OREM — As Hale Center Theater Orem announces its 2015 schedule, the season also marks the company’s 25th anniversary.
“We operate in the funniest-looking building in Orem, but I’m proud to say we’re able to make beautiful theater,” said Anne Swenson, HCTO managing director and executive producer. “And we’re overwhelmed with gratefulness for our actors and our patrons.”
Under the direction of legendary theater producers Ruth and Nathan Hale, HCTO opened its doors May 25, 1990, in a residential area of Orem. The building had previously been a veterans hall and then a reception center.
“We had no money to produce shows, so we began by staging plays Grandma and Grandpa Hale had written because we didn’t have to pay royalties,” Swenson recalled. “Each of the shows only required a single living-room set. Tickets were $5 each, and cast members got a T-shirt if they were lucky.”
The Hale founders were the theater’s “training wheels,” and family members Cody and Linda Hale and Cody and Anne Swenson took over daily management and continued to nourish the nonprofit company. HCTO now stages 356 performances per year and averages 92 percent of the 300 seats filled.
Considering the exceptional theater widely available to Utah theatergoers, HCTO stands apart for its innovative abilities on a 320-square-foot stage — a postage stamp in comparison to other venues with similar creative theater productions. HCTO stages classic plays and musicals mixed with meritorious new theater pieces, yet each production is staged with consideration of community standards and values.
“We like to have a rhythm to our seasons,” Anne Swenson explained. “There is a variety of new and traditional, a variety of big and small, combined with historical and fantasy. Our patrons are experiencing something new each time they go to one of our shows. And the feedback we receive includes comments like ‘I didn’t know what I was going to think of this show, but I really loved it.’ We’ve been able to introduce new shows that have surprised our patrons, and we’re tremendously grateful for the community’s support.”
The 2015 season follows this successful tried-and-true variety, with one state premiere, a local semiprofessional premiere, two highly popular now-classic musicals, a historical drama and a comedy stalwart.
Neil Simon’s early comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” Dec. 29, 2014, to Feb. 7, 2015. “It’s funny; it’s still fresh," Swenson said. "It is the universal experience of two young people figuring out how to be a married couple that everyone can relate to.”
The epic “Les Misérables” by Boublil and Schönberg, Feb. 14-April 25, 2015. “This is a thrilling musical that is usually filled with spectacle, but we are going to focus on the intimate and beautiful story of Victor Hugo’s novel, which is essential to good theater," Swenson said.
The state premiere of “Big Fish” by John August and Andrew Lippa, May 2–June 20, 2015. “At its heart, it’s a wonderful story about fathers and sons," Swenson said. "It’s funny, and it’s bright. The buzz on the street has been that the musical is where 40-year-old men go to cry.”
“Into the Woods” by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, June 27–Aug. 15, 2015. “The musical teaches you about life," Swenson said. "It’s enlightening and inspirational, but it’s also a parable. The first half is a fantasy, and the second half discusses what to do with your dreams when what you’re given in life is not what you expected it would be.”
“The Diary of Anne Frank” by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Aug. 19–Sept. 26, 2015. “This is a story that needs to be told again, for another generation," Swenson said. "There are people who don’t know the story of Anne Frank. It’s an important story and a hopeful story, told with a beautiful spirit.”
A Utah first in a semiprofessional theater, “The Addams Family” by Brickman, Elice and Lippa, Oct. 3–Nov. 28, 2015. "This is just a hilarious romp," Swenson said. "It’s the story of a girl who brings home a boy to meet the family and hopes the family isn’t too weird for her boyfriend. And this family is especially weird. It’s a little bit spooky but not too spooky. We decided, ‘Let’s throw some camp in the season'.”
The Hale annual tradition since its founding, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens with music by Cody Hale, Dec. 2–Dec. 23, 2015. “For so many people, ‘A Christmas Carol’ launches their Christmas season." Swenson said. "What I love about the show is the message of redemption. That, for me, is what makes the Christmas season and why we will do it every year.”
What does the future hold for HCTO?
“Boy, do we need a new building,” Swenson said. “We need more space, more capabilities, a higher ceiling, more electricity. In order to grow, I need more inventory. A theater with one or two additional rows would make a significant difference. The community needs it, the patrons need it, the actors need it, our education programs need it. The support is there.
“We will still be intimate, with only a few more seats but not that many. We don’t want to stray from what we do. However, what we are limited by increases our creativity, and that’s something I don’t want to lose. One of our most talented directors, Dave Tinney, has said this theater propels him to think outside the box.”
“I love working at the Hale Orem for that very reason,” said Tinney, director of HCTO's current production, "Peter Pan." “As a director, the intimacy and the space limitations bend my brain in great ways. It forces me to think in nonliteral ways and to use nonliteral storytelling methods. It has taught me more about directing than any other space I've ever worked in. I think it also invites the audience to participate in the story much more actively if they aren’t given every detailed element but are asked to use their imaginations. I think they invest a little more.
“I also adore the producers,” he continued. “They are incredible, hard-working people who love theater and really care about serving their audience and their community.”
Mark Pulham, an actor who performed in the company's first production, Ruth Hale's autobiographical "Thank You, Papa," shared his own enthusiasm for HCTO.
"It's like a big family that I was adopted into, the royal theater family in Utah," said Pulham, who was in the cast of the recent "Kiss and Tell" that opened the 2014 season. "It's always a joy to perform at Hale Orem. The Swensons and the Hales value the talent. You're not just a commodity; they treat you with respect. You always feel that you want to give your best. That's why so many talented people keep coming back."
“Over our 25 years, there have been many, many good friends,” Swenson said. “There’s been a lot of joy and gratefulness, along with melancholy for people who have passed on or moved out of the area. There is also a whole lot of ‘I can’t believe we really did this.’ ”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company