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SCR at 60, Part 1: Committing to New Plays, Eventually

Updated: Mar 12

Editor’s Note: This is PART 1 of a two-part series recognizing SCR’s 60th anniversary season, which continues through August.

South Coast Repertory converted a two-story marine hardware store on the Balboa Peninsula into a 75-seat theater, which was its first building from 1965-1967. Photo courtesy of SCR
 

“Twenty-four years ago … two young men set out to start a new theater in Costa Mesa, California … since that time the South Coast Repertory Company has dedicated itself to the development of new and exciting work.”  

– Madonna, July 5, 1988, presenting the Tony Award for Regional Theater Excellence to Martin Benson and David Emmes, co-founders of South Coast Repertory


“Martin and I accept this award with a reinforcement of our commitment to serve the art of theater and most especially to nurture and support that endangered species, the American playwright, in whose hands rests the future vitality of all our theater.”

– David Emmes, accepting the award

 
Martin Benson, left, and David Emmes with their 1988 Tony Award for Best Regional Theater. Photo courtesy of SCR

Madonna didn’t get the theater’s name quite right, and the usually erudite Emmes momentarily blanked before recovering admirably, but nothing could have tarnished this moment for the two men and the theater they had launched 24 years earlier out of the back of a station wagon.


Maybe that’s why nobody mentioned the emperor’s lack of clothes.


OK, no one was naked; but Madonna, or whoever wrote the words on the cue card, didn’t paint the whole picture. SCR may have started in 1964 with a commitment to developing new work, and by 1988 it had emerged as one of America’s leading new play foundries. But that came after eight years of mostly failed new play productions, and then five years of no new plays on an SCR stage.


In fact, one could argue that SCR survived its early years despite new plays, not because of them. Consider:


  • Its first new play so offended Gregory Peck, he left during the show. Yeah, that Gregory Peck.


  • Six of the 10 new plays not written by company members grossed $3,600 in ticket sales – and $2,000 of that was for the show that offended Peck!


  • The lone bonafide hit among the first 10 plays SCR produced,  the ecological musical revue “Mother Earth,” which was the biggest box office smash in SCR history up to that point, had a book so thin Emmes wanted to close it two nights before it opened. Irony turned into absurdity as the show somehow made it to Broadway but flopped in three nights, ruining producer Roger Ailes’ Broadway debut. Yeah, that Roger Ailes. 


  • One of the plays was titled ”Oli’s Ice Cream Suit.” Yeah, that “Olie’s Ice Cream Suit.” (Not that anyone's going to catch the reference to the play with the strangest title among the undistinguished new plays in SCR's early years – except for Benson; it was the first new work he ever directed.)


Inspired by a Tornado

The story of South Coast Repertory and new plays has been told many times by many people. Most of those stories mention SCR’s commitment to new plays was there from its earliest days; rarely do they mention how frayed that commitment must have felt. 


This one does; not to tarnish the reputation of SCR as a major force in American play development, but to enhance it. Because the way SCR returned to new plays, and how new plays became absorbed into the theater’s DNA, underscores the depth of its co-founders' commitment – not to new plays in and of themselves, but to their original vision for their theater. Emmes alluded to that vision in his Tony comments, but to gain the full sense of it, you have to go back before SCR existed because its story has always been part of a bigger one.


And that story begins in 1947 and its main character is a Texas Tornado.

 

“Today we have the possibility of starting a great theater movement in America. It must be done well or it is not worth doing. It must be done in terms of resident professional theater producing new plays and classics.”

– Margo Jones, “Theatre-in-the-Round,” 1951

 

Margo Jones loved plays so much that it killed her. Jones, dubbed the Texas Tornado, kick-started America’s regional theater movement in 1947 by opening its first, Theatre 47, in Dallas. She was convinced an American theater tradition worthy of comparison to Great Britain and Continental Europe could only come from a network of resident professional theaters across the country committed to producing new plays.


Of the 85 plays she produced at her theater, 54 were new. (She was looking for the 55th, which would have been the last play of her 1955 season, while in her preferred reading position – sprawled across her living room floor – and unwittingly ingested toxic fumes from a recent carpet cleaning. Poisoned, she died 10 years later.)


Jones would inspire, mentor or goad many of the regional theaters to follow; by 1965 some 55 were located across the country. But while all had followed her example in starting theaters, few had embraced her zeal for new plays. As Joseph Ziegler described, new plays were the exception to a rule that “remained the recognizable and safe classics and the primary reason for it was the audience’s refusal to accept more than a token emphasis on new plays.”


