Arts & Entertainment

A new stage for South Coast Repertory

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Being artistic director of a major regional stage company means you get to give everyone "notes" — theater lingo for putting in your two cents while a play is being readied. Being Marc Masterson, newly arrived as South Coast Repertory's artistic director, means you may still have to receive a note or two, at least when it comes to interior decorating.

David Emmes, South Coast's co-founder and the previous occupant of Masterson's corner office at the Costa Mesa theater, had one to give after he saw the poster the new man had propped on a chest of drawers. It shows photographs from 21 plays Masterson directed during nearly 11 years as artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. His colleagues signed it and gave it to him at his going-away party in May.

"David took a look at it and said, 'We need to give you some SCR stuff,'" Masterson, 55, recalled in a recent interview. "I said, 'I haven't done anything yet. Give me some time.'"

Emmes and Martin Benson ran South Coast together from 1964 until Masterson began full time in June, and they still have a title (founding directors) and a say in what goes on. Emmes' office is one door down. During the hiring process, the two longtime leaders made no bones about wanting a successor interested in evolution, not transformation.

Hanging on another wall is photographic evidence that perhaps they've handed the baton to a kindred spirit. It's a small, tinted picture of the tail-finned hindquarters of a 1959 Cadillac — pink. Masterson had one just like it as a teenager in Houston, and he has some good stories to go with it.

Automobiles loom large in South Coast's lore, from the hot rods Benson used to race as a young hellion in Half Moon Bay to the avocado-colored 1960 Studebaker Lark station wagon, owned by Emmes, that carted the company's initial production, "Tartuffe," on its introductory tour of Orange County 47 autumns ago.

But the stories that really matter will be the ones Masterson picks to tell onstage. The new season's selections were a team effort by the three men. Masterson will start exercising sole authority — his predecessors will have a say but no veto — with the 2012-13 picks. Tangible signs of his approach will come in January, when he directs "Elemeno Pea" by first-time playwright Molly Smith Metzler.

Masterson brought "Elemeno Pea" from Louisville, where its spring premiere at Actors Theatre got it pegged as a hot property with a hot theme — the widening gulf between rich Americans and everybody else. Critics who saw it at the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays pronounced it "ready for the big time" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), a "probable break-out hit" (Louisville Courier-Journal) and "a crowd-pleaser" (New York Times).

So, along with making a good first impression with his new audience, Masterson, who did not direct the premiere, is responsible for keeping that Louisville buzz going to secure the play's future.

"I try not to think in terms of pressure," the low-key director said, when asked whether he felt it. Then, after a pause: "I guess I have plenty of pressure. But I'm just trying to do my work. And if I do my work, things will work out, usually."

By the time "Elemeno Pea" arrives, Masterson may have the daily companionship of his wife, Patricia Melvin, who has stayed in Louisville because the hospital where she's an executive needs her during a merger transition. Until that's resolved, he said, "we're a commuting couple. Mostly she's been coming here." They have two daughters in their 20s.

Home, for now, is a borrowed condo provided by South Coast Repertory. Masterson has been biking the 10 minutes to and from work; his routine includes joining Benson and Emmes for the daily working lunches the two have shared for decades.

If Masterson's Louisville past is a Costa Mesa prologue, new experiences awaiting SCR audiences will include documentary plays built from interviews, productions by self-contained touring ensembles and hip-hop theater.

Examples include "ReEntry," based on interviews with returning Marine combat veterans and their families, which Masterson picked for the coming season at Actors Theatre, and "This Beautiful City," a documentary play about conservative Christians in Colorado by the Civilians ensemble. It premiered at the Humana Festival in 2008, then came to L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Actors Theatre has been a launching pad for work by the experimental touring group SITI Company. Hip-hop-based shows included "The Break/s: A Mixtape for Stage" by Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

Masterson says he's already commissioned, among others, Charles Mee and Naomi Iizuka, veteran experimental-leaning playwrights whose work has been seen repeatedly in Louisville but never in Costa Mesa. (Commissioning a script gives the right of first refusal but is not a commitment to produce it.)

Masterson clearly wants to quell any notion that sharp turns might be in store. It's natural to sustain long-term artistic relationships, he says, but he's also busy getting to know less familiar writers, directors and actors already in SCR's orbit.

Chay Yew, artistic director of Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, staged three shows at the Humana Festival under Masterson, including "Ameriville," a play about post-Katrina New Orleans by Universes, a New York ensemble steeped in poetry, jazz and hip-hop. Yew, who also has shepherded staged readings and workshops at South Coast Repertory, thinks changes are inevitable.

"Marc's aesthetic is probably a little more adventurous," he said. "He believes in his passions and sometimes they're a wonderful gamble, a calculated gamble. I've never been so well taken care of by a producer. He creates an atmosphere where you think, 'He believes in us, so we have more room to experiment, to play.' What David and Martin have done has been great, and Marc can be a bridge to younger generations."

As for those notes artistic directors are expected to give, Yew found that Masterson had a knack for observing, avoiding snap judgments, then returning after deliberation with "notes that are pointed, specific and enormously helpful. He's weighing and thinking and trying to say the right one or two things, and when he does, they're worth their weight in gold."

Under Benson and Emmes, South Coast has held out firmly against becoming a proving ground for major new musicals with Broadway ambitions and has shown little interest in building productions around celebrity actors. One or both trends have been embraced by virtually all of its top Southern California peers.

Masterson, who led City Theatre of Pittsburgh for 20 years before his tenure in Louisville, said his "history's pretty similar" to that of Benson and Emmes on that score, so SCR won't be catching the Broadway-bound musical bug.

"The core mission of SCR is very clear," Masterson said. "Good stories, well told. Any style of theater that is essentially theatrical and compelling and tells a good story is of interest to me."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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