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Fall Preview / The Arts | How I Chose My Season

'We Still Believe in Theater's Transforming Power'

MARTIN BENSON and DAVID EMMES / SOUTH COAST REPERTORY

September 15, 2002|DAVID EMMES and MARTIN BENSON

Sometime in late spring, the mailings start to arrive: season announcements from area theaters, providing a range of shows for nearly every taste. Usually there's a familiar name on the roster--maybe a playwright or a production, an actor or a director. Often there's a world premiere or a local premiere. Occasionally, there's a classic. Always there are surprises. For some venues, the season has already started; for others, September marks the beginning of the year. In scanning the rosters, many people wonder how these shows were selected. Is there a magical formula involved in putting together a season? We asked the decision-makers at five theaters to share how they made selections.

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We've been doing this for 39 seasons and it hasn't gotten any easier: It's still risky. When we started, we had a 75-seat theater and no money. We knew that if one show blew up in our faces, we might be gone in a week. Now we have greater resources and stability, but the decisions seem just as challenging. And with one-third of the South Coast Repertory season being new plays that are untested, anything can happen.

Still, it is through the new work that the season begins to take shape. Most new plays we produce are commissioned and developed at South Coast Rep, so there is a degree of anticipating some plays--especially with writers we've worked with repeatedly over the years, like Richard Greenberg, Amy Freed, Howard Korder and Donald Margulies. This year's new plays arrive from different directions.

Greenberg's "The Violet Hour" traces its roots back to his residency here during the 2000 premiere of "Everett Beekin." He saw the plans for our new 336-seat theater and said he'd like to write the play that opened it. Given his exceptional talents and track record, we were honored and said, "Great. Let's see what you come up with." When "The Violet Hour" came in, we were thrilled. It seemed a perfect fit for this landmark occasion as it celebrates the nature of personal history, with a nod to the ability of theater to celebrate our communal history.

Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel," on the other hand, has had a more formal gestation. Several years ago, when we offered Lynn a commission, we learned that Center Stage in Baltimore was equally enthusiastic about supporting her. So we went in together.

Now both coasts will see what we all feel is Lynn's breakthrough play, and the shared premiere should give it a significant entrance onto the American theater scene.

Our next step was to complement the new work with existing plays that are artistically exciting to us and provide challenge and variety for our audience.

As a playwright's theater, we are always drawn to the word, to language and ideas. We chose George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" to open the season in the renovated Segerstrom Stage because it concerns the timely question of what governs a society. Is it really elected officials, or is it those who have the power through economic resources to make their needs known?

The rest of the season fell into place without too much difficulty: Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona," the West Coast premiere of Horton Foote's "The Carpetbagger's Children" and Alan Ayckbourn's "Relatively Speaking."

However, two new plays that were successful elsewhere took some negotiating in order to bring them to SCR.

When David Auburn's "Proof" won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, the rights to produce it were locked up for the national tour. We weighed whether to do the play this season or wait until the memory of the recent L.A. run had faded. But because one of our primary responsibilities is to provide our Orange County audience with productions of important contemporary plays, we decided to schedule "Proof" in January.

Our interest in "The Drawer Boy" predates its successful run in Canada and Chicago, but the rights only recently became available. This play is especially important to us at this time. It takes us back to our youth as a theater inasmuch as a young actor is gathering material for a play that he will be producing. And this young man, in using his art to befriend two old farmers, ends up freeing them from a lot of their personal myths and fears, and learning something about himself in the process.

So, after years of choosing seasons, it's as tough as it ever was. We read and see a lot of plays, and we put together those that we believe will provide our audience with a stimulating journey. And we still believe in the transforming power of theater to confront ideas, stir emotions, and enrich our lives.

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David Emmes is producing artistic director and Martin Benson is artistic director of South Coast Repertory.

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