Have you noticed the way a few of the region's venerable nonprofit theaters have been turning into a marketing playground of star vehicles, empty-headed musicals and commercial retreads? The managers of these outfits, more impresarios than visionaries, seem to judge their own success by media buzz and box-office bumps. Connection to a community has become virtually an afterthought.
One exception to this dismal trend is South Coast Repertory, which has stayed in the business of supporting American playwrights by regularly producing new American plays. The recession and the laggard recovery have constricted the scope of this ambition, but the theater's fundamental ideals haven't changed: Smart writing, whether in the form of world premieres, contemporary plays or revivals, still holds pride of place.
Recently, it was announced that Marc Masterson will be SCR's new artistic director. He'll be more or less taking the reins from producing artistic director David Emmes and artistic director Martin Benson, who will remain as "founding advisors." For the last 11 years, Masterson has led the Actors Theatre of Louisville, another busy birthplace of world premieres.
It's an axiom of drama criticism that those in charge of artistic decision-making are duty bound to ignore the critic's advice. But in the spirit of welcome, I thought I'd offer Masterson, along with my congratulations, a few pearls of opinionated wisdom gleaned from covering SCR for the last five years:
Keep producing smart plays, but don't be afraid of messy ones. An adventurous playwright
Characters should be allowed to sweat. After all, they're not just mouths and minds but also bodies. And while we're on the subject of flesh, sex needn't be banished as a sign of stupidity. Prurience is childish, but Eros is an inescapable fact of life. Yes, I did hear a male audience member extravagantly gasp when Andrew Borba stripped at the end of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play," but quite a few more people left the theater rapt in conversation about the challenging complexity of intimate relationships.
Continue to take chances on up-and-coming directing talent. South Coast Rep has a reputation for spotting and sustaining gifted young playwrights. But it's best to work in tandem. Matching dramatists with peer directors, especially those with whom they have already fallen into a collaborative groove, can pay dividends, as Sam Gold's flawless staging of Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" demonstrated this year. But sensibility trumps all other demographic considerations, which is why the emerging director Trip Cullman was such a companionable choice for Richard Greenberg's "The Injured Party." And it goes without saying that sometimes the best thing for a dramatist, novice or veteran, is an experienced hand
Revivals should be fueled by genuine ardor. Let Martin Benson's graceful production of "Misalliance" and Mark Rucker's flamboyant animation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" remind us that the age of a play doesn't matter a whit when it's imbued with the immediacy of a contemporary creation. Success won't follow every time. On paper, Daniel Sullivan's production of "Hamlet" with
Extend the range of experience onstage. The theater needs to hold the mirror up to all of nature, not just a privileged, ocean-view sliver. I may not have thought so highly of last year's production of
Embrace and expand SCR's artistic community with the same care and attention lavished on donors and subscribers. Actors such as Linda Gehringer, Dakin Matthews, Arye Gross and
Never underestimate your audience. During their more than 45-year stewardship, Emmes and Benson have cultivated a profound appreciation for sophisticated play going in their patrons, whose commitment keeps them from considering themselves anonymous consumers. SCR subscribers understand the risks as well as the rewards of their involvement, so don't be afraid to gamble with work that pulsates with urgency. Don't shy away from politics, religion or other tinderboxes. In my experience, theater people will forgive a noble flop, but perfunctory dullness is an unpardonable sin.