Editor’s note: This is the 10th installment in a series highlighting arts organizations around Utah.
From the very beginning, said Sally Dietlein, co-founder and executive producer of Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley City, the state of Utah has embraced and loved theater, "the granddaddy of all the disciplines" that incorporates music, dance, art, engineering and more.
Brigham Young, the state's first governor, donated more than half of the funds necessary to build the Salt Lake Theatre, which was located in downtown Salt Lake City, completed in 1862 and had a seating capacity of 1,500, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
The tradition of theater in Utah has continued more than 150 years later with numerous theaters at the community, university, semiprofessional and professional levels.
"We are really lucky in Utah," said Karen Azenberg, artistic director at Pioneer Theatre Company, "because the quality — and not just here — but the quality of the theater and the arts that we have is tremendous, and it’s on par with anything, any other city in this country."
This is owed in large part to the talented pool of actors and artists in Utah, some of whom don't have time to dedicate to a full-time, professional career in theater, said Seth Miller, interim artistic director at the Grand Theatre.
"This is a way for them to still be involved and still have that creative outlet," Miller said.
Different area theaters operating at the upper artistic levels have different aims and approaches, and every production is unique.
“I’m always of the feeling that all of that (having many area theaters) only benefits everybody," said Jansen Davis, artistic director of CenterPoint Legacy Theatre. "Even if you go to the same show at two different venues, it’s a different experience.”
Following are brief overviews of five theater companies in and around Salt Lake City, listed newest to oldest and each a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that give local residents a chance to partake of high-quality theater productions — and, oftentimes, to be a part of them.
CenterPoint Legacy Theatre
Location: Davis Center for the Performing Arts, 525 N. 400 West, Centerville
Stage type: Proscenium
Seats: 525, plus black box theater with 100
Productions per season: 7
CenterPoint Legacy Theatre is “strictly a traditional community theater structure in the sense that all of the performers do it pro bono; they do it out of the love of doing theater," Davis said.
In turn, he said, the theater gives people who may not have opportunities elsewhere a chance to grow and a positive experience.
“We try to build kind of a family feeling,” he said. “And it excites me when somebody comes and they say, ‘Wow, that was such a great experience,’ because I know that we’ve done our job to create an environment where they feel comfortable and they can grow, and we’re always looking to see if we can stretch people a little bit.”
The theater has a small staff of three full-time employees, a handful of part-timers and some hourly workers for the box office and concessions. It also contracts with local artists, designers and technicians to help stage its productions, paying each “nominal stipends,” Davis said.
Although CenterPoint in and of itself is a new entity, its history stretches back nearly 25 years to the Ralph Rodger’s Pages Lane Theater, founded in 1990. That theater found success in its small venue, according to CenterPoint’s website, and “a case was made for a regional performing arts center, which resulted in our current home, the Davis Center for the Performing Arts.”
The 62,000-square-foot facility opened in 2011, and CenterPoint Legacy Theatre was born.
“We’ve really been excited about the type of space because of its traditional nature with the fly system — it’s allowed us to do some really wonderful sets,” Davis said. “We just did ‘Jekyll & Hyde,’ and it was really an innovative set. They had built staircases that would actually move with people walking between scenes, and so we try to be creative as much as we can.”
Though there isn’t a hard and fast formula for its season lineup, Davis said CenterPoint tries to include a holiday show, one or two classics that have stood the test of time, a show that “stretches the envelope a little bit” by being new to the audience, and a show or two with a wide age demographic to provide opportunities for children as well as adults.
“Artistically, we’re always trying to push a little bit of the envelope as far as what the facility will allow us to do,” Davis said.
The Grand Theatre
Location: 1575 S. State, Salt Lake City
Stage type: Proscenium
Seats: 1,064 and about 130 for backstage series
Productions per season: 4
Although the Grand Theatre is located on the campus of Salt Lake Community College that was formerly South High School, the theater operates mostly separate from the college.
The theater hosts a lot of school events, partners with community groups for fundraising events and is a rental venue in addition to producing its own season of plays and musicals.
Particular to the Grand, Miller said, is its choice of programming. He looks for “shows that aren’t being done a lot in the valley, shows that we think we can do and do well, and shows that we think our audiences would like to see,” he said. “Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s always things that you can come to see here in any given season that you’re not going to see anywhere else.”
The theater aims to be ethnically diverse in its programming, he said, which fits its association with SLCC, “the most ethnically diverse institution in the state.”
Another aspect that sets the Grand apart from other area theaters is its backstage series.
“The audience is actually seated on the stage, and we perform the whole concert or play or whatever backstage,” Miller said. “It’s a different way for people to come and see shows. It’s much more intimate because you’re right there. In theaters, we purposefully try to hide that, and so for certain productions — it doesn’t work with everything — but for certain productions, people really enjoy seeing that.”
When it comes time to cast a show, the Grand holds open auditions.
“Utah’s got a surprising amount of talent in the valley, and we like to highlight that, that everybody that we work with is a local, either working professional, or they might be your neighbor that’s doing a show,” Miller said.
