SCR honors its founders

What's in a name?

A lot, said Paul Folino, former president of the South Coast Repertory board. It just doesn't have to be his.

"I've never done anything I've done in Orange County to get my name on a building," he said Wednesday night, just after a dedication ceremony for the renamed David Emmes and Martin Benson Theatre Center.

Together, Emmes and Benson founded South Coast Repertory and served as its artistic directors. At the company's 50th season gala in September, Folino said it was about time the pair's contributions to the repertory were recognized — even if it meant replacing his own name on the company's flagship venue.

"It was a very fitting way to show the people of Orange County what they've accomplished," he said.

The center had carried Folino's name since 2002, after his family donated $10 million to SCR.

This week, Emmes and Benson stood alongside other company leaders to unveil the new sign — lines of silver lettering, backlit by glowing white, next to the SCR logo. The building in Costa Mesa that the sign marks houses three stages: the Segerstrom, Julianne Argyros and Nicholas Studio. It is also home to classrooms and administrative offices.

Emmes told the small crowd of supporters gathered Wednesday that seeing his name — well, in lights, as it were — inspired a "deeply profound" gratitude.

He recalled the day more than 50 years ago when he and Benson first discussed starting their own company as they sat in a Long Beach coffee shop.

Emmes said that over the arc of the past half century, the pair had reached something of a summit in their journey. Now, he added, "We can look out and enjoy the view."

The two handed off oversight of day-to-day operations in 2011 but are still closely involved with the company, helping to direct and stage productions.

Benson said after the ceremony that while he believed from the get-go that he and Emmes would be successful, the level and longevity of success was surprising.

"When you're that young you think, who'd want to even be alive 50 years from now?" he joked.

But ultimately, he said, it was a deep-seated belief in theater's enduring power, and a commitment to artistic integrity, that has kept SCR going throughout its tenure as one of the strongest regional theaters in the country.

Benson remembered a turning point came "the one time we sort of tried to sell out." SCR staged a play that the two didn't love, though they had hoped it would be a commercial success. It wasn't.

"It failed miserably," he said. Next, even as the company was financially "at death's door," as Benson put it, SCR staged a more obscure play that had failed on Broadway. That, on the other hand, was a smash.

Since then, he and Emmes have let one of theater's most famous quotes serve as a guiding artistic maxim:

"Like Polonius said, 'To thine own self be true.'"

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