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.”

The artistic director brings an impressive rÉsumÉ to her new post. As an in-demand freelance director for more than 20 years, she has helmed at least 13 versions of “West Side Story” in seven states, along with a tally of 50 other shows across the country.

It was Azenberg’s unique combination of background experiences and talents that sealed her appointment by the PTC search committee. Her administrative skills were sharpened as executive board president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, the national union for directors and choreographers. In that position, she recently negotiated the thorny dispute between director Julie Taymor and the producers of Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” that prevented formal litigation.

Praising Azenberg’s abilities, Laura Penn, SDC executive director, has said, “When you combine her respect for producers, administrators and audiences with her passion for artists and creative collaborators, you have what you need in a great artistic director.”

Her life in the theater began at an early age — in infancy, in fact. Actually, her family is nothing short of a theater dynasty.

Her father, Emanuel Azenberg, is considered an Éminence grise of the theater and will cap his career with a Lifetime Achievement honor at the Tony Award ceremony in June. It will be his ninth Tony, following 25 nominations among his 65 Broadway productions. Her mother is Lani Sundsten, a former dancer and the original stage manager for “Cats.” Even a great-uncle was in a Broadway show (“Skipper Next to God,” in 1948) and performed for many years in Yiddish theater.

“I do have to give credit. It is part of my DNA, along with just growing up with the theater. It’s what we do,” says Azenberg, who is a Tony voter.

While three of her four siblings eventually began careers in the performing arts, the Azenbergs’ eldest daughter still had to convince the patriarch of her dedication to the craft.

“We had one of those family moments when I was 17 years old,” Azenberg remembers. “It was a screaming match at the dinner table with my father. ‘Are you out of your mind? Why would you want to go into show business? This is crazy! There’s no money to be had.’ And I was sobbing. Sobbing! In an odd way, it was a test.”

Her father was asking her, she says, “‘Do you want it enough to stand up to me and tell me that this is what you want to do?’ If I was able to do that, he felt I was able to handle the rejection and toughness of this business.”

Azenberg’s own children — Alexander, 15, and daughter Emelia, 11 — currently show no inclination toward theater, but Azenberg is married to Augie Mericola, a veteran stagehand who will be “leaving one of the best jobs on Broadway, in the production of ‘Wicked,'” she says, when the family moves to Utah. So time will tell of the career directions of the couple’s offspring.

And what would she tell her children if they considered the performing arts?

“Don’t do it!” she says with a laugh, echoing her father’s concern. “The career has been very rewarding, but you can’t do it unless you completely love it.”

Quick snapshot

Azenberg’s biggest opening-night fear: “That we haven’t finished the show.”

Her favorite line from theater: “See, I never heard about ‘The Red Shoes,’ I never saw ‘The Red Shoes’…” (from “A Chorus Line”)

The stage show she hopes she never has to sit through again: “Anything by Eugene O’Neill”

The last song she sang in the shower: “I can’t tell you that. It would give away a show that is in the next season; but it was this morning.”

She wants her New York Times obituary to say: “Successfully ran the Pioneer Theatre for 25 years.”

The one thing she wants Utah audiences to do: “Try”

Season announcement dates

Following Pioneer Theatre Company’s 2012-2013 season announcement on May 1, Plan-B Theatre Company and Hale Centre Theatre West Valley will debut their seasons of shows in mid-May. CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, Hale Center Theater Orem and the Utah Valley University Department of Theatrical Arts will make their announcements in June.

The following theater companies have previously announced their slates of shows:

Brigham Young University Department of Theatre: “A Second Birth,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Cleverest Thief,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Servant of Two Masters”; Theater for young audiences: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Henry V”

The Grand Theatre: “Into the Woods,” “Voice of the Prairie,” “Death of a Salesman,” “La Cage aux Folles”

University of Utah Department of Theatre: “Vernon God Little,” “’Tis Pity,” “A Flea in Her Ear,” “Spring Awakening,” “Geography Club,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Reasons to Be Pretty,” “The Eccentrics”

Weber State University Department of Performing Arts: “Charm,” “Lucky Stiff,” “The Will Rogers Follies,” “The Comedy of Oedipus”

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