Marc Masterson set to make the calls at South Coast Repertory

When Marc Masterson took charge of Actors Theatre of Louisville, the challenges included moving into the shadow of an illustrious predecessor, Jon Jory, whose 30-year tenure had included creating the Humana Festival of New American Plays, an important annual destination for theater insiders.

Marc Masterson: An article in the Feb. 19 Calendar section about Marc Masterson’s appointment as the next artistic director of South Coast Repertory gave the wrong title for a play by William Shakespeare. The correct title is “The Comedy of Errors,” not “A Comedy of Errors.” —

But a shadow is all it was — Jory was soon far from Louisville in his new post as a professor at the University of Washington.

Now Masterson is about to embark on a five-year contract as artistic director of South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Again he’ll begin in the shadow of highly respected predecessors: Martin Benson and David Emmes have jointly led SCR since 1964, and they hand over a company that’s financially stable and acclaimed nationally as a leading nurturing ground for new plays.

But this time the shadow has a palpable and lingering presence. Benson and Emmes aren’t going anywhere. When the Masterson era officially begins Sept. 1, they will slip into a new title, founding directors, which entitles them to remain as key advisors, as members of SCR’s board of directors, and as stage directors who’ll mount at least one show each per season for the coming five years.

What happens if he loves a script, but the founding directors are lukewarm or worse? “It’s my call.”


During an interview Thursday, Masterson sat at one end of the long, oval boardroom table where he expects to be recognized as skipper of SCR’s artistic course. “The authority is clearly spelled out,” he said. Benson and Emmes will serve in “an advisory capacity. They will have a strong voice here, but it is my responsibility to make the decisions.”

Yes, Emmes avows — it really is. With Masterson, he and Benson will soon pick the plays for the 2011-12 season that starts in September. “Thereafter, the final decision will be Marc’s. Martin and I will have our say and we can advocate, but we understand he’s not going to be successful in extending the artistic growth of SCR if he doesn’t have the ability to make the final decision. Our legacy is going to be honored if South Coast Repertory can continue to evolve in ways that we can’t imagine right now.”

Benson and Emmes are not flying by the seat of their pants on this. Looking southward, they watched as Craig Noel, who had been the defining force at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego since 1947, turned over the reins in 1981 to a new artistic director, Jack O’Brien — and then stayed intimately involved for nearly 30 years, until his death last year at age 94.

It didn’t work out too badly for O’Brien, who enjoyed a 26-year tenure that helped launch him onto Broadway and three Tony awards for director.

“Martin and I were very influenced by that, it was a paradigm,” Emmes said. “We want to be a resource, not to be obstructionist.”

Speaking from New York on Friday during a break in rehearsals for the new musical, “Catch Me if You Can,” O’Brien recalled how his agent advised him to sit down with Noel and establish clear lines of authority to guide their relationship. “I sat with him at his pool one afternoon, trying to figure out where the buck stops. The question was never answered.”

Even without ground rules, O’Brien said, he and Noel were able to work without confusion or angst. That was partly because they knew each other so well — Noel had repeatedly hired O’Brien to direct shows at the Old Globe, starting in 1969, and O’Brien looked to him as a mentor. The other key, he said, was Noel’s ability to speak his mind — and leave it at that.

“He was always candid, he had no trouble expressing himself, but neither did he insist he be followed. He would let me make my own mistakes, and he never dissuaded me from doing what I wanted to do. He taught me the best lesson I’ve ever learned in theater — not to be a controlling person, but an involving person.”

Jerry Patch may have the best outside-in perspective on what’s about to happen at SCR, having been a right-hand man to Emmes and Benson as the company’s dramaturge for 30 years until 2006, when he left to serve first as resident artistic director of the Old Globe and since 2008 as director of artistic development at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.

Patch said he’d been on the job for three weeks at the Old Globe when he and Noel had a disagreement over a plan to stage Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors” without an intermission. “Craig was adamant that he wanted an intermission,” Patch recalled. “He paused five seconds and said, ‘Well, Jerry, it’s your call.’”

Patch said that sort of self-abnegation may not come easily for Emmes, who as producing artistic director has had authority over such decisions at South Coast Repertory. “That’ll be a test for David, because the buck has pretty much stopped with him.” Learning to pause and say Noel’s magic words — “well, it’s your call” — will be, Patch said, “a new skill he’ll have to pick up. But I can’t see him going to war with a new guy. I’m so optimistic,” because Emmes and Benson have a long track record of learning and making adjustments for the good of South Coast Repertory.

“To me, the danger would not be that they [and Masterson] had too much discussion about stuff, it would be that they had not enough,” Patch said. “For David and Martin to be a real resource they have to be up to date with what’s going on. Marc is a very collegial guy, and I think he’ll enjoy it.”

Masterson says he expects to carry the approach he uses in the rehearsal room as a stage director into his discussions with Benson and Emmes. “I’m not a bull in a china shop. I look for the idea that is better than mine. I promote a vision and a clear direction of where we want to go,” then welcomes input. “You have to put your ego aside.”

Of course, Benson and Emmes are used to being the ones setting the vision, establishing the direction and graciously soliciting the ideas of others — with the understanding that the buck stops with them. Can they adjust to having their purchasing power downgraded to two cents each?

In deciding whether to take the job, Masterson said, he became convinced that the co-founders were sincere about ceding real authority to their successor. If they had wanted to avoid change, he reasoned, they wouldn’t have supported the hiring of somebody they didn’t already know well.

“It won’t necessarily be easy and seamless,” the new artistic director said. “I’m sure there will be some bumps along the way, but I’m willing to give it a try.”