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South Coast Rep: David Emmes says autocrats and shake-up artists need not apply

February 5, 2010 |  2:16 pm


The last time the esteemed founding artistic director of a major Southern California theater company gave way to a successor, the place was pretty much turned upside down.

That was five years ago, when Michael Ritchie took over from Gordon Davidson at L.A.’s Center Theatre Group -- a ship Davidson had launched in 1967 and captained for 38 years, during which he was the face of the company and a figure who required no last name in national theater circles. You just had to say “Gordon” and it was understood whom you were talking about.

Within six months, Ritchie had completely transformed -- critics used stronger verbs -- the way in which CTG finds and develops new plays.

Now David Emmes and Martin Benson --  “David and Martin” is sufficient in national theater circles -- have announced that the current season at South Coast Repertory, their 46th as co-artistic directors since founding the Costa Mesa theater in 1964 -- is going to be their victory lap.

But when they cross the finish line this fall, Emmes and Benson plan to stay around to make sure their heir doesn’t do anything rash and go into a spinout.

“It’s so paramount that there be no bumps,” Emmes said Thursday after South Coast’s announcement. “We’ve all heard of bad transition stories. ... We asked, 'What can we do to make sure SCR doesn’t lose a step?’”

BensonEmmesKoenig The artistic directors and the board began in 2008 to lay out what Emmes describes as a detailed succession plan that includes identifying the kind of temperament and taste South Coast wants in its artistic director. Wylie Aitken, the longtime Orange County trial lawyer, arts supporter and Democratic Party activist who is president of the theater’s board, will pick a search committee that’s scheduled to begin its work this spring, with the help of an executive search firm.

One place they’ll look is down the hall in South Coast’s executive suite: the first hat in the ring belongs to associate artistic director John Glore, a low-key, thoughtful playwright and dramaturge known for working closely with the theatrical troika Culture Clash. Glore has been at SCR since 1984, interrupted by a five-year hitch under Davidson as CTG’s dramaturge starting in 2000.

Emmes and Benson will pick the 2010-2011 season, giving the new artistic director time to get acclimated to the job before taking on the crucial task of picking plays. Even then, under their new title of founding directors, Emmes said, he and Benson will “have full opportunity to express our views” on which shows to do, although “it’s important if there’s a final call to be made, it’s the artistic director that makes the call.”

Emmes said that he and Benson have tried to establish “an informality, a kind of horizontality of the place,” where everyone on the artistic staff feels free to weigh in with opinions. “Martin and I make the decisions, but there’s a spirit from when we started the theater, that everyone in the room had a voice and something to say.” Their successor, he said, “needs to be drawn to that, and see that as an advantage. A person who was autocratic wouldn’t be a good fit.”

The big annual event at South Coast is the Pacific Playwrights Festival, a weekend gathering every April where the public and high-ranking staffers from theaters around the nation are invited to check out a series of play readings and workshops and see two world premiere productions on the Segerstrom and Argyros stages. Around the same time, the search committee will be starting its work.

Culture Monster wondered whether Emmes expects more out-of-town visitors than usual this year, taking the opportunity not just to see new plays and form impressions, but also to be seen and make impressions of their own. He just laughed.

-- Mike Boehm


South Coast Repertory leaders Martin Benson and David Emmes will step down after 46 years

Cuts’ drama remains at CTG

Top photo: South Coast Repertory. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times.

Bottom photo: Martin Benson, left, and David Emmes. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times.