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South Coast Rep tightens its belt and goes Bard-less

November 26, 2008 |  2:00 pm

South Coast Repertory co-founders Martin Benson (r) and David Emmes (center) celebrate the 2002 opening of the Julianne Argyros Stage with then-chairman Timothy Weiss, having completed a fundraising campaign that exceeded its $40 million goal by $10 million You know times are tough in the arts when even South Coast Repertory is feeling the pinch. Over the years, the Costa Mesa theater, known as a launching pad for new plays, has notched fiscal as well as artistic triumphs -- notably the $40- million expansion- and-endowment campaign that was launched amid the late- 1990s tech-stock boom and wound up netting $50 million.

SCR appeared to have its market-timing mojo working again in September 2007, when it announced that a campaign to nearly double its endowment from about $25 million to $50 million was well underway, thanks to a $10-million cornerstone gift from longtime supporters George and Julianne Argyros.

But David Emmes, SCR's co-founder and producing artistic director, said recently that the endowment had slipped about 30% during the stock market's fall swoon -- about the same magnitude of loss that nonprofit foundations have been suffering, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Aware that the subprime mortgage crisis already had taken a toll in Orange County, SCR's leaders were cautious last summer as they budgeted for the current season -- a process Emmes said was "the most rigorous and demanding and in some instances excruciating in the history of the theater." The company, founded in 1964, settled on an "essentially flat" budget -- no increase from the previous year.

But things have been worse than expected. Except for its family-oriented Theatre for Young Audiences series, which has been hitting its sales marks, subscriptions have run about 5% behind the "fairly modest goal" the theater had set, Emmes said. Purchases for individual shows were running 15% below budgeted projections -- although discounted tickets get snapped up quickly, a sign that audiences have not so much lost interest in theater as gained a heightened awareness of their wallets. On top of that, Emmes said, "we're very concerned" about being able to raise the $3 million in donations needed to balance the budget.

William Shakespeare would have been a budget-buster this season for South Coast RepertoryThe upshot is that SCR is looking to cut $400,000 out of its $9.8-million budget by the end of this month, using a scalpel that avoids laying off any of the 75 staff members or cheapening the on-stage product. Directors who think up nifty but expensive staging effects may have to forgo them or pull them off, as Emmes puts it, "within a narrower context of creative solutions. All art functions within some limitations."

The budget would have been completely blown, Emmes noted, if the originally-announced plan to cap this season with SCR's first production of "King Lear" had not been delayed a year because a scheduling conflict came up for Daniel Sullivan, the Tony-winning director who has had a long association with the company. "Lear" typically requires at least two stage sets (at court and in the wilderness) and more than 15 actors. In its place is a revival of "Collected Stories," Donald Margulies' drama about rival authors Margulies_2_4 that premiered at South Coast in 1996. Staging requirements: two actresses, one book-lined apartment.

Overall, Emmes is banking on the donor base that SCR has developed through the years to come through:  "I'm cautiously optimistic the support will be there to help us, particularly if we react as we are now, being very prudent and frugal while making sure not to compromise the art."

-- Mike Boehm

Top photo: South Coast Repertory co-founders Martin Benson, right, and David Emmes, center, celebrate the 2002 opening of the Julianne Argyros Stage with then-chairman Timothy Weiss. Credit : Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

Upper inset: William Shakespeare. Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Lower inset: Donald Margulies. Credit: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times

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