South Coast Rep’s Story: A Role Model?

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Attention, Southland theater lovers — especially those who are also theater builders, either in their actions or in their dreams. It’s time to read Stepping Ahead, A History of South Coast Repertory, by Lawrence Christon.

This 340-page book went on sale last fall in the SCR lobby. I had hoped that others would have written about it by now. As someone who has known and admired the author since we both worked at the LA Times, I felt a slight conflict of interest in writing anything that might be perceived as a friend’s review.

However, no one else reviewed it. Maybe that’s because it’s an authorized history, published by SCR itself — which could convey the false impression that it’s just a puffy promotional book. It emphatically is not. Christon was free to explore SCR’s lowlights as well as its highlights. He devotes more space to a famous failure, The Hollow Lands, than to any other SCR production.

<br />South Coast Repertory's Folino Center
South Coast Repertory’s Folino Center

Maybe potential reviewers assumed that SCR’s history couldn’t be all that dramatic, precisely because it seems to be such a stable, smoothly-run company. After all, it never had to be resurrected from the dead, as did Pasadena Playhouse. Unlike Center Theatre Group, SCR never faced the many conflicting responsibilities of being born and bred as the officially sanctioned theatrical institution of a giant megalopolis.

David Emmes and Martin Benson are still SCR’s leaders, after more than four decades. Neither man has ever adopted an outsized public personality, as did Gordon Davidson, Gil Cates and the former LATC company’s leader Bill Bushnell. Emmes and Benson never had to rise through a racial ceiling, as Sheldon Epps did in Pasadena.

But SCR’s own rise to become one of America’s most essential theaters wasn’t easy. Benson, after an abortive attempt to become a Hollywood actor, was literally a starving artist in SCR’s early days. He lived in his car and scavenged for food among scraps left at the beach. He worked the night shift at Jack in the Box to pay for gas, reports Christon.

Emmes was better off financially, because his family responsibilities required him to maintain a teaching job at Long Beach City College, but he later regretted that his double responsibilities at the college and at SCR kept him away from his kids too much.

<br />David Emmes and Martin Benson with a model of SCR's Fourth Step theater, which opened in 1978
David Emmes and Martin Benson with a model of SCR’s Fourth Step theater, which opened in 1978

Their personal stories, masterfully told by Christon in consecutive chapters, will sound familiar to plenty of those who keep L.A.’s small and midsize theaters humming. So will their professional travails, as outlined in the rest of the book. By the way, Christon discusses an important fact that I never knew — the original leadership team was a “troika,” not a duo. It also included the late John Arthur Davis, who left the company and the area and stopped doing theater in 1969.

SCR had one big advantage over the hordes of small companies that now exist in L.A., 45 years later. Following the advice of San Francisco State theater teacher Jules Irving, who taught and mentored many of the original SCR founders, they decided to create a serious theater company in a growing area, Orange County, where no such company existed. As the years and their accomplishments mounted, they won allies by bringing attention to the county and by giving their theater-hungry neighbors a chance to see plays and professional production values that otherwise might have required a trip to L.A.

It isn’t within the scope of Christon’s book for him to explore parallels to L.A. County companies. But on a much reduced scale, the same dynamic worked to the advantage of a few midsize troupes that moved up from Equity’s 99-seat plan by implanting themselves not in the city of Los Angeles but instead in smaller cities, which might feel a greater sense of pride in their accomplishments. The Colony chose Burbank, International City Theatre grew in Long Beach, A Noise Within in Glendale (although it’s about to abandon Glendale for Pasadena, just as SCR left Newport Beach for Costa Mesa). Rubicon Theatre probably wouldn’t be as successful in L.A. as it has been in Ventura. The new Pacific Stages is planning to rise in El Segundo.

Of course, the flip side of SCR’s identification with OC was that its potential audience was presumably more conservative than L.A.’s and not especially enamored of serious theater in the ’60s and ’70s. SCR, of course, was serious from the get-go, uninterested in becoming just one more OC community theater.

