The Perils and Opportunities of Theatre Regime Change

by Paul Hodgins

in In the Trenches,Interviews,Meet the Members

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How Should SCR Choose a New Leader?

By Paul Hodgins

[pictured:  Martin Benson, left, and David Emmes founded South Coast Repertory in 1964 and have shared its leadership since then.]

It’s been almost 50 years since a couple of young guys with a station wagon and a dream set out to build a theater company in the wilds of Orange County.

Since its founding in 1964, South Coast Repertory has become one of Southern California’s most recognizable cultural brand names. More important, the not-for-profit Costa Mesa theater company has emerged as a steady source of significant new work, devising ways of nurturing playwrights and their scripts that are the envy of theaters everywhere.

Those two once-young founders, David Emmes and Martin Benson, are now in their early 70s. Through careful cultivation of the region’s richest and most influential people, steadfast artistic stewardship and savvy community relations, they have weaved SCR indelibly into the county’s social and cultural fabric.

Orange County’s premier theater company has reached a crucial juncture. It’s time for Benson and Emmes to hand the reins to a successor.

Fortunately, SCR has set the wheels in motion for an orderly transition. A national search was launched earlier this year; a new leader will be chosen by the fall, though Benson and Emmes plan to continue working in an advisory capacity at their theater for several years. Emmes’ wife, Paula Tomei, will remain at SCR, where her current position is managing director.

A change of leadership can test the mettle of even the strongest cultural institution, pointing it towards greater success, a dogged continuation of the status quo, or over a cliff. That challenge is compounded when the ones being replaced are the founding leaders.

“Although theater is collaborative by its very nature, an artistic head does put his or her stamp on the organization in a pretty dramatic way,” said Bill Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and an associate artist at SCR. “David and Martin have devoted their entire careers to their theater. Their taste and guiding hands are all over that place.”

“The problem with succession in the theater is that it’s perhaps the last monarchy on earth,” said Sylvie Drake, a former theater critic for the Los Angeles Times who is now director of publications for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “The artistic director tends to be, if not a dictator, certainly a monarch in the sense that his will and wishes are ultimately what we get onstage. Most nonprofit boards, once they select a leader, are happy to let him do whatever he thinks is best.”

Trouble can brew when a new leader steps into the large shoes of a successful administrator, Drake said. “The next person has to live up to very high expectations. That sets up tremendous pressures.”

A founding administration also creates the culture of the institution, which can be problematic when the time comes for someone to take its place, said Ben Cameron, former executive director of Theatre Communications Group, which represents the interests of nonprofit theaters throughout the U.S.

“Organizations shape themselves around the personality and tastes of the founders. If that person has been in control for a long time, his personality and the personality of the organization are indistinguishable. Every molecule of that building, that group, reflects the will of the founder.”

Replacing a decades-old administration “is like pulling a boat out of barnacles that have grown around it,” Cameron said. “You’re looking for a new boat that will fit into that space, and no boat will do that.”

Even institutions that seem ready for change often struggle with it, Cameron has observed.

“Some people will always want to cherish and perpetuate the past, which is a mistake. A lot of searches have proceeded with the question, ‘Where can we find people who are like the people who are leaving?’”

What should take precedence in any search for a successor, Cameron said, “is perpetuating the underlying values that the organization holds dear.”

‘The work always comes first’

Inclusiveness is crucial to the success of a leadership transition, Rauch said. “Giving as many different stakeholders a place at the table as possible is key.”

But according to Rauch, there’s one exception to that rule. When Rauch left his position as the head of Cornerstone Theater Company, “I wasn’t allowed, nor did I intend, to pick my own successor. The people staying on should have the ultimate say in who gets picked.”

The outgoing leader does play an important role in painting an accurate picture of the institution to his potential replacements, Rauch believes.

“As a departing artistic director I got to have a lengthy meal with each of the three finalists. I was able to answer their questions directly and give my impression of them to the search committee and the board members.”

