LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Marc Masterson, South Coast Repertory’s new artistic director, is almost ready to return to his native state of California.
Masterson was a California baby, born 55 years ago at the Alameda Naval Base near Oakland. Although both sides of his lineage were Texan, his father was a naval officer stationed at Alameda when Masterson made his biggest entrance ever.
The young Masterson didn’t linger on the West Coast. He left at the age of nine months, and he grew up primarily in Houston. Much later in life, his family “explained my artistic tendencies by the fact that I was born in California,” says Masterson, with a wry smile.
Now, as he officially assumes part-time status at South Coast later this week, he’s on the verge of his second biggest California entrance — in Costa Mesa, several hundred miles southeast of his birthplace. Yet he remains largely unknown to most California theater observers.
He has never worked as a director in California. Before South Coast launched its search for a new artistic director, Masterson had been on the SCR premises only once — as a site observer for the National Endowment for the Arts during the ’90s. He says now that he doesn’t remember exactly what he wrote about SCR at the time, but “I’m sure it was very glowing.” Away from the South Coast site, he also became acquainted with SCR managing director Paula Tomei, because both of them were active in Theatre Communications Group, the national non-profit theater advocacy organization.
Last spring, before he got the job, Masterson attended South Coast’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival for the first time. He wasn’t looking for his next job at the time, he says, and no one had yet spoken to him about it. But he had a good reason to take a look at the SCR festival beyond any professional aspirations.
Pacific Playwrights Festival is one of the country’s most important new play forums. And last week, when we spoke, Masterson was still very busy running what is probably America’s most famous new play festival, the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. He has been the Kentucky company’s artistic director since 2000.
“I was curious,” Masterson says, seated in a small conference room adjacent to his office in Louisville, discussing his visit to SCR last spring. The SCR festival was “quite different from ours. Here we produce seven full-length plays and do an evening of 10-minute plays. There (at SCR), they produce two full-length plays and a series of readings and workshops.”
Actors Theatre doesn’t do any public readings, Masterson notes. “But we do in-house readings, mostly of plays we’re committed to produce.” He declined to predict if he might change SCR’s developmental model to a system closer to Louisville’s. “I need to spend some time learning what the strengths and weaknesses are. It would be foolish to make pronouncements now.
“But the idea here [in Louisville] is that you develop plays by producing them. The conversation changes when you know you’re going to be doing them” (in a full production). He also observes that South Coast commissions a lot more plays than Louisville does — “10 to 12 a year, while we commission maybe two.” One play originally commissioned by SCR, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Bob, is currently in its premiere production at Louisville’s Humana Festival (see below).
When the Masterson appointment was announced last month, news stories noted that the two theaters have much in common — similarly sized budgets, three performing venues apiece, a reputation for new plays supplemented by classics and other revivals. Both companies began in the same year, 1964.
But beyond their disparate ways of handling readings and festivals, Masterson points out two additional features of his programs at Louisville that differ from SCR’s traditions — he has done site-specific productions away from the Actors Theatre campus, and he has hosted ensemble-based companies in Louisville.
The site-specific work stems from Masterson’s “deep commitment to the idea of community,” a phrase he used in an interview with the Orange County Register’s Paul Hodgins soon after his new job was announced.
“Regional theaters were started to serve their communities,” he explains. “That’s why we’re not-for-profit. You serve your community on one level by producing excellent art — and sometimes art that will fail. You do it through excellent educational programs. And you do it by being curious about the people and stories in the community.”
While hardly anyone would question the excellence of SCR’s art and its educational programs, SCR has seldom dramatized stories from its own community (Julie Marie Myatt’s The Happy Ones in 2009 was a happy exception). And SCR has ventured away from its own campus into other parts of its community even less often (although I remember fondly its California Scenarios, a site-specific experiment in which SCR produced five short plays in the Noguchi Sculpture Garden, across the street from SCR, in 2002).
At Louisville during the Masterson years, probably the best-known production that was set nearby was the musical Floyd Collins. It was produced within the regular ATL complex, but “we’ve done a lot of site-specific work,” Masterson adds. He cites three examples: productions that took place in a sewer district warehouse, in a gay nightclub and in the sleek 21c (for 21st Century) hotel and gallery complex three blocks from the Louisville campus.
