'Pearls of opinionated wisdom' for South Coast Repertory

Have you noticed the way a few of the region's venerable nonprofit theaters have been turning into a marketing playground of star vehicles, empty-headed musicals and commercial retreads? The managers of these outfits, more impresarios than visionaries, seem to judge their own success by media buzz and box-office bumps. Connection to a community has become virtually an afterthought.

One exception to this dismal trend is South Coast Repertory, which has stayed in the business of supporting American playwrights by regularly producing new American plays. The recession and the laggard recovery have constricted the scope of this ambition, but the theater's fundamental ideals haven't changed: Smart writing, whether in the form of world premieres, contemporary plays or revivals, still holds pride of place.

Recently, it was announced that Marc Masterson will be SCR's new artistic director. He'll be more or less taking the reins from producing artistic director David Emmes and artistic director Martin Benson, who will remain as "founding advisors." For the last 11 years, Masterson has led the Actors Theatre of Louisville, another busy birthplace of world premieres.

ATL's Humana Festival of New American Plays, the annual smorgasbord that brings together theatrical movers and shakers from across the country, may have dipped in stature since Masterson's predecessor, Jon Jory, led the charge. But there's no questioning where Masterson stands on the nonprofit/commercial divide; "Jaws: The Musical" won't be making its Costa Mesa debut any time soon.

It's an axiom of drama criticism that those in charge of artistic decision-making are duty bound to ignore the critic's advice. But in the spirit of welcome, I thought I'd offer Masterson, along with my congratulations, a few pearls of opinionated wisdom gleaned from covering SCR for the last five years:

Keep producing smart plays, but don't be afraid of messy ones. An adventurous playwright allergic to conventional work recently characterized SCR to me as "always in search of the next Pulitzer." I don't think this was meant as a compliment. The dramatic fare at the theater is typically very well spoken, but sometimes themes are over-articulated (Julia Cho's "The Piano Teacher") and story lines are too tightly controlled (Howard Korder's "In a Garden"). The talk, even when it's sparkling, can grow static (Kate Robin's "What They Have"), and bright ideas can be a prison (Lauren Gunderson's "Emilie — La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life at the Petit Théâtre at Cirey Tonight"). The intelligence is appreciated, but humans are wayward animals and shouldn't be confined to over-rationalized theatrical cages.

Characters should be allowed to sweat. After all, they're not just mouths and minds but also bodies. And while we're on the subject of flesh, sex needn't be banished as a sign of stupidity. Prurience is childish, but Eros is an inescapable fact of life. Yes, I did hear a male audience member extravagantly gasp when Andrew Borba stripped at the end of Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play," but quite a few more people left the theater rapt in conversation about the challenging complexity of intimate relationships.

Continue to take chances on up-and-coming directing talent. South Coast Rep has a reputation for spotting and sustaining gifted young playwrights. But it's best to work in tandem. Matching dramatists with peer directors, especially those with whom they have already fallen into a collaborative groove, can pay dividends, as Sam Gold's flawless staging of Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" demonstrated this year. But sensibility trumps all other demographic considerations, which is why the emerging director Trip Cullman was such a companionable choice for Richard Greenberg's "The Injured Party." And it goes without saying that sometimes the best thing for a dramatist, novice or veteran, is an experienced hand

Revivals should be fueled by genuine ardor. Let Martin Benson's graceful production of "Misalliance" and Mark Rucker's flamboyant animation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" remind us that the age of a play doesn't matter a whit when it's imbued with the immediacy of a contemporary creation. Success won't follow every time. On paper, Daniel Sullivan's production of "Hamlet" with Hamish Linklater sounds a heck of a lot more compelling than the soliloquies did in performance. But lackluster revivals cooked up in administrative offices ("The Heiress" springs immediately to mind) should be banished once and for all.

Extend the range of experience onstage. The theater needs to hold the mirror up to all of nature, not just a privileged, ocean-view sliver. I may not have thought so highly of last year's production of August Wilson's "Fences" — in fact, it struck me as one of those pro forma revivals I just inveighed against — but Orange County audiences seemed delighted to spend some time in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Superior storytelling finds the universal in the local, so why not broaden our horizons while revealing more of ourselves in different socioeconomic guises?

Embrace and expand SCR's artistic community with the same care and attention lavished on donors and subscribers. Actors such as Linda Gehringer, Dakin Matthews, Arye Gross and Marin Hinkle are as much a part of the lifeblood of the theater as the playwrights, directors and designers who regularly return with them. This familiarity with a group of artists deepens theatergoers' investment, and it's one reason that opening nights at SCR are a family affair on both sides of the footlights.

Never underestimate your audience. During their more than 45-year stewardship, Emmes and Benson have cultivated a profound appreciation for sophisticated play going in their patrons, whose commitment keeps them from considering themselves anonymous consumers. SCR subscribers understand the risks as well as the rewards of their involvement, so don't be afraid to gamble with work that pulsates with urgency. Don't shy away from politics, religion or other tinderboxes. In my experience, theater people will forgive a noble flop, but perfunctory dullness is an unpardonable sin.

— Charles McNulty

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