Hot spot for new plays hits 40

Pulitzer winner 'Anna' opens South Coast Rep's anni season

Turning 40 isn’t something everyone relishes, but it’s looking to be a pretty healthy age for South Coast Repertory, the Southern California theater that maintains a high national profile as a fertile developer of new playwriting talent.

As David Emmes and Martin Benson, the theater’s founders, prepared to celebrate their 40th season, they could take comfort in some serendipitous timing.

The season opener on the company’s spanking new smaller stage, Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,” arrives with the imprimatur of this year’s Pulitzer Prize and the added luster of an upcoming berth on Broadway. (A separate production, from the McCarter Theater, transfers to the Royale for a Nov. 16 opening.)

Still more impressive, Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour,” which had its world premiere last fall at South Coast Rep, also makes its Broadway debut this fall, opening Manhattan Theater Club’s new Broadway home at the Biltmore.

And “Violet Hour” isn’t the only SCR-born play on New York stages this season.

The New York Theater Workshop will open, on Nov. 18, Amy Freed’s “The Beard of Avon,” which premiered at the South Coast Rep and has since been produced by the Goodman Theatre, ACT and Seattle Rep.

And Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” commissioned by SCR and Baltimore’s Center Stage, will be staged by Roundabout Theater in the spring with Daniel Sullivan directing.

Not a bad showing for a company that takes no enhancement money from producers, despite commissioning 180 works. The company also has hosted 85 world premieres, 54 of which received subsequent stagings.

Emmes points to a turning point in the theater’s history that set it on the path of developing new work. (The company does fill out its seasons with frequent revivals of the classics, specializing in Shaw and Shakespeare.)

“In our 20th season, we crossed a threshold of how to run a major-league theater,” Emmes says. “We came to realize each theater has its strengths and weaknesses, and we distinguished ourselves with new plays. It was never premeditated, but we came up with the notion of supporting new American work.

“The satisfaction is to see writers become major contributors. Working with wonderful writers is something that makes us eager to come in to work each day.”

Another factor in the company’s ongoing ability to commission and develop new work: “We’re financially conservative,” Benson notes.

And the company tries not to lose sight of its top priority: the writing. In Benson’s experience, betraying that commitment is where things get expensive.

“You’d better believe in the work you’re doing,” Benson says. “We’ve violated that a couple of times, and call it the happenstance of fate — both of those bombed.”

SCR’s 40th year is its second since the $40 million Next Stage campaign resulted in the creation of the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage to complement the Segerstrom Stage. A visually stunning room that slightly resembles the home of the Oscars, the Kodak in Hollywood (on a smaller scale), the Argyros will host five productions this season, along with the three productions that comprise the Theater for Young Audiences series.

“We kept the theater smaller because it widens our choices,” Emmes says. “We didn’t want to narrow our options, and about 300 seats seemed to offer the most.” It replaced a hall that Benson describes as too small and technically limiting.

The new stage and improvements to the overall building, which allowed SCR to bring all its departments under one roof, came about through Next Stage, which began in 2000. In 2002, the Paul Folino family provided SCR with $10 million, the largest single gift from an individual to an American regional theater.

Still, SCR is able to pull in 70% of its $9 million operating budget from earned income. Subscriptions are running at about 65% of total ticket sales.

The company’s recent expansion and its financial health comes amid an economic climate that continues to be gloomy. Many not-for-profit theaters are feeling the pinch and cutting back drastically.

“We’re being careful going into next season,” Emmes admits, noting the duo is keeping a keen eye on contributions that mostly come from individuals rather than corporations. “We’re holding the line on production budgets.”

But the company is fortunate in its happy choice of locale — the still-plush Orange County city of Costa Mesa.

Emmes, a theater teacher, and Benson, an actor, partnered in 1964 when regional theaters were starting up as a reaction against Broadway. (True to that spirit, the Great White Way still doesn’t hold much interest for them.)

At the time it might have seemed odd to found an adventurous theater in an area of the country renowned for its political conservatism.

As Emmes says, “We had to find the artistically liberal. Fortunately, the stakes were so low that we could take the time to find an audience that wanted” our type of shows.

And Emmes believes there was a certain affinity between the theater and the community even back then.

“Orange County was built in an entrepreneurial spirit. They can relate to us that way,” he says.

In fact, arts complexes continue to grow in the vicinity. South Coast Rep sits across the street from the Orange County Performing Arts Center, where touring Broadway musicals and ballet companies make regional stops.

In September 2004, a new concert hall just east of SCR will make its debut. While it may not expand SCR’s audience base, both of the group’s leaders figure the attention a new building brings can only help.

“Coming here you have to have a real taste for theater, and, the audience for (Broadway) musicals might not like our stuff,” Benson says.

“But I think that there’s some synergy now between SCR subscribers and Opera Pacific and the symphony and the musical series. The concert hall will enhance the whole operation and get more people out to see South Coast Rep.”

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