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New Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director promises to polish 'a gem' of Utah

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, April 21 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

New Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Karen Azenberg poses on stage in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 20, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Karen Azenberg believes the Pioneer Theatre Company “is really a gem of this community.”

Theatergoers will get a first glimpse of the luster Azenberg will bring to PTC’s 50-year history when the list of stage shows on the company’s 2012-2013 schedule is announced May 1.

As a guest artist, Azenberg has directed-choreographed a handful of the company’s productions, with the acclaimed “Next to Normal” as her most recent. But the new season will be her first as PTC artistic director, following the retirement of Charles Morey after 28 years in the position.

“Twenty-eight years: can you imagine?” Azenberg says. “Chuck has truly made Pioneer Theatre a professional company that is competitive with any theater in the world, including in New York.”

Azenberg recognizes both the creative and administrative challenges she will assume. PTC has an annual operating budget of $4.5 million and continues to operate in the black, a true rarity for a regional nonprofit theater.

So what constitutes a successful PTC season?

“That depends on what department you’re talking to. The finance department says, make money, pay your bills,” she says.

For Azenberg, though, a successful season "should be a diverse season: a good mix of old and new and unexpected. A really good season would include something that people came to and said, ‘I didn’t know what it was or what to expect, but it was fun, or it was exciting. It was a surprise.’ That would be a huge success for me.”

Azenberg has a realistic view toward local preferences for theater productions and sees the enthusiasm audiences have for productions of the resident professional theater company on the University of Utah campus. “I understand how people are feeling here. I’ve lived someplace else where people think differently — and people think differently everywhere.

“I realize that for some people some of the choices that this theater makes have been challenging,” she explains. “I want to say this carefully, but I can’t say that I would change that agenda completely. I respect people for feeling that it’s not to their taste. But I feel it’s really important to keep doing diverse work that encompasses the breadth of human experience.”

Acknowledging the difference between safe and adventuresome theater pieces, Azenberg says, “Utah audiences actually want both. Some people want one and some people want another. In the spirit of including everyone, there’s going to be a little of each.

“If it’s too uncomfortable for you, I understand that. But for other people, it’s not. It’s eye-opening. It’s meaningful. And so it is important to do it.”

With the state's only other fully professional theater company, Utah Shakespeare Festival, receiving a 2000 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, Azenberg says a Tony for PTC is within reach, but would require additional national exposure. “The people who know about Pioneer know about it and know its excellence. But there’s a lot of people who actually don’t. I would like to work on that.”

Azenberg clarifies what she believes might be a misunderstanding about PTC by saying, “Much of what is put on this stage is home-grown,” she explains. “I realize that the actors come from a lot of places. Some are students and some are local and many are from New York. But the work is produced here. The sets are built here and the costumes are made here. I don’t know that that’s completely understood.”

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