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In for the long haul

THEATER

The first show was carted around in a station wagon. Now, South Coast Repertory is expanding to three stages.

November 03, 2002|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

In the beginning they needed everything -- and made do with almost nothing.

Today, South Coast Repertory is a nationally respected, well-funded regional theater known for giving birth to important new plays. In a bid to enhance that stature, it has spent $19 million to expand and renovate. On Tuesday, the first performance of Richard Greenberg's new work, "The Violet Hour," will usher in South Coast's third and newest space, the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage.

The theater complex in Costa Mesa stands atop a mountain of lore that has been growing since August 1963. That's when recent San Francisco State theater graduates David Emmes and Martin Benson drank coffee late into the night in a Long Beach restaurant and hatched a plan.

"Martin Benson and I are going to start a theater within a year from now," Emmes wrote to one of their professors soon after their talk. "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."

The story unfolded in scenes that are now almost mythic: The house in Long Beach where virtually the entire company -- 14 people -- lodged during the summer of 1964, each member kicking in $5 a week so that actress-cook Martha McFarland could feed them communal meals -- usually noodle casseroles.

The inaugural production the following fall -- a minimalist "Tartuffe" that the homeless company could pack into Emmes' avocado-colored 1960 Studebaker Lark station wagon to tour Orange County.

The first home -- a former used boating equipment store near the Newport Beach waterfront that the fledgling theater acquired from Emmes' stepfather, who let them have it in exchange for their sweat. Before they could convert it into a 75-seat theater, the gang of scrawny artists had to haul tons of Samuel Emmes' secondhand marine gear to a nearby warehouse.

Here's what happened next, in the words of some of those who lived it.

Emmes: "We were full of fervor and zeal, as only recent graduates can be."

Benson: "And Red Mountain wine. Dollar fifty-one a gallon. We'd get the vin rose."

Ron Boussom, actor: "It was virgin territory, and we had an awareness about ourselves, a sense of purpose: We were going to bring theater to Orange County. We were a very tight-knit family, and we had a cause we believed in with an absolute passion."

By the fifth season, 1968-69, the zeal had worn off. Money was so scarce that Benson and Emmes programmed a couple of musicals -- "The Threepenny Opera" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" -- just to generate cash. Both shows were flops.

Benson: "We sold out, and we didn't get that much for it. We sold out cheap."

Emmes: "After having it blow up in our face twice, I think we kind of realized, 'Better stick to your guns.' "

A desire to push boundaries

South Coast was learning how far it could go in challenging audiences. Its leaders at first envisioned avant-garde theater as an important part of their mission, along with classics and new American plays. But by 1970, productions of offbeat works such as Brecht's "Baal," Sam Shepard's "La Turista" and Edward Bond's "Saved" (with its infamous scene of thugs urinating on a baby in its carriage, then stoning it to death) had alienated many playgoers and contributors.

Buddy Ebsen of "The Beverly Hillbillies" had been an early benefactor of SCR but parted ways over "Saved." Benson and Emmes had to learn an artistic balancing act -- how to be adventurous and creative, yet not leave the audience behind.

It's an ongoing struggle -- witness the droves of walkouts that greeted SCR's 2000 world premiere of Howard Korder's "The Hollow Lands," a sprawling epic that cast America's westward expansion as a rapacious, racist enterprise undertaken by murderers, drunks and megalomaniacs.

Ebsen, recalling "Saved": "They opened their pants and at that point I took my son, Dusty, and said, 'We're leaving.' Other people left, too. I thought it was an unfortunate choice of material."

Emmes: "During our early years we alienated a good cross section of the community. We do plays today that still offend people, but we can't get so far ahead of an audience that they can't follow. Then we're not serving them and we're not serving ourselves."

Henry T. Segerstrom, an arts patron, after whom SCR has named its largest stage: "Once in a while I feel challenged, but that's healthy. We don't want a limp dishrag."

Robert Cohen, UC Irvine drama professor since 1965: "They're not the grittiest theater in town. I don't expect to see European avant-garde there, but this is not in any way a complaint. New-play repertoire is probably the most important and dangerous area for an American theater, and theirs is terrific."

Emmes and Benson learned to cultivate patrons and raise money, and by 1979, South Coast was a major regional company running plays on two stages. It soon began to nurture playwrights.

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