If South Coast has seldom expanded its operations outside its home base, it has recently invited smaller arts groups to use its facilities, an initiative that Masterson applauds. However, Masterson’s invitations in Louisville have extended much farther. He brought groups to ATL from far outside Kentucky — the kind of groups that play in festivals. Last year’s Humana Festival presented the Austin-based Rude Mechanicals in The Method Gun; next June, Center Theatre Group will present the same company and production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre during the RADAR LA festival. Next year, perhaps, at South Coast?
“I’m not saying that will happen at South Coast,” Masterson hastens to add. But importing ensembles like the Rude Mechanicals “is part of my history that’s different” from SCR’s history. “Theater is fundamentally local, ” he adds, “but we live in a global culture, which could mean touring South Coast work” as well as bringing in ensembles from elsewhere.
One other difference between the two theaters is the proximity of their respective talent pools. SCR can easily draw on the vast Los Angeles-based talent pool and often draws on actors and directors based elsewhere on the West Coast. ATL has a limited talent pool in Louisville and usually recruits talent from New York or what Masterson calls the Midwest talent pool, focused on Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. But Masterson’s productions have used LA-based actors too. Most notably, in the current festival, Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies features LA-based Catherine Combs (see below).
Masterson has already planned most of the next ATL season, which he expects to announce later this week, although he won’t supervise it during the coming year. Meanwhile, he’s sharing the planning of South Coast’s next season with the SCR founding duo he’s replacing, Martin Benson and David Emmes. Masterson doesn’t believe this process of decisions-by-small-committee is problematic.
“Theater people are inherently good at entering into a new relationship and opening up,” Masterson contends. “We do that whenever we start rehearsing [a new production].”
ATL, like SCR, is known nationwide primarily for new plays, but Masterson has also directed his share of classics — sometimes with a modern or local twist. He set As You Like It in Kentucky, where the difference between Louisville and the more rural reaches of the state could easily reflect the difference between court and countryside in Shakespeare’s comedy. “We think Shakespeare was originally done in what was then modern dress,” Masterson says, so purists “who insist on using pumpkin hose and doublets are misguided.”
However, he says that his aim, in classics or contemporary work, is “to serve and interpret the text. There are auteurs who put their stamp on everything. That is not me — although I like and have long relationships with some of those directors.”
Although Masterson has directed musicals, he admits “they’re probably not my strong suit,” which would be business-as-usual for SCR, where Benson and Emmes have usually left the direction of their relatively few musicals to others. “Musicals are part of the American way of telling a story, but they’re not likely to take over” at the Masterson-led SCR, says the incoming artistic director.
Masterson’s first staged performances were not in plays of any genre — and they were his only excursions into the world of for-profit theater. Between the ages of 11 and 13, he performed magic for hire — at as many as seven or eight events a week. Around this time, he also began studying at Studio 7, a youth theater program run by a charismatic teacher, Chris Wilson. One of his classmates and friends there was Charlie Robinson, who performed in SCR’s production of August Wilson’s Fences in 2010.
Gradually, Masterson’s interest in theater superseded his magic act, although he didn’t altogether leave the circus arts behind — he juggled in high school and “got serious about it in college, if you can get serious about juggling,” he recalls. His first college was Northwestern in Chicago, followed by a transfer into Carnegie Mellon’s famous drama program in Pittsburgh, followed by a MFA degree a decade later from the University of Pittsburgh.
“At Carnegie Mellon, they helped me see my strengths were in directing, not acting,” Masterson recalls. “I was overly analytical as an actor. That comes in handy as a director and as an artistic director.”
Masterson’s senior project was directing a one-act, Circus Lady, starring fellow classmate and future stage star Cherry Jones. His first paid directing jobs were student productions at local colleges, and his first directing job with professional actors was an evening of Sam Shepard one-acts. He joined Actors’ Equity, thinking he could support himself as a stage manager.
But at the age of 25, he joined management, so to speak, as the artistic director of Pittsburgh’s City Theatre, which he led for two decades, until he got the Louisville job. The skills required to be an artistic director are very similar to the skills required to direct a show, he asserts. “Leading an organization is very much like leading people through a production.”
Most artistic directors, however, have to help raise money, which is a task that isn’t required of most directors of productions. Masterson doesn’t mind. “Raising money,” he says, “is a matter of communicating your ideas to people and inviting them into the collaboration. It’s not a shameful thing to do. It’s fun.”
