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South Coast Repertory's incoming artistic director has international connections and ambitions

February 18, 2011 |  8:45 am

MarcMastersonAllenJSchaben South Coast Repertory looked to Louisville, Ky., for its new artistic director,  Marc Masterson, but the Costa Mesa company and its audiences could be getting a national and even global convergence of theater connections in the bargain.

Thursday was Masterson’s first day as artistic director-designate, his schedule calling for press interviews and a session with company co-founders David Emmes and Martin Benson to discuss some of the late entries still under consideration for the Pacific Playwrights Festival, SCR’s annual spring showcase of staged readings and workshop productions that serve as trial runs for new plays whose creators are still honing them.

Organizing a new works festival must be second nature by now for Masterson, who in 11 years as artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville has presided over the nation’s highest-profile showcase of its kind, the Humana Festival of New American Plays. It differs from SCR’s festival in that the Humana plays -– six of them, plus an annual collaborative work and an evening of 10-minute plays -– are more or less finished shows that receive full premiere productions.

But in an initial interview, Masterson, dressed casually in a checked shirt, loose-fitting slacks and a light outdoor jacket, didn’t talk just about his background in Kentucky and Pennsylvania -– where he led Pittsburgh’s City Theatre for 20 years –- and in Houston, where he grew up. Like  Pacific Symphony music director Carl St. Clair, whose workplace is next door at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, you wouldn’t guess from Masterson’s speech that he’s a Texan; any accent apparently was ironed out of him during more than 25 years in Pittsburgh, where he was schooled at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Since Louisville doesn’t have an abundant pool of acting talent, Masterson said, he has drawn mainly on New York City and Chicago for Actors Theatre casts, and he thinks some of those connections could manifest themselves onstage in Costa Mesa in years to come, entering the mix with the primarily West Coast and Southern California talent SCR has typically engaged. 

 “I haven’t promised anything to anybody. It’s not a situation where I’m bringing a team. It’ll be me and my wife,” said Masterson. That’s Patricia Melvin, who is vice president of operations at a Louisville hospital, the James Graham Brown Cancer Center.

Actually, he said, it might take longer for his wife to wind up her work in Kentucky and become a Californian because she’s helping to implement a merger between hospitals that could keep her beyond September, when Masterson reports for full-time duty in Costa Mesa. His contract is for five years, beginning Sept. 1, an SCR spokeswoman said. Starting in April, he will divide his time between SCR and Actors Theatre. The couple's daughters are Laura, 24, who works for a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., and Alex, 20, a freshman photography major at Louisville’s Bellarmine University.

For more than 15 years, Masterson also has developed connections on the international theater scene, taking part in programs aimed at fostering an interchange between American theater artists and their counterparts in Russia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Mexico and Ireland. One initiative he’s involved in focuses on translating American plays into Russian.

Exposure to European stages “has had a profound impact on my work as a director,” Masterson said. He's interested in further steps that eventually could bring foreign productions to Costa Mesa, and send South Coast’s work overseas or to other venues in the United States.

BensonEmmesBoster“All theater is local, but we live in a global culture, and I’m looking for ways to tap into that,” he said, acknowledging that any such program would have to secure financial backing to cover the cost of exporting or importing casts, crews and sets.

“There’s an opportunity to bridge these networks and cross-fertilize,” Masterson said of how his Chicago, New York and international contacts might benefit audiences in Costa Mesa.

That would be something of a change.

 While some of their leading Southern California peers, including Des McAnuff, Jack O’Brien and Gordon Davidson earned credentials -– including Tony Awards -- moonlighting on Broadway while leading the La Jolla Playhouse, Old Globe and Mark Taper Forum, respectively, Emmes and Benson (pictured at right) have, with rare exceptions, been homebodies. Tending the theatrical vineyard they first planted in Orange County in 1964, they have influenced the larger theater scene primarily by sending SCR-nurtured plays into the world, to be staged under other auspices.

Among those have been Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” which is encoring at SCR in May after premiering there in 1997, Howard Korder’s “Search and Destroy,”  Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” and “Sight Unseen," Amy Freed’s “The Beard of Avon,” Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” and Rolin Jones’ “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.”

The most prominent Humana Festival titles from Masterson’s tenure are “Omnium-Gatherum” by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck (2003), and Gina Gionfriddo’s “Becky Shaw” (2008), which both became Pulitzer finalists; and Charles L. Mee’s “Bobrauschenbergamerica” (2001).

We’ll have more coverage soon of the SCR transition, looking more closely at Benson and Emmes’ unusual, but not unprecedented, decision to remain closely connected to the theater after stepping down as artistic directors. They plan to serve up to five years under their new title as “founding directors," continuing to observe and advise, while staging at least one play each per season.

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 In for the long haul

-- Mike Boehm

Photos, from top: Marc Masterson at South Coast Repertory on Thursday (Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times); Martin Benson, left, and David Emmes. (Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times).

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