Marc Masterson Is South Coast Repertory's Keeper of the Flame

South Coast Repertory (SCR) has won scores of local and national awards in its fiftysomething years, but next to the 20 bestowed upon it by this august publication, nothing matches the glittering trophy on display in its lobby: a 1988 Tony Award for sustained excellence by a regional theater. That put SCR into the upper echelon of American theaters, rubbing shoulders with landmark producers such as the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.

And new plays, both producing and developing them, was a huge reason for that success, ever since its second season, when SCR staged the world premiere of Ian Bernard's Chocolates. So, with new plays so important for so long, when it came time to hand over the artistic reins of the company they founded, Martin Benson and David Emmes had a formidable task. They had to pick someone versatile enough to appreciate the classics, but also someone acutely attuned to the rhythm of new plays and those who write them.

Four years into sitting in the catbird seat, it appears Marc Masterson was the perfect choice—at least in terms of new plays.

Of 39 productions through this May, 15 under Masterson will have been new plays, with seven written by women. And in contrast to some of SCR's favored writers in the past (think Richard Greenberg and Donald Margulies), the new writers are really new (at least for Southern California audiences), both in terms of their names and the things they write about. Instead of East Coast-centric smart people talking about smart things and laden with First World problems, many of these plays feature stories and characters that are a bit less urbane, from the family of Asian-American grifters in Carla Ching's Fast Company to the morbidly obese, suicidal man in Samuel Hunter's The Whale to the nostalgic, desperate Everymen in Gregory Moss' Reunion.

“I'm interested in reflecting the world around me, and I think the whole staff here is as well, and that is reflected not just in who writes the plays, but also in the style and the content,” says Masterson, who previously ran the aforementioned Actors Theatre. “The goal is to produce the best new plays we can find. Although I pay attention to how diverse our season is, in the sense that I want to reflect the world, there's no quota system or special initiative to produce plays by women. It's just that some of the best news plays out there at the moment are being written by women.”

Masterson is quick to admit this is not a one-man show. SCR's literary staff, led by John Glore, is one of the country's most knowledgeable, and Emmes and Benson, who still direct one show a year, remain involved in the creative mix.

“Some of these relationships go back way before my arrival, so I'd never take credit for that,” Masterson says. “And [Hunter] was really championed by Martin, who was really passionate about his work and suggested we commission him, which didn't take much convincing. But at the same time, I have a lot of writers I follow and work I've championed in the past, so bringing them into the SCR fold has been really exciting.”

The final four plays of SCR's season reflect that. Kimber Lee's Tokyo Fish Story, which opened last week on SCR's Argyros Stage, will be followed by Rajiv Joseph's Mr. Wolf, a commissioned work that predated Masterson's arrival. On the Segerstrom Stage, Melissa Ross' Of Good Stock opens April 3, followed by Rick Elice's Tony Award-winning Peter and the Starcatcher, the only non-new play in the mix.

In the middle of all of it, in late April, is the 18th installment of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, which includes four staged readings from writers, only one of whom, Itamar Moses, has been produced at SCR.

“If no one ever [produced] new plays, the canon would never evolve,” Masterson says. “So there is a lot to be gained by putting writers in the field and creating the next generation of work. And we're really tried to up the number of our commissioned plays receiving full productions here. But at the same time, we're still interested in the classics, and we'll still continue to do plays such as The Tempest and Tartuffe, to tell them well and in new ways.

“So there's no magic formula [in determining] how many new plays we do,” he concludes. “This is a big sandbox, and with this staff and all the surrounding talent, we can tell all sorts of different stories. I just feel very fortunate to be in a place where that amount of risk is supported, and I can't imagine a better place to work.”

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