Staying on in an advisory capacity, as Benson and Emmes intend to do, presents its own dangers but also promises great benefits, Drake, Cameron and Rauch agreed.

“A lot of it has to do with the mesh of personalities (between administrations),” Drake said. “I can certainly see how the presence of a former artistic director might be a little intimidating for a new person coming in. On the other hand, having that institutional knowledge at one’s disposal could be invaluable.”

Overlapping works, Cameron said, “if (the outgoing leaders) are supportive, not assertive, positioning themselves as helpful resources rather than people who are fiercely protective and drive agendas.”

Rauch, while describing overlapping regimes as potentially dangerous, had only positive experiences during the 15-month period when he and outgoing artistic director Libby Appel worked together at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“You have to have clear communication and really clear expectations, and a willingness to constantly renegotiate … those expectations. Too often in our society we push this ‘out with the old, in with the new’ approach.’ That undervalues the importance of experience.”

“And the (departing person) has to be willing to let the new person make their own decisions, even their own mistakes.”

One quality that will be almost impossible to replace is the 46-year hand-in-glove working relationship between Benson, who operates as an artistic director, and Emmes, who in addition to directing plays serves as SCR’s producing artistic director, managing the business side of the organization. That gives rise to an interesting question: should they be replaced by one person, or two? There are plenty of successful examples of both one- and two-person leadership structures at America’s regional theaters.

“We’re talking about an imponderable,” Drake said. “It’s amazing that Martin and David have been able to work together for so long without outward discord of any kind. They started out on equal footing and recognized each other’s strengths. That was very smart of them, and I don’t think they’ll be able to find a (two-person) team that would replace them in that way.”

Rauch agreed. “Their working partnership was unique in my experience. They were the perfect people to take SCR to this point.”

Rauch speculated that perhaps SCR will choose a new leader that takes it in new directions while preserving what its founders have achieved.

“I think they can handle a leader who has a foot in other camps. I think they’re smart and confident enough to welcome that.”

But Cameron cautioned against too strong a shift in institutional personality. Unlike many regional-theater administrators who spend much of their time directing on other stages, Benson and Emmes are stay-at-home types, he pointed out. They placed SCR’s development ahead of furthering their own careers and were content to stay put to do their creative work.

“SCR is self-effacing in a way that very few theaters are,” Cameron said. “David and Martin really are the model for generous cultivation of talent. The work always comes first. I would hate to see that change.”


Since 1993, Paul Hodgins has served as the theater critic for The Orange County Register. Since 2008, Hodgins has served as the Register’s dance critic as well. He also teaches in the College of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. Hodgins’ theater writing has appeared in Variety, American Theatre magazine, The Sondheim Review and other publications, and his work is featured regularly on ArtsJournal. Hodgins was the San Diego Union-Tribune’s classical critic in 1991-92.

From 1985 to 1992, Hodgins was a professor in the School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, and the founding director of the Gassmann Electronic Music Studio. At UC Irvine, Hodgins specialized in interdisciplinary courses that examined connections between the performing arts. He has held similar positions at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and Eastern Michigan University. Mr. Hodgins also served as a faculty member of the Carlisle Project in New York City and Philadelphia, and he was a guest lecturer at Nonington College in Kent, U.K. He was the music director of the Regional Dance America’s summer choreographer-composer conferences in 1991, 1992, 1997 and 1998, and serves each summer as the music director of the Glenda Brown Choreography Project at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Mr. Hodgins holds a doctoral degree in musical composition and theory from the University of Southern California, a M.Mus. from the University of Michigan, a B.Mus. from the University of British Columbia, and an Associate’s Diploma in piano performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto). He also studied creative writing at Capilano College. Among his composition teachers were William Albright, William Bolcom and Morton Lauridsen. Hodgins’ compositions have been performed by the Kronos Quartet and the Sierra Wind Quintet, among other ensembles, and he has written incidental music for plays at UC Irvine and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. His book on performing arts aesthetics, ‘Music, Movement and Metaphor,’ was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 1992.

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    Photo by Mark Jordan Photography at Orange County Headshots