SALT LAKE CITY — When the curtain came up on Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "Next to Normal" last Friday, it signaled both a beginning and an end — or, at the very least, the beginning of an end.
Opening night for the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning musical was also opening night for the 2011-2012 season at Utah's major regional theater. It also launches the inevitable countdown to the end of Charles Morey's 28-year tenure as PTC's artistic director.
The 64-year-old Morey announced late last year that this season would be his last.
"If I'm going to do this, I better do it now," Morey said during a recent interview in his comfortable office on the second floor of Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the University of Utah campus.
After nearly three decades of steady paychecks, Morey and his wife, actress Joyce Cohen, are returning to their roots as theater gypsies — she as an actress, he as a playwright and director. They have rented an apartment in New York City because "that's where the work is," Morey said. But they will also keep their place here in Utah, and plan to split their time between Utah and New York.
"We love it here," said Morey, who at the time of his retirement will be the longest tenured artistic director in any major American regional theater.
"This has been our home for a very long time. We expect to spend a good deal of time here."
Still, New York beckons.
"We have the apartment — other than that neither one of us is 100 percent sure of what we'll be doing," Morey said. "It will be exciting to be out there again, working without a net."
While he will continue to direct plays from time to time — including three shows, one show per year for the next three years, with PTC — he wants to focus more time and attention on writing, an element of his professional persona that took root and began to blossom during his time with PTC.
"Over the years, (writing) has been more and more important to me — it is more and more how I define myself," Morey said. "I want to focus on that for a while. I guess I'll see how good I am."
While there is little doubt of his ability as a playwright — he has already written nine plays, including the award-winning comedy "Laughing Stock," which will be produced at PTC later this season — he wonders if he has the required discipline to be successful.
"I have friends who are very disciplined as writers," he said. "I see what they do, and I don't know if I can do that. Getting up at 5:30 a.m. to work is my idea of hell. So if I can figure out a way to be disciplined in my writing without getting up at 5:30, maybe I can do it."
Morey's history suggests that he'll figure it out. His life has been marked by similar transitions: from high school football star to college actor, from young actor to talented director, and from "professionally promiscuous" — his words — actor/director/summer theater company manager to regional theater company artistic director — in Utah, no less. And he has made each of those transitions gracefully and successfully.
Take that last transition, for example. He was living in New York, taking on acting and directing opportunities as they became available. He was carving out a nice little career for himself, performing at the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, the New Dramatists and the Ark Theatre Co., and then working with the Petersborough Players during the summers.
In 1981, a friend asked him if he'd be interested in directing a play in Salt Lake City. That fall he directed "Arsenic and Old Lace" at Pioneer Memorial Theatre. That production went so well that the next year he was invited back to direct "Charley's Aunt," and the year after that "Life With Father."
"I was becoming Salt Lake City's designated 'old chestnut' director," Morey said, chuckling.
While he was in Utah directing "Life With Father," he went to lunch with Keith Engar, executive producer at the theater and head of the university's theater department. Engar asked him if he'd be interested in being artistic director. There was a long pause, followed at last by Morey's response: "I don't know. Let's talk about it."
"Joyce and I had only been married for two years at the time, and I was concerned about the impact of this decision on her career," Morey said. Plus he had made some commitments to the Petersborough Players that he didn't feel he could ignore.
And there were other concerns, which Morey noted in a letter to the university's selection committee, which was charged with finding an artistic director for the theater.
"First, I wanted to know what the mandate was," Morey said. "I asked them, where is this theater going? In my experience, it seemed to me that the theater didn't quite know what it wanted to be. Was it primarily an academic exercise? A community theater? A professional theater? What was the vision of where they wanted the theater to go?"
The second thing he wanted to know was if they were willing to expand the theater's repertoire.
"They had run through the repertory of classic mid-20th century musicals again and again," Morey said. "I told them this was a tremendous opportunity to take the theater to the next level, with a professional company and an expanded repertoire that included the classics as well as the best of contemporary theater.
" 'If you want to do that,' I told them, 'then I'm your man. If not, you should find someone else.' "
Having made his position clear, he went back to work in New York while the selection committee interviewed other applicants.
"I knew I had a pretty good shot at the job," Morey said, "but to be honest, I began to wonder if I really wanted it. I liked what I was doing. I had gotten some visibility, and my profile was rising. And then, while we were waiting for the answer, we found out that Joyce was pregnant."
