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Laura Trinnaman, Utah Valley University Marketing
Elizabeth Golden, shown with James McKinney, was honored with an outstanding performance award by the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival for her role as Widow Ursula in "Vincent in Brixton." The Utah Valley University production received five other honors.
It was just a beautiful jewel of a production that was so beautifully designed, so beautifully directed, so beautifully acted. It's easy to say that for a program of the size of Utah Valley University that this is extraordinary — and happily rare. —Gregg Henry

WASHINGTON — It’s a story not unlike Rocky Balboa overcoming all odds to be declared world heavyweight champion — and then the low-budget film “Rocky” sweeps the Academy Awards.

Utah Valley University’s theater department has swept a nationwide competition, winning a string of six across-the-boards highly prestigious awards.

“Vincent in Brixton” was honored as outstanding production, outstanding performance by an actress, outstanding direction, outstanding scenic design, outstanding costume design and distinguished ensemble at the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

“It was just a beautiful jewel of a production that was so beautifully designed, so beautifully directed, so beautifully acted,” said Gregg Henry, artistic director of the festival at which 600 collegiate theater departments from across the country compete. “It’s easy to say that for a program of the size of Utah Valley University that this is extraordinary — and happily rare.”

It’s an extraordinary achievement, but not surprising to Henry, after seeing previous productions directed by UVU’s Chris Clark. Chairman of the university’s theater department, Clark has shepherded three previous productions considered for honors at the national level following competition at one of eight regional festival events.

“I’ve seen Chris Clark’s work for years, and I’m always floored by it,” he said. “I remember his production of ‘Nosferatu’ as one of those amazing things that’s on my short list of all-time great theater experiences. And ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ to use the phrase again, just floored me. And then you factor in the design work that’s happening there and the quality of the acting that’s happening there, it’s just extraordinary. It’s turned into a hotbed, in the best possible sense, and not just standard, quality work. It’s an extraordinary achievement in the way he thinks about making theater and challenging audiences and challenging what it is to make theater now, in 2013.”

The third stage work invited to compete at the nationwide festival Clark directed was an innovative production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

K. Newell Dayley, dean of UVU’s School of the Arts, also singles out Clark for his contribution to the success the theater department has enjoyed.

“When I saw ‘Vincent in Brixton’ last fall I was overwhelmed,” Dayley said. “I’ve never seen anything on Broadway that moved me any more than it did. Chris’ direction was just extraordinary. I didn’t want the play to end. Everything worked perfectly.”

The play, never previously performed in Utah, is the story of Vincent van Gogh’s stay at a Brixton, London, boarding house. The young artist develops a rapport with a widow twice his age, which blossoms into a full-blown relationship, only to be cruelly curtailed by the arrival of his fiercely puritan sister.

Along with the award to Clark for his direction, the others honored were Stephen Purdy, scenic design; Jennessa Law, costume design; Elizabeth Golden, actress; and the other actors in the production — James McKinney, Eric Phillips, Lucy McNair, Jessamyn Svensson — as a group for distinguished honors. Britni Wing played a role in the initial production.

There are nine KCACTF member universities in Utah, but UVU was the only university in the state competing at the national event. “It must be wild to bump into Chris’ work and the work of his program regularly,” Henry said. “What a great thing.”

“It’s something that your community should be proud of, that you have these artists in your midst,” he concluded. “The kids in Utah Valley don’t have to go to a great city. They’ve got some great things happening right there. It’s not like they need to go to New York to do great work or be exposed to be great theater.

“I count you lucky in Utah that you’re able to encounter that high level of work on a regular basis.”

For information on the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, visit kennedy-center.org/education/actf. For the full list of the organization's 2013 awards, visit the KCACTF blog.