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SCR Comes Close to Being All Things to All People

On the eve of its 25th season, which opens Friday with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa appears to have cultivated the sort of dual personality that most theater companies would kill for.

The people who work there think they are working at an artist-based theater, while the audience that goes there thinks it is going to a subscriber-based theater. The paradox is not only that both are right but that the competing loyalties have not precipitated an identity crisis.

“I felt like I was fed into this incredibly well-run play machine,” says Marshall Mason, interim artistic director of the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, who directed the world premiere of Jim Leonard’s “V & V Only” on the SCR Second Stage last season.

Artist-based theaters tend to be exciting and experimental. Subscriber-based theaters, on the other hand, are usually more conventional. Their middle-of-the-road taste draws a larger audience.

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SCR, however, has been able to mount risky new plays even on its Mainstage--it will do so with a world premiere of Mark Stein’s “At Long Last Leo” on Oct. 28--while maintaining a subscription level of 22,500 patrons for the coming season, which ranks among the highest in the country for regional theaters.

Yale Repertory’s David Chambers, who directed “Golden Girls” last season on Mainstage, maintains that “South Coast is the most successful theater I know of at balancing the interests of artist and audience.

“In most places,” he says, “the rhetoric you hear from management is, ‘We want to serve both.’ But that really is code for: ‘We want to serve the subscribers.’ It’s not the code at South Coast. I felt tremendously well-served. Somehow, they’ve found the right formula.”

If SCR’s balancing act can be reduced to a formula, says director Jules Aaron, it derives from “the community’s strong sense of participation” and the fact that everyone at the theater from the receptionists to the board members “feels a personal stake in the productions.” He calls SCR “a home organization.”

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Aaron, who has directed many SCR productions--among them, Keith Reddin’s “Life and Limb,” Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine” and, last season, the Stephen Sondheim/Craig Lucas/Norman Rene mini-musical “Marry Me a Little"--notes further that the play programming “integrates new work into the basic fabric of the season, not as a token ornament.”

Mason agrees: “They know the value of new plays. More than any other place I’ve worked, they have systematized the artistic process to a degree that your needs are plugged into the right grooves . . . They also know how to leave you alone to make mistakes. Support like that is invaluable.”

Although SCR’s two main founders--producing artistic director David Emmes and artistic director Martin Benson--get the credit and the glory, as they did when they accepted a Tony Award for the theater on national television in June, the troupe’s success clearly depends on others as well.

Free-lance TV director Lee Shallat, who began her directorial career at SCR a decade ago, cites the technical staff and the board of trustees as key factors.

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“The designers are the best,” she asserts. “The costume shop is the best. The technical shop is the best. Lighting, stage managing--everything works there, eloquently. And the board is a happy one. It artfully attracts corporate money without ever implying that the (donor) corporations can have a say in the theater’s artistic decisions.”

Though Shallat now stages TV sitcoms--episodes of “Family Ties,” “Head of the Class,” “The Bob Newhart Show"--she continues to work as a guest director at SCR (“Painting Churches,” “As You Like It,” “The Show-Off”).

“It’s the best place I have worked, absolutely without question” she maintains. “Which is not to say that there haven’t been some hard times.”

Yet even those serve to illustrate the reasons for SCR’s success.

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Shallat says that when she left SCR in 1982 after being a full-time employee for seven years, her departure to pursue a TV career was not looked upon kindly.

“David took it personally,” she recounts. “He gave me my shot at being a director and he thought I was dumping out. I didn’t know if I would ever be welcome again.”

But, Shallat adds, SCR’s family atmosphere asserted itself. “We were able to talk things through. I’m not sure that would have happened in other places.”


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