<br />SCR's First Step theater, on Balboa peninsula
SCR’s Second Step theater, on Balboa peninsula

After SCR’s “First Step” tour of Tartuffe in 1964, the company opened its “Second Step” — and its first home base — in a converted marine swap shop that Emmes’ stepfather owned on the Balboa peninsula. Which play served as SCR’s debut vehicle in this epicenter of beach culture — an adaptation of Muscle Beach Party, perhaps? No. Try Waiting for Godot — in 1965, when the play was still unknown or considered weird by most Americans. And then add three more plays that started to run in rep during the summer of 1965 — until the exhausted company gave up on the “Repertory” part of its name after only a few weeks.

The second season opened with Othello and then, thanks to then-New York-based Irving’s assistance in obtaining the rights, the first American production (!) of Pinter’s The Birthday Party, which garnered SCR’s first review from the LA Times. Two plays later, a production of Brecht’s Baal frightened off a few potential donors (Sacred Fools is currently tackling the same play).

<p>SCR's 3rd Step</p>
SCR’s 3rd Step

In 1968, SCR concluded its initial season in its larger, “Third Step” space with Jean-Claude van Itallie’s America Hurrah! — a non-linear, period-specific piece that critic Cecil Smith of the LA Times described as “a searing, flesh-crawling, brain-numbing odyssey through the hell of modern society.” Its opening night was preceded by a dust-up with a cop who objected to an image of a hangman’s noose that someone had spray-painted on a banner that depicted the U.S. flag, outside the theater. SCR’s leaders decided that the noose wasn’t worth any legal hassles and had it removed.

In other words, they were learning to choose their battles, and Emmes and Benson figured out how to do it with consummate skill. SCR is probably best known for its productions of new plays — the most inherently risky category of programming for any theater. By the end of the 2008-09 season, 40% of SCR’s 436 productions had been world, American, West Coast or California premieres, including 50 productions by SCR-commissioned writers. Many — maybe most — of these plays were at least somewhat dark and challenging. But OC’s moneyed backers generally remained supportive and respectful of the theater’s mission.

Of course SCR faces many of the same 21st century problems that other theaters face — a declining subscription base, competing new technologies, shrinking attention spans, the economic crisis, reduced institutional giving. While Christon doesn’t mention it, SCR no longer has a monopoly on its brand in Orange County – Laguna Playhouse has regularly mounted professional and sometimes adventurous theater for more than a decade, using Equity contracts. In discussing the decrease in media coverage of theater, Christon makes a rare factual error — he writes that the LA Times went two years without a first-string theater critic, before Charles McNulty came aboard in 2006. Actually, McNulty’s predecessor Michael Phillips left four years earlier.

With both Emmes and Benson now over 70, they are searching for the best way to turn their creation over to a new generation. But their work isn’t growing stale. Since Christon’s book was finished, Julie Marie Myatt’s The Happy Ones became one of the most OC-specific plays ever produced by SCR — and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle just announced that it will receive this year’s Ted Schmitt Award for outstanding new play. A revival of Fences opens this weekend, and new plays by Julia Cho, Howard Korder and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa will highlight the first half of 2010. Bart DeLorenzo will direct Aguirre-Sacasa’s play; SCR has a commendable record of cultivating LA directors who earlier established reputations in 99-seat theater.

Also this spring, SCR will host Chance Theater’s remounting of Wayne Lemon’s Jesus Hates Me at SCR’s former Second Stage, now the Nicholas Studio. The veteran company will give the newer Anaheim Hills-based group the kind of temporarily high profile that SCR never received from a larger theater in its own youth.

I digress too far from Christon’s book. It would be faint praise to say it’s the best book ever about Southland theater history — because frankly I’m not sure that any other such book exists. Even this book lacks an index and attribution notes, which would have been helpful for future scholars.

SCR's 4th Step in Costa Mesa
SCR’s 4th Step in Costa Mesa

But I can say this: If you think you know a lot about SCR, you’ll almost certainly learn a lot more from this book. Many of the anecdotes and other details that Christon eagerly and eloquently relates never would have been divulged while they were happening — but now they can be savored, not only for their applicable lessons but also for their intrinsic entertainment value.

If you don’t know much about SCR, go to Costa Mesa pronto, take in a play or two, and buy the book while you’re there. May it inspire a few more of L.A.’s theater makers to adopt SCR as a role model.

Folino Center photo by Lance Gordon/McClarand Vasquez & Emsiek Parnters, Inc. Other photos courtesy of South Coast Repertory

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.