South Coast Repertory leaders Martin Benson and David Emmes will step down after 46 years
South Coast Repertory announced Thursday that it aims to name a new artistic director in time for the season that begins in September, succeeding artistic director Martin Benson and producing artistic director David Emmes, the co-founders who have led the acclaimed Costa Mesa theater since 1964.
Benson, 72, and Emmes, 71, won’t be retiring, the theater said in a statement, but will continue under the title of founding directors, advising their successor and taking “an active role” in finding and developing the new plays that have been South Coast’s leading claim to fame. Each plans to continue directing at least one show a year and make scouting trips to find shows that South Coast might want to stage.
John Glore, the theater’s associate artistic director, will be a candidate for the top job, a theater spokeswoman said. As literary manager from 1984 to 2000, Glore was a key part of South Coast’s play development team. He returned in 2005 after working as dramaturge for L.A.’s Center Theatre Group.
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The SCR story began when Benson, from Northern California, and Emmes, who grew up in Orange County, met as theater undergraduates at San Francisco State. They headed south after getting their degrees and in 1963 hatched a plan to plow what they saw as promising virgin territory for the burgeoning regional theater movement.
“Martin Benson and I are going to start a theater within a year from now,” Emmes wrote to one of their professors. “We do not believe that good theater as we understand it is in existence in our part of the state. ... We propose to do something about it.”
Launched in 1964 as an itinerant troupe working out of the back of Emmes' avocado green 1960 Studebaker station wagon, South Coast Repertory opened its first, 75-seat venue in Newport Beach in 1965 and moved to a 217-seat house in Costa Mesa in 1967. It emerged as a major force in 1978, after raising $3.5 million and a donation of land to build a 507-seat theater that’s now complemented by 336- and 95-seat stages.
South Coast began winning national attention in the late 1980s, including a 1988 Tony Award for distinguished achievement by a regional theater, largely because of a commitment to commissioning and producing new plays. Donald Margulies (“Sight Unseen,” “Collected Stories”), Richard Greenberg (“Three Days of Rain”), Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss”) and Jose Rivera (“References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot”) are among the now-established playwrights who got an early boost from SCR. “Wit,” a 1995 world premiere by Margaret Edson, a Georgia kindergarten teacher and novice playwright, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999.
Costa Mesa is not in Hollywood’s immediate orbit, and the Benson-Emmes approach has been far less reliant on booking stars than at leading L.A. County theaters — Center Theatre Group, the Geffen Playhouse and the now-jeopardized Pasadena Playhouse, which closes Sunday and canceled its 2010 season while hoping to engineer a recovery from financial woes.
“We’re not interested in running a star system,” Emmes said in 2002. “The minute you start down the road of celebrity, that’s a very dangerous path for a theater like ours.”
Former Los Angeles Times arts writer Lawrence Christon recently wrote a history of South Coast Repertory, called "Stepping Ahead."
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: David Emmes (L) and Martin Benson in 2002; John Glore, a candidate to succeed them, in 1999. Credits: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times; Kevin P. Casey/Los Angeles Times (Glore).