But Jones’ spirit animated the nine-page brochure posted in the lobby of South Coast Repertory’s first space in 1965. Authored by David Emmes, the brochure, which he would call a manifesto in his doctoral dissertation, articulated the aesthetic of the company he and Benson had co-founded the year before. It channeled Jones from the first page, where the unknown and untested company audaciously announced its alignment with the burgeoning resident theater movement. It mentions her by name in a section outlining the four types of theater it intended to produce, new plays being the fourth:


 “We do not feel that the economic fetters of the commercial theatre will ever develop the significant number of new playwrights a vital theatre requires. Repertory theatre offers the opportunity for new playwrights to learn by doing.”


More proof of the importance of new plays to SCR: According to Emmes’ dissertation, in its first season, 1964-65, it had a playwright’s unit comprised of “young playwrights and would-be playwrights (who meet) regularly at the theater to discuss their work toward a possible South Coast Repertory production.”


However, SCR would soon learn that commitment to new plays did not necessarily translate into audiences wanting to see them.


A converted Sprouse-Reitz variety store on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa became South Coast Repertory's second home in 1967. The 5,000-square-foot building was adapted to hold 217 seats. SCR was there for nine years. Photo courtesy of SCR

New Plays, Low Interest

Officially, the first new play staged at SCR was “Chocolates,” produced in January 1966. Written by Ian Bernard, the musical director of “Laugh-In,” it sold the fewest tickets of the six-show season, but its place in SCR lore is assured by prompting Peck to walk out of the theater after an off-stage character delivered lines from the bathroom while, in Benson’s words many years later, “taking a dump.”


The next two plays drew so poorly (a combined $453 in ticket sales over 12 performances) and sparse houses were so morale-sapping, that new plays after the fourth season were limited to four written by company members and three underwritten by a small grant from the Office of Advanced Drama Research, which matched new plays by unknown playwrights with newish theaters not widely known outside their geographic area. “Adrienne’s Summer,” which closed in July 1973, was the last play of those three. There wouldn’t be another new play on an SCR stage until a new decade had begun.


But if ticket sales were the sole barometer of a new play’s value, very few new plays would be produced. And one can look at the first wave of new plays at SCR as a working laboratory of sorts,  the misfires and audience duds part of the growing pains of a theater that was in the process of discovering its identity. 


One contributing factor to the lackluster roster of new plays was their uneven quality due to eight different directors mounting the 10 new plays. But that doesn’t mean they were wasted efforts. In fact, the aforementioned “Olie’s Ice Cream Suit,” written by Richard Ploetz, was not only the first world premiere that Benson would helm in his illustrious directing career, but the experience was one of his “most artistically fulfilling experiences up to that point,” he says in Emmes’ dissertation.  Who knows: Maybe without Olie there would be no “Wit,” a play Benson would direct to considerable acclaim in the 1990s.


Change in Priorities

The cooling off on new plays in 1973 coincided with SCR’s dizzying five-year campaign for a new space. That culminated with the November 1978 opening of the 507-seat Segerstrom Stage in its posh, $3.1 million theater complex, with plans to open a second stage the next season.


“We spent those years building toward and moving into our first permanent home, and getting used to it,” said Jerry Patch, who had been involved with SCR since 1967 and was named its first literary director in 1976. “But to David’s credit, he was always thinking about what’s next. His big thing was ‘grow or die.’ And he and Martin were trying to figure out how we could get a national profile, to have an impact on American theater.”


 ”The question was how do we become something that doesn’t follow in the tracks of others?” Emmes said. “How do we become a leader, an innovator ourselves? What would distinguish us? And the choice became fairly clear: What if we developed new work?”


But to gain a reputation for developing that work, it would have to somehow slip free of the formidable shadow cast 40 miles northwest by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. The Taper had an 11-year head start on new play development, launching its New Theater for Now play series right as regional theaters were about to change course on new plays.


In 1968, with the successful transfer of the Washington D.C. Arena Stage’s production of the “Great White Hope” to Broadway, regional theaters had finally embraced new plays. Some thought it was for the wrong reasons, such as Douglas Anderson, whose 1988 essay, “The Dream Machine,” decried what he felt was an abdication of regional theater’s mission to produce new plays free from the commercial constraints of Broadway, instead succumbing “to the irresistible lure of what we will call The Dream – The Dream of the Commercial Transfer.”