Masterson is married to a hospital administrator, Patricia Melvin, who will stay in Kentucky for a while as she wraps up her current job while looking for a new one in the West. Masterson has “not a clue” about where they will live — he’ll live in temporary quarters while awaiting his wife, before they make any permanent housing arrangements. The couple has two daughters in their 20s who won’t be making the move to Orange County.
Will this be Masterson’s last job before retirement? “I hope that’s the case. I’m not a short-timer. This is only my third job. It’s not a steppingstone.” Asked how many years he has in mind, he answers with a question. “Fifteen, anyway? But I might not want to work as long as Martin and David have” — Benson and Emmes are in their 70s.
Masterson is an optimist about the future of American non-profit theater. “Our audiences have been growing here [in Louisville],” he says, despite the economic turmoil, the decline of the subscription model, the supposed graying of theatergoers.
He acknowledges that the popularity of subscriptions is diminishing — “Single ticket sales are beginning to outpay subscriptions, so theaters are forced to deal with that in every aspect of the operation. That frightens people who are nostalgic for the days of 18,000 subscribers. It’s the world we live in.”
But he sees “a hopeful sign” in the rising attendance at the Humana Festival during the last three years — “and this is for a bunch of plays with no name recognition.” This phenomenon isn’t occurring only in Louisville, he says. “New work is a common part of many theaters’ programming. That’s hopeful. Why not be optimistic?”
WILL THESE PLAYS GO TO SCR? As someone who sees virtually everything South Coast Repertory produces, I found it difficult to watch the plays at the Louisville Humana Festival without wondering whether SCR’s new leader might want to move some of these plays across the country with him, as he moves to SCR.
Masterson was mum on the subject, except to acknowledge that at least one of the plays is a candidate for a production at SCR.
For me, the prime candidate must be Elemeno Pea (a title that’s pronounced as in the letters of the alphabet from l to p), by Molly Smith Metzler. A sharp-tongued comedy about very rich people and the struggling lower-middle-class people who serve them, set within the gorgeous (Martha’s Vineyard) beachside house of the former, I couldn’t watch it without thinking that I would probably see it again at South Coast — if not soon, then later.
Although South Coast Rep appears to be in the lap of luxury, with the ritzy South Coast Plaza shopping shrine literally across the street, not too far away are middle-class, heavily Latino neighborhoods of Santa Ana. And don’t forget that even South Coast Plaza has a Sears (and a Macy’s and a Corner Bakery) alongside Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Nordstrom, and the neighborhood’s high-end restaurants. Also, a beach isn’t too far away. If Elemeno Pea wouldn’t technically be a site-specific production at SCR, it might seem like one.
Nachtrieb’s Bob, which was commissioned by SCR, is another candidate for an SCR production. A Candide-like tale about an American innocent turned cynic, with the playwright’s tongue planted firmly in cheek, it struck me as a lite variation of the genre Howard Korder used in his 1990 masterpiece, Search and Destroy — one of SCR’s most honored productions.
I also could imagine Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine at SCR. It’s about a contemporary couple who flees a hectic rat race in order to join a planned community consciously modeled on suburbia, 1955. Of course, that year was when many people were choosing to move to Orange County along with Walt Disney. But now it would be hard to think of parts of OC as suburban retreats.
Although I don’t want to offer detailed commentary on the above plays until I see them around LA, I like all of them, to varying degrees, as well as A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them and Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies, which also are at Humana. But the former, about two Filipino American siblings (one of them gay) with little adult supervision on a remote Midwestern farm, might get more serious consideration by East West Players than by SCR.
The latter, an almost-solo show about a troubled 16-year-old prep school student in New England, probably wouldn’t satisfy SCR’s usual standard of providing at least two juicy roles in each of its productions — have you noticed that SCR has admirably resisted the financial incentive of doing solo shows? However, Rapp’s play would merit viewing by any Angelenos who are in Louisville for the final weekend of the festival this week, not only because it’s a much more spellbinding experience than most solo shows but also because LA-based Catherine Combs is perfectly cast in the main role and delivers a remarkably subtle and powerful performance.
Her primary LA credits are with Santa Susana Repertory Company, which is far off the beaten track for most LA theatergoers, but she was spotted in LA’s ComedySportz franchise by a friend of Rapp, who lives in New York. Rapp contacted her on Facebook and invited her to audition in New York. She told me she pretended she was going there anyway, and she showed up and got the role. It’s the kind of story that could inspire a thousand young LA actors who are not even getting reviewed but who keep hoping against hope that someone out there might spot them and launch them into the bigtime.Print