South Coast Repertory to scale it down but keep it new in 2009-10 season

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Charting a 2009-10 season in the face of economic headwinds unprecedented in its 45 years, South Coast Repertory has made some concessions to the unforgiving climate but has chosen to stay mostly on course. Next season’s play list for the Costa Mesa company, which made its name on the national scene as a launching pad for new work, features four world premieres out of nine main stage selections — plus two new shows in the theater’s three-play Theatre for Young Audiences series.

But “King Lear,” an expensive undertaking with about a dozen major characters and multiple scene changes, is being put off indefinitely after originally having been announced for the current season, then postponed a year. And “La Posada Mágica,” an SCR holiday-season staple the last 15 years, will be on hiatus this December to save money.

With the aim of drawing theatergoers, the company will program two musicals — a genre not previously paramount for SCR. Two other titles are certified, Pulitzer Prize-winning crowd-pleasers: August Wilson’s “Fences” (Jan. 22 to Feb. 21, 2010) and Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” (May 7 to June 6, 2010).

After an attendance drop-off last fall, ticket sales have recovered since January, meeting budgeted projections, David Emmes, SCR’s co-founder and producing artistic director, said Tuesday.


Nevertheless, he said, the poor economy was a big consideration in choosing the coming season: “We need to keep steering through these economic shoals and get to a better place. It’s possible to put together a season that’s a little smaller in scale but fulfills our artistic mission, but not on a permanent basis. We need to be able to do plays that paint on a broad canvas, like ‘Lear.’ ‘

Consistent with SCR’s aesthetic, the season’s two musicals are sophisticated and urbane, rather than typical Broadway fodder: the 1992 Stephen Sondheim review, “Putting It Together” (Sept. 11 to Oct. 11) and the West Coast premiere of “Ordinary Days” (Jan. 3-24, 2010), Adam Gwon’s entirely sung show about ordinary, everyday young New Yorkers whose paths cross as each tries to cut a path in life. Consistent with the need to economize, both are pocket-size: Gwon’s musical has a cast of four, Sondheim’s has five.

Emmes said “Fences,” with seven roles, will be the biggest show of the season, apart from the 30th running of the theater’s annual holiday season adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” (Nov. 28 to Dec. 26) in the 507-seat Segerstrom Stage. Economy willing, the excised “La Posada Mágica” will return to the 336-seat Argyros Stage in December 2010.

Two world premieres have been named, with two more to be announced for spring 2010 runs that coincide with South Coast’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival.

“The Happy Ones” (Sept. 27 to Oct. 18), by Julie Marie Myatt, is set in the 1970s on SCR’s Orange County home turf, with a suburbanite shop owner and a recently arrived Vietnam War refugee coming together as protagonists who must try to bridge a cultural divide.

Howard Korder, the veteran playwright whose dark visions of the American Dream “Search and Destroy” and “The Hollow Lands” previously premiered at South Coast, returns with “In a Garden” (March 7-28, 2010), a three-actor play about an American architect wrangling with the culture minister of a Middle Eastern country while an international crisis looms.

SCR playgoers will get another helping of Noah Haidle, the young playwright whose “Mr. Marmalade” and “Princess Marjorie” were strange and beyond-strange dark comedies seen at SCR about, respectively, child neglect and beauty worship. “Saturn Returns” (Oct. 23 to Nov. 22) is a more straightforward character study in which an aging doctor looks back on the women in his life. “It’s showing Noah’s maturation and ability to appeal to a broader audience,” says Emmes, with “none of the wild eccentricities of some of his early work.”

The season of plays for young audiences consists of “A Wrinkle in Time” (Feb. 5-21, 2010), newly adopted by South Coast’s associate artistic director John Glore, from Madeleine L’Engle’s adventure novel about youngsters traveling through space and time to rescue a captive scientist. “Ben and the Magic Paintbrush” (May 21 to June 6, 2010) is a world premiere from Bathsheba Doran, about kids who make a splash in the art world, only to get in trouble. Also on tap: “Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business” (Nov. 6-22), a musical by Joan Cushing, based on a series of children’s books by Barbara Park.

South Coast has avoided layoffs among its full-time staff, Emmes said, although three vacancies are not being filled. Part-time workers’ hours have been reduced and nonsalary items such as planned maintenance have been cut.

“People have come back out of the economic bunker, so to speak, and there’s some feeling that one can begin to think about some sense of continuity. Theater is an important part of these people’s lives.”

-- Mike Boehm

Photo, top: South Coast Repertory exterior. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Photos of playwrights, from top: Julie Marie Myatt: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times; Howard Korder: Alexander Gallardo / Los Angeles Times; Noah Haidle: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times.