SCR returns to the past to honor anniversary

South Coast Repertory will conclude its 50th season with the play that opened its first: "Tartuffe," the farce by French playwright Moliere about a religious hypocrite who charms his way into a family home.

It's the Costa Mesa theater's way of coming full circle, but the 2014 production won't likely bear much resemblance to the 1964 version. For one thing, the stage will have an actual curtain. For another, the actors will have more costumes and props than a single trunk can hold.

And third, no one will wait for the repertory to pack up and leave when the play is done. When SCR opened "Tartuffe" in November 1964, it borrowed the space from the Newport Beach Ebell Club, a local women's organization. Now, the 1.5-acre complex next door to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts looks pretty fastened to the ground.

In the last 49 years, SCR has grown from a fledgling company to one of Costa Mesa's, and the theater world's, premiere institutions. But memories of those formative years remain strong — especially since some of the theater's charter members remain on staff.

David Emmes, who founded SCR with Martin Benson — and, like his partner, is set to direct a play this season — said the company chose its first piece largely for economic reasons. Another Moliere title initially caught the group's fancy, but "Tartuffe" proved easier for a group still scraping for dollars.

"We actually started rehearsing 'The Miser' in my garage for a while, and it was going to require, in order to do it, a kind of full-on Moliere production of it," Emmes said in a joint interview with Benson two weeks ago in SCR's administrative offices. "There would be setting demands, prop demands, costume demands that we couldn't really realistically deal with. And it was about that time that we punted on that and we went to 'Tartuffe.'"

This season's "Tartuffe," which opens May 9, is the last adult play on the 2013-14 schedule ("The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," which wraps up the youth-theater series, opens slightly after). Between those 1964 and 2014 bookends, the company has occupied three locations, nurtured future Pulitzer Prize winners and nabbed a Tony Award, among others, for its efforts.


'An unbelievably talented group'

That journey had to begin somewhere, and for SCR's founders, it began with a small troupe of players and a big pile of fruit.

To hint that the audience was in for an off-kilter night at the theater, Benson and Emmes handed each patron at the Ebell Club an apple, orange or banana along with a ticket. Actor Don Took, who played the flustered husband Orgon, would stamp into the audience and accuse random men of seducing his character's wife. And to underline the lack of formality, the house lights stayed on throughout the show.

Daily Pilot theater critic Tom Titus, who still reviews theater for Times Community News, heralded the birth of "an unbelievably talented group" when he covered "Tartuffe" at the Laguna Playhouse.

"Wild, raucous and overflowing with talent, the SCR version of 'Tartuffe' burst with incandescent brilliance onto the Laguna Playhouse stage, leaving its audiences literally gasping with laughter and clamoring for more at the final curtain call," Titus, who has reviewed nearly every SCR production since, wrote in February 1965.

So who remains from that initial group? Aside from Emmes and Benson, the oldest member of SCR is actor Richard Doyle, who joined in 1964 at age 19 and, by his count, has appeared in more than 200 productions. Hal Landon Jr., the company's perennial Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," came on board in 1966.

Doyle said the current SCR bears little resemblance to its original self. As one who saw the theater through its many phases over the years, though, he can trace the lineage.

"SCR today is a better theater and a better organization," he wrote in an email. "But we all worked very hard so that the theater would be good and strong so that, when it was time to turn it over to the next generation, it could carry forward into the future."


Angels and Anteaters

If not for a pair of decisions by Major League Baseball and the University of California, SCR might never have found a home in Costa Mesa.

In 1965, Orange County was rife with anticipation. The then-Los Angeles Angels, who had played the last few years in their namesake city, prepared to move to Anaheim Stadium. UC Irvine opened its doors, giving the county a new academic and student population.

Before officially launching SCR with "Tartuffe," Emmes, Benson and their comrades had performed at the Off-Broadway Theatre in Long Beach. The Ebell engagement once over, they took their show on the road. A fixed location was becoming a necessity, though, and the team opted to take advantage of Orange County's growth.

That home turned out to be a marine hardware store on the Balboa Peninsula, which the company labeled the Second Step Theatre. In 1967, that spot gave way to the Third Step Theatre, a former variety store on Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa — which was replaced in 1978 by the complex at 655 Town Center Drive, abetted by a capital campaign and a land gift from the Segerstrom family.

Whether SCR found Costa Mesa or Costa Mesa found it, Terry Dwyer, president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, considers the two inextricable.

"South Coast Repertory has long been one of the professional theaters I most admire nationwide," he wrote in an email. "I simply could not imagine Costa Mesa, Orange County or for that matter the national theater scene without its many thrilling productions, world premieres and quality education programs that reach the youth throughout our communities."

SCR officials refer to their current home as the Fourth Step Theatre. But Benson and Emmes, who stepped down as co-artistic directors in 2011, don't anticipate a fifth step any time soon. They're content to be Costa Mesa's local institution — and to let the rest of the world come to them.

"As we attained certain amounts of success, we didn't rush off to try to build careers on Broadway or whatever," Benson said. "Our commitment was right here in Orange County."

SCR by the numbers

472 productions since 1964

127 plays that have premiered at SCR

937 combined seats in all three theaters

95 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards

1 Tony Award

33 number of consecutive years Hal Landon Jr. has played Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”

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