The 1985-86 season saw Colab's first two public programs: the NewSCRipts play reading series and the Hispanic Playwrights Project. Also that season, ground was broken on a distinctive addition to the building's north face. The Artists Wing, with its arc of curved glass, gave SCR a new reception area, rehearsal hall, costume shop and an entire tier for the Literary Department.
Then, in 1988, SCR earned the highest recognition in regional theatre, the Tony Award for Distinguished Achievement: it was the 13th year such awards were bestowed.
SCR's Emmes/Benson Theatre Center
During the 1990s, the theatre continued to expand. Subscriber numbers grew to 18,000 per season and the annual budget reached $8 million. SCR solidified its national reputation for play development, helped by strong annual support from The Shubert Foundation. As the decade continued, additional funders such as The James Irvine Foundation helped SCR launch new programs that would support playwrights. Writers were discovered, nurtured and then championed. Margaret Edson, whose Wit premiered at SCR in 1995, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Donald Margulies, whose Sight Unseen and Collected Stories originated at SCR before achieving New York success, won the 2000 Pulitzer for Dinner with Friends, which had premiered elsewhere but had an influential second production at SCR before its New York staging. Other playwrights who had multiple premieres at SCR also became familiar names in theatres across America: Amy Freed, Craig Lucas, Howard Korder, Keith Reddin, Octavio Solis and Richard Greenberg, who has had nine commissioned world premieres at SCR.
For all of SCR's accomplishments, its history is marked by years when several major events coincided; 1998 was such a year. That summer, following its 35th Anniversary Season, SCR launched the Pacific Playwrights Festival, its most ambitious new play project to date. Funded by a $175,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the first Pacific Playwrights Festival (incorporating the venerable Hispanic Playwrights Project) included one world premiere and workshops or staged readings of seven more new plays. In subsequent years, the program was further strengthened by increased funding from The Shubert Foundation and multi-year grants from The James Irvine Foundation.
By the end of 1998, SCR began to pursue its long-held expansion goal when the Segerstrom family made an additional donation of land along the south side of the facility. That land, along with a similar donation to the neighboring Orange County Performing Arts Center, established an arts campus called Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Within weeks, SCR received its first gift of more than $1 million, when Henry and Stacey Nicholas gave $1.28 million—eventually doubling their gift to $2.5 million to name the renovated Second Stage the Nicholas Studio—and launched "SCR: The Next Stage" campaign, initially to raise $40 million. Renowned architect Cesar Pelli was enlisted for both The Center's and SCR's expansion, with SCR's construction beginning first. Pelli designed a sweeping new front for SCR, which would incorporate the existing building and the addition.
The focal point of Pelli's expansion design was a 336-seat proscenium stage. In front of it would be the common lobby, and behind it would be three stories of offices for education, a Green Room, technical facilities and four new classrooms.
Paula Tomei and Marc Masterson. Photo by Jordan Kubat.
The public phase of "SCR: The Next Stage" campaign was launched in 2000. The following year the goal was raised to $50 million to provide endowment funding to support, in perpetuity, the programs that would be made possible by the facilities.
At the groundbreaking ceremony in July 2001, George and Julianne Argyros announced a $5 million naming gift for the new 336-seat stage.
In April 2002, Board President and Campaign Chairman Paul Folino announced the campaign's largest gift, $10 million—the largest single gift ever to a regional theatre by an individual at that time. This gift from the Folino family became the naming gift for the complex: The Folino Theatre Center.
Construction proceeded smoothly towards a scheduled opening date—Oct. 5, 2002. SCR's Annual Gala that year celebrated the opening, which was attended by the county's most influential residents.
The first season in the Folino Theatre Center earned rave reviews and introduced three plays—Greenberg's The Violet Hour, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and Rolin Jones' The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow went on to major productions in New York and elsewhere. Subsequent seasons saw more world premieres in the new and renovated theatres, including Donald Margulie's Brooklyn Boy, which went on to a Broadway production; Mr. Marmalade and Princess Marjorie by Noah Haidle; and the Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.
With the expansion of its physical plant and endowment, and with additional support from the Whittier Family Foundations, SCR was ready for its next big programmatic step: the introduction of the three-play series "Theatre for Young Audiences ... and Their Families," which debuted in 2003 to tremendous response.
Forrty-eight years after SCR's founding, 2011 marked a major leadership transition: Marc Masterson became the theatre’s new Artistic Director, with Managing Director Paula Tomei as co-CEO. Emmes and Benson moved into the roles of Founding Artistic Directors, from which they continue to share the wisdom and knowledge gained in their nearly half-century at the theatre’s helm. Masterson programmed his first full season in 2012-13.
In 2013-14, South Coast Repertory marked its 50th season with a dynamic schedule of plays, including five world premieres (two of which were commissioned by SCR). Among the special events during the anniversary season came a surprise announcement from Paul Folino at SCR’s annual Gala. He asked for his name to be removed from the building and that the theatre complex be renamed to recognize the important role that Emmes and Benson played as arts leaders in Orange County and around the nation. On Jan. 22, 2014, a celebratory event unveiled the theatre’s new name: The David Emmes/Martin Benson Theatre Center.
South Coast Repertory was founded in the belief that theatre is an art form with a unique power to illuminate the human experience. We commit ourselves to exploring urgent human and social issues of our time, and to merging literature, design, and performance in ways that test the bounds of theatre's artistic possibilities. We undertake to advance the art of theatre in the service of our community, and aim to extend that service through educational, intercultural, and community engagement programs that harmonize with our artistic mission.