Twenty years ago, a group of energetic young actors got together in the intimate surroundings of Eliot Hall at the First Unitarian Church to produce the Human Ensemble Company's first stage production - "Viet Rock."
Like many such undertakings, it was both a relatively small start and something of a risk - a rock opera in a community with a definite "Rodgers & Hammerstein Land" reputation.But during the next two decades, the tiny company flourished and grew, evolving into the nationally recognized Salt Lake Acting Company and, after a brief stop at Arrow Press Square, settling into its permanent home in the historic Marmalade Hill Center. Back in 1970, who would've guessed that 20 years down the road SLAC would eventually rank alongside the Utah Symphony and Ballet West as one of Utah's foremost arts organizations.
Both the building and the company are commemorating some important turning points this year. Salt Lake Acting Company is about to embark on its 20th anniversary season and the old LDS church house is 100 years old.
SLAC's new logo, enlarged at left, was designed especially by Mike Richards of Richards & Swensen Inc., to "recreate the image and energy of SLAC."
SLAC's founder and artistic director, Edward J. Gryska, and board member Catherine Frances Gillmor, who is chairing the company's 20th anniversary celebration, are excited about the 1990-91 season.
- THE SEASON'S LINEUP includes two major Broadway award-winners and two premieres, along with some shuffling that will permit a sixth production to be inserted into the schedule when SLAC mounts its 1991-92 season.
The big change this coming season is the shifting of SLAC's annual mega-hit, "Saturday's Voyeur," back into a summer slot.
Gryska said there were two main reasons for doing this.
"We've wanted to spruce up the show and put some new life into it with new sets and costumes, and move it out of the Christmas season format. It also opens up the November-December time and we'll have the opportunity to do one additional play in the 1991-92 season," he said.
So "Saturday's Voyeur" won't be done this season. The theater will be dark following SLAC's current production of John OLive's "The Voice of the Prairie." Actually, although the theater won't be open, it will be a busy place. The building's old swamp coolers are being replaced by a completely new air conditioning system.
Gryska said SLAC is also negotiating to take over lease for the entire building. There are plans to do extensive "sprucing up" on the exterior and make the historic site even more attractive.
The five 1990-91 productions are:
- "M. Butterfly," by David Henry Hwang (Sept. 10-Nov. 4).
- "White Man Dancing," the regional premiere of Stephen Metcalfe's play (Jan. 16-Feb. 17, 1991).
- "White Money," the premiere of a new play by Utah native Julie Jensen (March 13-April 14).
- "The Heidi Chronicles," Wendy Wasserstein's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner (May 8-June 23).
- "Saturday's Voyeur: Summer Roadshow 1991," (July 16-Sept. 2).
With no production in the usual November-December time slot, there's a good possibility that "M. Butterfly" could be extended.
SLAC is one of only two regional theaters in the country successfully negotiating local productions of the show, which is going on national tour.
"White Man Dancing" will be staged at SLAC before it's scheduled to open on Broadway. The show is premiering July 3 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego but is not scheduled to open on Broadway until after the SLAC run. This situation occurred only once before, when "The Fifth of July" had a brief run in New York, then played at SLAC, and then was re-mounted on Broadway with a "name" cast and became a successful show.
Playwrights Metcalfe, Jensen and Wasserstein will be invited to the openings of their plays at SLAC.
The season finale, "Saturday's Voyeur: Summer Roadshow 1991" (July 16-Sept. 2, 1991), will return to its summer roots in what, by then, will be an air conditioned theater.
- LET THE CELEBRATION BEGIN - SLAC board member Frances Gillmor has been busy these past few weeks planning a number of special events to celebrate the company's 20th anniversary.
First up is a free "Kick-Off-The-Season" party Sept. 16 at the University of Utah Arboretum for all 1990-91 season ticket subscribers. It'll be catered by Brumby's.
On Oct. 27, a formal black tie dinner with dancing and a floorshow will be held at the Marriott Hotel. Gillmor, who is chairing this event, said the floorshow, being written by Gryska, will be a revue spotlighting some of the productions SLAC has done down through the years.
"We used to have dress-up awards dinners for actors and friends, with everyone gussied up in tuxedoes and evening dresses," noted Gryska, "and this will be the first really big, formal SLAC dinner downtown."
Gillmor said tickets for this event are $50 each, and tables are available for corporate sponsors.
On Nov. 1, SLAC will sponsor its annual Betty Yankowitz Bowling Classic (related story on this page).
Three major events and fund-raising activities are planned for 1991: the annual "Casino Night" fund-raiser on Feb. 23 (tickets $25); a special donor appreciation party on June 7, and the "Saturday's Voyeur" Days of '47 benefit and parade on July 24 (all seats $50 each).
- SALT LAKE ACTING COMPANY is the only performing arts organization in the Mountain West to receive funding from the prestigious Shubert Foundation. The company has made substantial and significant contributions to professional theater in Utah and SLAC is looking forward to continued growth in the future.
Gillmor noted that SLAC's board of trustees - like those of many other performing arts organizations - takes an active role in developing and nurturing the company.
"There's a lot of energy on this board and the members find it worthwhile to get involved. You don't get that with a lot of organizations," she said.
Gillmor, who is director of development for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah Medical Center, has been on the SLAC board of trustees for three years.
One board member whose name is widely known in theater circles is Fred C. Adams, founding director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival.
From its very first year, SLAC has had a charter of incorporation, bylaws and a board of directors.
"But it wasn't until the last eight years that we really began working from a really good four-year plan that sets up definite objectives and goals," said Gryska.
When SLAC moved to the Marmalade Hill Center building in 1983, the company had just two front offices and the space where the former church house's gymnasium was located. It took about a month to get the theater into shape, thanks to a lot of hammering and painting by SLAC's young team.
Today, the company has 10 full-time and six part-time employees.
SLAC is completing the second of its four-year plans and is now working on a six-year plan, which takes into consideration the possibility that the company could obtain the use of most of the building.
Gryska said he's looking at expanding some programs, including utilizing some of the space for a second stage that could be used for experimental works. The additional performing arts space could also be helpful when a hit show is extended, allowing SLAC to move that show into the smaller space without impacting dates which may be already committed for a subsequent production.
Taking productions out on tour is another long-range possibility.
Gryska said the company recently did an in-depth survey of SLAC subscribers to determine how they felt about the theater's location. Patrons were probed about the theater itself and the availability of parking.
In virtually all instances, patrons had no problem with the location, and they enjoyed the charm and intimacy of the theater.
Gryska said SLAC recently acquired some shop space on Pierpont Avenue for the construction and storage of scenery.
But it's clear that Salt Lake Acting Company has found a comfortable niche in the historic Marmalade Hill Center, where - if the people behind the company have their way - the next two decades should be just as exciting as the last.