Martin Benson, Marc Masterson and David Emmes.
Meet Marc Masterson
by Soyia Ellison
Spend a little time with Marc Masterson and you’ll notice that one word comes up again and again: collaboration.
“One of the things I love about doing theatre is that it is a very complex collaboration in which people who may not know each other very well have to share things about themselves that are relatively intimate and creative and vulnerable,” Masterson said, “and so I like to think that theatre people are the best collaborators that there are.”
That’s something Masterson is counting on as he takes over the reins of South Coast Repertory, carrying on the legacy of creators David Emmes and Martin Benson, who are staying on part-time in the roles of Founding Directors.
“This opportunity will require the best of my collaborative skills: to listen well, to communicate well, to provide some vision for where the organization might go, but to include those founders and those people who have been a part of this institution for years and years—and that includes the audience.”
Masterson arrives in California from Kentucky, where for the past 11 years he has been the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. But in a way, he is returning home: He was born at the Alameda Naval Air Station on San Francisco Bay in 1955.
BUILDING A CAREER
Masterson first became involved in the theatre as a child in Houston—he started taking acting classes to improve his magic act. (See sidebar for details.) Over time, his interest in acting outpaced his interest in magic. By the time he landed at Carnegie Mellon University, he’d decided he wanted to be a director.
While in college, he met his future wife, Patty.
“I used to play in a band, and she would come watch us,” he said. “It wasn’t a very good band. I played guitar and I played harmonica and I sang. We played a lot of funky music, but we were basically just a bunch of college kids sittin’ around and strummin’.”
Masterson and Patty eventually married and had two daughters, Alex and Laura, who are now about the age their parents were when they first met.
After graduation, Masterson moved to New York and directed Off-Off Broadway plays. That’s when he developed an interest in new work.
“I realized that creating new work is a generative act as opposed to an interpretive act,” he said. “I think that the opportunity to be part of the creation of something for the first time is particularly thrilling and calls out the best in everybody. You have an idea of where you want to take something, but you have to be willing to let it evolve and take you in directions that you didn’t necessarily expect.”
He spent two years in New York and then returned to Pittsburgh for a summer to stage-manage a show, which sparked a series of events that led to his being offered a job as artistic director at City Theater of Pittsburgh. He was just 25.
“It was going bankrupt as they hired me, and I was able to turn it around and rebuild it—give it a different identity and a different sort of strategy,” he recalled. “It was a contemporary theatre company, and we didn’t really have any money at first, but as it grew, we got better, and I was able to work with Anne Bogart, Maria Irene Fornes, Charles Ludlam—some interesting people.
“Then I just kept growing it over the years, very much like David and Martin did at SCR, and it took on a life of its own.”
During that time he started attending Actors Theatre of Louisville’s annual Humana Festival of New Plays.
“One year I went and somebody said, ‘[Artistic Director] Jon Jory’s leaving; are you going to apply for the job?’ and I laughed. I thought that was the funniest thing. I was running a $2 million a year theatre company at that time, and I thought, ‘Oh, they’d never hire me.’ And then they did.”
In his 11 years in Louisville, he produced more than 200 plays—half of them new works. And 86 percent of those went on to other productions around the country.
Many of the plays he produced in Louisville should sound familiar to SCR audiences: Intimate Apparel, The Clean House, Fences, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, Proof, Crimes of the Heart, Betrayal, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Importance of Being Earnest, Glengarry Glen Ross. (Masterson directed those last three himself.)
THE FUTURE OF SCR
So what will SCR be like under Masterson’s leadership?
Don’t expect any “seismic” changes.
“I think my first task is to meet people,” he said. “I want to listen to people. I want to understand what people think and feel about SCR, and what they value. I want to engage in conversation about what makes this place great and what might even make it greater.
“David and Martin created a magnificent and beautiful thing here, and my job is not to just keep it where it is but to help it grow and move forward.”
He plans to direct one show next season. And he is working with Emmes and Benson to choose the rest of the plays you’ll see on stage next year.
“We’ve been having a very exciting and interesting conversation about artists we like,” he said. “We have a lot of common interests. I brought them scripts that they haven’t read or seen, and they’re giving me scripts. I think next season will evolve out of that, you know? A melding of their interests and sensibilities with mine.”
Masterson is coming to SCR without concrete plans, but with a deep curiosity.
“I obviously have relationships with playwrights and actors and directors, but I’m curious about artists I don’t know, and I want to learn more about what makes them tick and what kinds of opportunities I can create for them to do something that they didn’t know they could do.
"The last six years I’ve done a lot of work with ensemble companies. I’ve been trying to explore what it means to have a large producing organization partnering with a smaller-sized ensemble company that’s been working together in a basement for 15 years. What happens if I am able to put that chemistry together? Or if I can commission a playwright to work with a group that has never worked with a playwright? Or if I could bring a local artist into a collaboration with a national artist?”
There’s that word again—collaboration. Expect to hear it a lot.
Marc Masterson: In His Own Words
SCR’s new artistic director talks about how he became interested in theatre
My mother had a family friend who was a professional magician during the Depression. He toured all over Texas and Oklahoma doing magic at state fairs and rodeos.
When I was nine, he developed cancer and had to come to Houston for treatments once a month. And every time he came, he would teach me a magic trick. He had built all his stuff by hand because he didn’t have any money, and it was beautiful, antique, hand-made magic equipment. And for a nine-year-old kid, this was like…like magic.
I started practicing, and I became quite serious about it. By the time I was 12, I was doing seven or eight shows a week for children’s birthday parties.
I started taking acting classes when I was 11 in order to make my magic act better, and I got involved in a children’s theatre company. And we did big children’s shows in a 3000-seat theatre.
Over time it became my second family and school. It really kind of took over everything to the point that by the time I was in high school, I stopped doing magic and only did theatre.
When I was about 14 or 15, I looked at the woman who ran this institution—her name was Chris Wilson—and I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like her some day. I want to be able to be sort of the head of the family and to have all that activity around me and that network of people that took care of each other and who made things together.’ That was interesting to me.
Return to front page