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2 O.C. Dramatists' Napkin Jotting Becomes Proud Premiere Tonight

October 05, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When David Emmes and Martin Benson began their collaboration in 1964, they had a cigar box and a napkin. The box, which held their fledgling theater troupe's cash, was always empty. The napkin, on which they envisioned their future, was full of grand ideas.

Today, as the curtain rises on a $19-million, 38,000-square-foot expansion of South Coast Repertory's Costa Mesa home, the acclaimed theater's founders are living proof that being successful in the business of art requires mastering the art of business.

The expansion, designed by noted architect Cesar Pelli, includes a renovated main stage, still with 507 seats, and a new 336-seat second stage, with the previous, smaller second stage converted to a teaching theater. The complex will be dedicated tonight, with public performances starting next month.

"It's a real Orange County success story," said Bonnie Brittain Hall, executive director of the nonprofit Arts Orange County. "These are two guys with a wide range of talents who were able to grow their business thinking at the same time they maintained their artistic vision."

Emmes, a native of Orange County, and Benson, who grew up in the Bay Area, were recent graduates of San Francisco State's theater program when they sketched out their plan in a coffee shop. For 38 years, they have followed that plan to the letter--building a theater company that began operating out of the back of a station wagon into a regional powerhouse known for showcasing original work and nurturing writers.

"We were very naive. But we also had the chutzpah that getting right out of school gives you," Benson said. "We knew we would accomplish it, but we thought it would happen in five to 10 years. It took a lot longer, but it's been a grand adventure and we followed the script all the way."

Emmes, 63, the producing artistic director, and Benson, 65, the artistic director, are about to achieve their most ambitious goal yet. South Coast Repertory's new complex is the keystone of their $50-million fund-raising effort intended to boost its development of new plays, including an annual series targeted at families and children.

"They're true visionaries," said Robert Cohen, a drama professor at UC Irvine who helped found the university's theater department a year after Emmes and Benson came to Orange County. "This will let them do what they do better."

The renovated South Coast Repertory includes 230 miles of electrical wiring, much expanded shop and backstage facilities, classrooms and a sweeping 270-foot-long glass-enclosed lobby.

The new Julianne Argyros Stage will allow South Coast to mount productions that the cramped second theater couldn't accommodate.

"It was a postage stamp," Benson said of the old facility, which had no backstage and couldn't handle multiple sets or more than eight actors at a time. "Now, we can take on any play."

Through the years, South Coast Repertory has served as the crucible for numerous original scripts and award-winning plays, including Margaret Edson's "Wit," which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama. In 1988, South Coast Repertory earned a Tony award for distinguished achievement in American regional theater.

Playwright Donald Margulies, whose "Dinner with Friends" had its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory and went on to win a Pulitzer in 2000, has been commissioned to write a play for its new youth series.

Perhaps more than anything, it was Benson and Emmes' idea for the annual series that intrigued Paul Folino, who donated $10 million--a fifth of the fund-raising goal. The new complex is named after him.

Folino, CEO and chairman of the board of Costa Mesa-based Emulex Corp., grew up in a Seattle housing project and saw his first play at 9: Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" changed his life.

"It opened my eyes to a whole other world," said Folino, who is also president of South Coast Repertory's Board of Trustees.

Folino got to know Emmes and Benson when he joined the board six years ago and quickly discovered that the pair's skills went beyond stagecraft.

"They just stand out in the way they balance their creative juices and the way they manage the business side," Folino said. "They are able to look out at the horizon, see where they want to go, come up with a plan to get there and then execute, execute, execute."

A large part of South Coast Repertory's success has been the ability of its founders to cultivate the support of Orange County's wealthy arts patrons. They include people like Folino and businessmen Henry Segerstrom, George Argyros and Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Nicholas III.

For Benson, who is in rehearsals for a play he is directing, every day is casual-dress Friday.

But he keeps a sport coat and slacks in his office in case he has to rush out for a fund-raising pitch.

"It comes with the territory and enables us to artistically do the work we want to do," he said.

After four years, the effort has paid off. South Coast Repertory has raised $42 million of its $50-million goal.

Not bad for a troupe that collected $78 at its first show.

"We're artistic liberals and fiscal conservatives," Emmes said. "At the beginning, we couldn't spend more than what was in the cigar box. So we disciplined ourselves to live by our income. I'm proud to say that in 38 seasons, we've never run a deficit.

"It's been a real Horatio Alger story," he added. "Only in America could this have happened."

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