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South Coast Repertory's new quest

The theater aims to double its endowment, to $50 million. A gift of $10 million from George and Julianne Argyros is the cornerstone.

September 09, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

South Coast Repertory on Saturday announced a fundraising campaign to nearly double its endowment to $50 million by 2010, a goal intended to secure the nonprofit theater's financial future and safeguard its status as a leading incubator of new plays.

The cornerstone of the effort is a $10-million gift from longtime supporters George and Julianne Argyros.

If the campaign succeeds, South Coast, which has an annual budget of $9.9 million, will be able to count on its endowment alone to yield about $2.5 million a year. The Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, with an operation nearly five times as large, has a $43.3-million endowment.

A nonprofit theater typically can't fatten its bottom line by milking a hit show indefinitely, as commercial theaters do.

The mission of nonprofits is to offer a sampling of plays during the course of a season, each with a limited run. They need donations to avoid deficits, and a large endowment can help them weather rough economic times and be more adventurous in play selections.

If it reaches its goal, South Coast will have "the resources to play a leadership role in the American theater regardless of economic cycles," co-founder David Emmes said.

Money generated by the endowment would help cover the cost of commissioning new plays, hiring actors, building sets and keeping the theater stocked with capable behind-the-scenes artistic advisors and technical and managerial staff.

One challenge facing major theaters such as South Coast is finding money to create new plays that can take years to develop and have no guarantee of box office success.

Also, many playwrights and theater critics have decried a thrift-driven trend toward small-scale shows involving a handful of actors -- or sometimes just a single performer. A large endowment can allow a theater to emphasize artistry over the bottom line and to take risks, said Emmes, who founded South Coast with artistic director Martin Benson in 1964.

Large regional theaters nationwide have struggled to attract young people to augment a core audience whose average age is more than 50.

Because of a declining subscription base -- a common problem nationwide -- South Coast this season has cut the runs of plays on its largest stage from 5 1/2 weeks to 4 1/2.

The new gift from the Argyroses -- he is an Orange County real estate investor and former U.S. ambassador to Spain -- will create a special endowment for productions at the 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage. It opened in 2002, named in recognition of the $5 million the couple gave to an expansion campaign that raised $50 million from 1998 to 2004.

Their $10-million endowment donation, announced at a gala fundraiser Saturday, equals the largest gift previously received by South Coast, from technology executive Paul Folino and his family for the 2002 expansion.

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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