In Search of Playwrights

Benson and Emmes were always consistent in their views about moving shows to New York: They couldn't care less. A better benchmark for them was how many subsequent regional theater productions would an SCR world premiere get, and how long would that writer be writing for the theater.


But to even muster that level of caring, SCR needed playwrights to produce. Before that, it needed someone to find the playwrights.


That job fell, at first, to Patch, when he was asked in 1976 to step up as literary manager.  Forget that he had no formal training in dramaturgy or even theater; he’d been around SCR since 1967 and, in the words of Lawrence Christon in SCR’s official history, “Stepping Ahead,” possessed “an unusual blend of instinct and intellect.” He traveled across the country, talked to everybody, made connections, read incessantly and would, in Emmes' words, prove to be “the best dramaturgical mind I have ever met. And I’ve met a lot.”


SCR resumed new play production in 1980 with two world premieres on its new second stage, followed by two more in the 1980-81 season. Only one received a subsequent production. No new plays were produced in the 1981-82 season, but in 1982-83, a grant helped finance five world premieres on the second stage, including the first SCR commission (which it had started in 1980) to receive a production: Romulus Linney’s “April Snow.”


From left, Scott Hylands, K Callan and Jordan Charney in the 1983 world premiere production of "April Snow." The Romulus Limney play was the first commissioned work by South Coast Repertory to receive a mainstage production. Photo courtesy of SCR
 

“The reason for going after new work as hard as we did was to get a national profile,” Patch said. “And we were new kids on the block. It turns out that foundations became very responsive to that and would fund the commissioning of plays and play development, at least institutions that were supporting that.”


The biggest step SCR took was the creation of an endowment in the early 1980s that would help sustain new play development in case of economic downturns or grant money drying up.


“Other theaters had done commissions,” Patch said. “Joe Papp and the Public (Theater in New York) and the Taper may have been commissioning plays. And others had started play development programs. But what David and Martin did by building an endowment that supported a commitment to doing new work, that was new. Nobody else had done that.”


The endowment enabled SCR to put all its existing play development programs under one umbrella and to expand. In 1985, thanks in no small part to a $350,000 NEA Grant, it began its Collaboration Laboratory, which would support all new-play development in the future. That same year, it launched its series of staged readings, newSCRipts, followed the next year by the first Hispanic Playwrights Project. It was designed as a trial run but lasted 19 years.


Among all these grants and developmental programs, Patch’s literary department was proving up to the task. He was joined in 1985 by the other indispensable architect of SCR's new play program, John Glore, who came in as literary manager as Patch slid over to dramaturg. Of the 19 recommended plays that were greenlit from 1982-83 to 1987-88, only two did not receive subsequent productions, and many of the playwrights would sustain healthy careers, including Lisa Loomer, Neal Bell, Keith Reddin, and the sterling example, Craig Lucas, whose SCR-commissioned 1988 play “Prelude to a Kiss,” would become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (and is being revived and reinvented as a musical this spring at SCR.)


Craig Lucas was one of the first playwrights in the early 1980s that South Coast Repertory cultivated a deep relationship with, staging his works in four consecutive seasons beginning in 1985. In 1988, "Prelude to a Kiss," an SCR commission, received its world premiere before moving on to New York and running for 440 performances; in 1991, it became SCR's first commissioned work to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; in 1992, it was adapted into a movie starring Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin. Pictured, from left, are Lisa Zane, Frank Hamilton and Mark Arnott. Photo courtesy of SCR/Cristofer Gross
 

But that honor didn’t come until 1990, two years after SCR received the Tony. SCR was the 14th recipient of the Regional Theatre Tony Award, joining such heavyweights as the Guthrie Theatre, the Arena Stage and the Mark Taper Forum. It was now officially in the major leagues, having achieved a national profile largely through its new play development. Coming 24 years after launching SCR on little more than a dream, the award could also be seen as a lifetime achievement award for Messrs. Benson and Emmes.


But neither had time to bask in the rosy glow of validation. Because considering what was to come in the next chapter of new plays and SCR, they hadn’t even started yet.


 

Coming up in Part 2: Pulitzers, Pacific Playwrights, Pandemics and Pinnacles – SCR sustains, strengthens its commitment to new plays.



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