David Emmes and Martin Benson had little more than talent and a vision back in 1964, when the two San Francisco State College theater graduates sketched out a plan to create a theater company.
They chose Orange County partly because it lacked an established performing arts institution. Another plus: OC’s population had ballooned after World War II.
Benson and Emmes reasoned that the burgeoning population provided them with a chance to win over the sort of audience they would need to turn their vision into a successful theater company.
The early years were lean.
South Coast Repertory’s first location in 1965 was a former hardware store, which the theater company rented and converted into a 75-seat theater. The founders and other company members sold tickets, cleaned the theater, constructed sets, and managed finances, in addition to their roles as lead actors and actresses.
What a difference a half-century makes.
SCR is celebrating its 50th year from its home at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. It has nine productions scheduled this season and claims a leading role nationally when it comes to producing new plays—among its honors is a Regional Theatre Tony Award, the highest recognition in the field.
It also keeps strong ties to the community with programs such as acting classes for adults and children.
All of that flows from what Emmes and Benson call the “cigar box” mentality they instilled in the organization.
Paula Tomei, the repertory’s managing director, said the pair kept all of the money from ticket sales in a cigar box. If the theater needed money for any reason, the cigar box would be checked. If there wasn’t enough in the box to pay for it, she said they would come up with a creative way to make it happen.
50 Years in the Black
Tomei said the company still operates with a “cigar box” mentality, despite having an operating budget of $10.5 million, which includes endowments, grants and donations. She credits the approach with keeping it in the black across the decades.
Emmes and Benson no longer actively participate in the theater but attend all of its productions.
Tomei also serves as the company’s co-chief executive with Artistic Director Marc Masterson. She’s been with the repertory for nearly a quarter century and has seen the institution weather economic booms and busts, growing from its original site at the converted hardware store.
“The simple answer is that the expenses have not exceeded income,” she said, adding that SCR is constantly reviewing where resources are going.
Damien Jordan, a general manager with Capital Group of Companies Inc. president of the repertory’s board of trustees, said the trustees take their role in keeping the organization strong seriously.
“The board is in constant communication [with Tomei and Masterson],” he said. “It’s a great partnership.”
The trustees are community and business leaders who bring a diverse set of skills to the table, Jordan said.
Companies represented on the board include American Funds, Apria Healthcare, Union Bank and Emulex Corp.
The organization wasn’t spared the effects of the recent recession. Subscriptions, individual ticket sales and donations dropped.
Some SCR staffers members took pay cuts, others shifted to part-time status, and a few took voluntary leaves of absence. One large production was cancelled.
The trustees helped fill the breach, too, according to Jordan, who joined the board in 2007 and became chairman of its finance committee in 2008, just as the recession took firm hold of the economy. Contributions stayed relatively flat from late 2007 through 2010.
The board typically contributes at least 30% of the theater’s annual fund, but it’s also responsible for raising money to fill the gap. It had set aside money for such a time, and an endowment brought in some regular funding. There still were ups and downs, and in 2008 and 2009, six board members and their spouses—including Jordan and his wife, Yvonne—donated a substantial amount to help the repertory meet and ultimately exceed its goal at the time.
Jordan declined to specify the amount.
Tomei said the lean period, though difficult, had a positive outcome.
“The recession forced us to revisit how we did things,” she said.
That included revamping the theater’s website to make the customer portal more user-friendly ticket purchases much easier, saving staff time.
Half of SCR’s operating budget comes from ticket sales and tuitions, and 15% comes from endowment earnings. The remaining 35% is made up of contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations and its annual gala ball.
Fundraising outreach in the community this year has had a gratifying result: The 50th Anniversary Gala Ball, Theatrical Gold, raised more than $1 million in a single night, Tomei said.
The Argyros Family Foundation presented a $2 million gift to SCR that same evening.
Support for the organization continues to grow, but it still has challenges. The landscape is changing, not just for SCR but for the entire theater world, Tomei said.
People are buying fewer season subscriptions, she said.
To address that, the theater now offers a variety of ticket packages.
Jordan said board members are focusing on bringing more people to the theater. The key, he said, is getting them in the door. They fall in love and want to keep coming once they’ve seen SCR’s work.
The organization also uses social media to introduce the theater to the younger generations.
“We have to think about all segments now. We are in a period of experimentation—there is no magic bullet,” Tomei said.
Tomei said the key to the organization’s success is the vision Emmes and Benson set in place all those years ago.
“We stand on three principals: a strong artistic vision, a dynamic audience, and community leadership,” she said.
The cofounders will be honored for their contributions to the Orange County arts community when SCR’s Folino Theatre Complex is renamed for them. That came at the urging of Paul Folino, retired chairman and chief executive of Emulex Corp., for whom the theater was named after he donated $10 million to it in 2002.
“I wanted to thank David and Martin by renaming this theatre center,” Folino said in a news release, “so that people will remember not only their amazing accomplishments over the last 50 years at SCR but the legacy they have created that will serve this community for decades to come.”