Photo by Tim Chapman Photography/SCRThings have never looked better at South Coast Repertory. Literally. The 39-year-old theater company raised the curtain on its $19 million Folino Theatre Complex two weeks ago with a production of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara. The greatly refurbished complex now has a sleek look and a new theater to complement its former Mainstage. Everyone—from theater management to the local fishwraps—is positively giddy about the new complex. And they should be: it's stunning.
But what the hell's this? Above the entrance to the new theater is the name Julianne Argyros. She's the wife of developer George Argyros, and their $5 million donation helped build the gorgeous 336-seat space.
Is anyone even remotely concerned that on the road to empire building, the 39-year-old South Coast Repertory has perhaps made some ethical compromises?
It's tempting to believe that someone at SCR thinks Major Barbara—the company's first play in the new complex—provides an answer. Whether intended as apology or defense, Shaw's play is a devastating critique of the liberal suspicion of money, and therefore a fitting metaphor for South Coast Repertory's success story—a success story funded in large part by old and new Orange County money.
Argyros' philanthropy stems in part from his ownership of Arnel Management Co., an apartment company that, as the Weekly's Anthony Pignataro and R. Scott Moxley have reported, was the subject of a 15-month investigation by the Orange County district attorney. That investigation first concluded that Argyros' company illegally withheld tenants' security deposits and overcharged them for repairs, imaginary expenses and excessive rents. The DA's office filed charges against Arygros in February 2001, but those charges were dropped just 90 minutes later after the intervention of county District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, a politician who, as Pignataro wrote, had "benefited handsomely from Argyros' campaign contributions."
Ultimately, the state attorney general's office levied a relatively miniscule $1.5 million fine against Arnel. Days after the wrist slap, the U.S. Senate confirmed George W. Bush's wish that Argyros, who raised $30 million for the 2000 Bush campaign, be sent to Madrid, there to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Spain. A $96 million class-action lawsuit filed by tenants against Argyros is pending.
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In Major Barbara, a woman who runs a faltering Salvation Army mission must choose between accepting the generous donation of a wealthy weapons manufacturer or refusing it, packing up the tubas and going home. SCR's position isn't too far from Major Barbara's. In a country where government-subsidized theater is rare, and in a time when producing theater in any venue larger than a storefront is George Argyros expensive, reliance on donors is inevitable. Like Major Barbara, SCR is taking money where it must in order to do what it can.
The past year has been devastating for many major American regional theaters. Two noteworthy examples: the Denver Theater Center recently suspended new play development, and the Guthrie Theater in Chicago had $24 million in state grants yanked, effectively ending its expansion.
SCR, meanwhile, flourishes. It has a new theater, and next weekend, its latest world premiere, Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour, opens the Julianne Argyros Theater.
If Shaw were alive, it's likely he'd applaud. No fanatic about art as such—which he regarded as clubby and fey—Shaw was all about the power and progressive impact of art on society. Art that no one sees isn't art; it's self-indulgence.