When the offer finally came through with assurances that the university wanted him to do exactly what he said they should do with the theater, he asked for a week to think about it.
"I kept asking myself, do I want to try this?" he said.
The answer came on an unusually warm spring day in New York. Morey was riding home in the subway during rush hour, and one of the subway cars got stuck in the tunnel.
"Because it was spring, the heat in the car was still on even though it was warm outside," Morey remembers. "So I'm standing there in the subway, holding on to a strap, dripping with sweat in a stalled car, and I'm thinking, 'If I go to Utah I won't have to do this anymore.'"
By the time he got home he was sure that they needed to take the PTC job, and he was anxious to tell Joyce as soon as he walked into their apartment. But she wasn't there. So he thought about how he would tell her while he waited for her. When she walked in a few minutes later she was clearly agitated. She didn't give him a chance to speak. "We're going to Utah!" she announced.
"She had been on the same train," Morey said, laughing.
Morey signed a one-year contract with the university. "My feeling was, if they wanted to get rid of me after the first year, I didn't want to be there," he said. "So I didn't really worry about it."
His idea was this was a three- to five-year job. "I knew I couldn't accomplish what I wanted to accomplish in less time than that," he said. But after a few months on the job he realized the task was more daunting than he originally thought. In fact, he knew that the first day on the job.
"Keith had left me with an absolutely pristine office," Morey recalled. "There was just one piece of paper on the desk. On the paper it said that season ticket subscriptions were down by 1,500."
Suddenly that stalled, sticky hot subway car didn't seem so bad.
"I knew we had a problem when I directed those earlier plays," Morey said. "Night after night I would look at the audience and there would be this sea of bald heads and white hair."
He knew he had to find a way to attract a younger audience. But he had to be able to do so without negatively impacting the theater's already shaky financial structure. And he still needed to adjust the repertoire to include more contemporary plays and musicals, which would probably help attract a younger audience but would also drive away longtime theater supporters whose financial contributions were what kept the theater going.
"The first few years were rough," Morey acknowledges now. "People were upset."
He pulls a thick file from his file cabinet. It is overflowing with typed letters and hand-written notes from dissatisfied theater patrons. "I've got 10 more files just like this," he said. "People were not pleased."
Through the rough years, Morey said he never really questioned what he was trying to do.
"I questioned the decision to come here," he admitted. "But I really believed in what we were doing. I knew it was what we needed to do."
Years began piling on top of his three- to five-year project at PTC. "I guess I was too stubborn to quit," he said. "I just really thought this community deserved a theater of serious purpose."
And eventually, the community began to agree.
It was the 1993-1994 season that Morey's aesthetic vision for PTC began to solidify and become a reality. "We still got lots of letters that year," Morey said, "but we really turned the corner financially. It was our best box office ever, and it told me that there was an audience for what we were doing."
It also told him that he was learning about his audience. Because of his commitment to the written word of theater, he was unwilling to change offensive words or remove suggestive or even vulgar dialogue.
"So we started being very, very specific in terms of content advisories," he said. "We sort of struck a deal with our audience. We said, 'We're going to be true to the writer's work. But we'll let you know what's in the show — we'll be very specific about it. And if you don't want to see it, we'll give you the opportunity to opt out of that production in your season ticket package.'"
The deal has worked. Which is not to say that Morey never gets letters of complaint anymore. But he doesn't get nearly as many. In fact, when PTC staged the very raw, very adult-themed "Rent" last year, Morey didn't receive a single letter of complaint.
"I don't think it's because people have become hardened, or they don't care about language and themes anymore," Morey said. "I think it's because we provide them with information and we give them a choice."
So is that the strategy he would employ if he was still the artistic director at Utah's only regional theater when the Tony Award-winning but reportedly extremely vulgar and profane "The Book of Mormon" becomes available for regional production?
Morey smiled at the question. "I haven't seen 'The Book of Mormon,' so I can't really speak to what's in that show," he said, dodging slightly. But then he plunged ahead carefully: "I think it would be very controversial. And I think we would sell a LOT of tickets."
Clearly, he's learned a lot in 28 years.Comment on this story
"You can't help it," he said. "During that time we've staged 200 productions — I've directed 80 of them, and I've written nine of them. You learn things in that process. You learn about life. You learn about your craft. You learn about the world.
"But the thing I'll remember most about my years here at PTC will be the people," he continued. "I've met some amazing people here at the theater, and around the state — people who I truly consider to be my friends. That's what I'll take with me wherever I go."