Theater companies traditionally honor individuals who have been highly instrumental in their success by naming a performing facility for them, as UC Irvine did a few years ago when it rechristened its Studio Theatre the Robert Cohen Theatre to honor Cohen's half-century of teaching and directing at UCI.
South Coast Repertory has two theaters — the Segerstrom Stage and the Julianne Argyros Stage, celebrating two benefactors who provided enormous monetary support. SCR also honored a third financial backer by naming the entire two-theater edifice the Folino Theatre Center.
Paul Folino, the retired chairman and chief executive of Emulex, was the SCR board president who led the theater's "Next Stage" campaign to greatly expand the theater complex and support educational and artistic programs. His donation of $10 million was, at the time, the largest individual gift to a regional theater.
But Folino recently had a change of heart. He suggested that SCR remove his name from the complex and rename it for the two visionaries who created it back in 1964 — artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson.
So it was that on a recent evening, Folino, Emmes and Benson got together and unveiled the lettering on the face of the theater near the administration office, which now reads "David Emmes/Martin Benson Theatre Center."
"I wanted to thank David and Martin by renaming this theater center so that people will remember not only their amazing accomplishments over the last 50 years at SCR, but the legacy they have created that will serve this community for decades to come," Folino declared. "These two men truly are legends in repertory theater history."
Emmes and Benson, now in their 70s, turned over the company's reins a few years ago to Marc Masterson but remain aligned with SCR, sharing the title of founding artistic directors and each staging a show every season.
Needless to say, the effect of the name change on the two pioneers was deep and heartfelt.
"Seeing our names on the theater was an infinitely more profound personal experience than I had imagined," Emmes remarked. "It also reminded me of how fortunate we were to have launched our amazing creative odyssey in Orange County."
Benson echoed his partner's sentiments. "It has meant far more to me than I thought," he said. "There is in it a sense of permanence, which is the opposite of the transitory nature of theater itself."
Their legacy is enormous. Under their leadership, SCR has received honors for artistic excellence, including a Tony Award for regional theater in 1988 and 87 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards. Two SCR-developed works — "Wit," by Margaret Edson, and "Rabbit Hole," by David Lindsay-Abaire — earned Pulitzer Prizes in 1999 and 2007, respectively, while another eight were named Pulitzer finalists.
Emmes and Benson have given Orange County audiences more than a half-century of premium-quality theater. That their names now grace the SCR theater complex ensures that future generations of local theatergoers will be aware of their enormous contributions to the birth and development of South Coast Repertory.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.