The Morey Legacy: Expanding Utah's dramatic horizons

Pioneer's artistic director plans to return to N.Y. and turn his attention to writing plays

Published: Saturday, Sept. 17 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

Charles Morey is beginning his final season as artistic director for Pioneer Theatre Company. He's been with the company for 28 years.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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.

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