“That gives us a really interesting sort of dichotomy of talent, from people that it might be their first show and they’ve always wanted to do a show and this is their first experience, to professional actors,” including a few affiliated with the Actors’ Equity Association.
The Grand has three full-time employees and several who work part time, but every person involved in a production is paid, Miller said, even if it’s not very much — in some cases, he said, it’s just enough to cover gas costs, “but still, everybody’s paid.”
Ultimately, Miller said, the Grand is about the people who are a part of it.
“I love what (the Grand) is to a lot of people,” he said. “Not only our audiences but the people that work here on our technical crew and our production staff and our casts the people that it’s able to bring together and the kind of experience that we can all have on a show together.”
Hale Center Theater Orem
Location: 225 W. 400 North, Orem
Stage type: Arena
Productions per season: 7
Covering the four walls of Hale Center Theater Orem’s green room, where its actors spend time during a production when they’re not onstage, are hundreds of painted handprints. With the room too small to display the prints of nearly 25 years’ worth of talent, the hands extend into the hallway and dressing rooms.
Among those prints are those of actors who’ve gone on to perform on Broadway and win Tony Awards, said Anne Swenson, one of the theater’s four managing directors.
Along with their managerial duties, each of the managing directors is also an executive producer and takes on different roles in the theater’s operations.
“It keeps us in the trenches, which is great,” Swenson said. “It keeps us there with our fingers in the shows, it keeps us there with the actors, and it makes for a really close-knit kind of organization here.”
HCTO has about 10 full-time and 50 part-time employees, Swenson said.
As one of two theaters in the area named after co-founders Ruth and Nathan Hale, Swenson said, HCTO is presented with a marketing challenge. Although the directors of the two Hale theaters have grandparents in common, each of the companies operates independent of the other.
HCTO holds open auditions and is able to offer two guest Actor’s Equity contracts per show.
“That’s really important to us, to not turn away an equity actor because having a professional actor working alongside all of our nonprofessional actors, it raises the game,” Swenson said.
The theater is located in a converted veterans hall, and space is limited.
“There is no untamed frontier in this building,” Swenson said. “There’s nothing where anything is stashed. We know where everything is, and we know where it’s supposed to be and what we have.”
The space limitations can also create challenges with staging productions, but those working at the theater innovate to make the most of what’s available.
“We did ‘Peter Pan’ last year with no flying,” Swenson said. “We had creative gymnastics, we had puppets. It was amazing. We try to go for telling the story, communicating the emotion, and we can in this space, and that’s a real luxury. If we were in a 1,500-seat theater, we wouldn’t be able to do that so much.”
Selecting shows for an upcoming season is one of the hardest things with the furthest-reaching consequences, Swenson said. The challenge, she said, lies in the question of "how to please all the people — which you can't do — and produce excellent theater and art without cheating the art? If you do ‘Oklahoma’ every year, you're almost doing a disservice to your patrons.”
No matter which production is underway, the goal remains the same at HCTO:
"We do theater that leaves people feeling better than when they got here," Swenson said.
Hale Centre Theatre
Location: 13333 Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City
Stage type: Arena
Productions per season: 7
Hale Centre Theatre got its start in a converted lingerie factory on 2801 S. Main in Salt Lake City.
“I don’t know how anyone had any faith to come, but they did,” Dietlein said.
According to Dietlein, within a year and a half, the theater expanded from 200 seats to 350 seats, pushing out the wall to the south. A year later, a balcony was built over the lobby, boosting the total to 387 seats, but “we were bursting at the seams,” she said.
With the help of West Valley City, the theater was able to build a larger building, owned by the city, which it moved into in October 1998 on co-founder Ruth Hale’s 90th birthday.
The 2015 season marks the theater company’s 30th anniversary.
HCT has the distinction of being the highest-attended community theater in the United States, Dietlein said, but it is considered a professional non-Equity theater.
“Everybody gets a chance to play any role that they win” regardless of whether they have Actors’ Equity status, she said.
“It’s kind of well-known that Utah is a melting pot for a tremendous amount of talent, and it’s electrically exciting to sit in an audition and see who shows up next.”
The theater has 34 full-time employees and about 75 who work part time, and it employs an average of 350 actors each year, Dietlein said. Every position is paid.
Since 2004, the theater has had an average of 99.5 percent of its 613 seats filled for each performance, Dietlein said.
To accommodate the brimming audiences, plans are underway to build a larger theater in Sandy in the near future.
“We hope to get a shovel in the ground in the spring,” Dietlein said.
The directors of HCT strive to present family friendly performances and don’t shy away from working with publishing companies in New York to modify scripts to suit general audiences.
“Our goal is to be able to play for ages 5-105, so patrons of all those ages, we hope, can come and have a wonderful time,” Dietlein said.
A specialty of Hale Centre Theatre is its use of a highly technical stage.
“It’s sort of reinvented center stage design,” Dietlein said. “It has a moving capacity and a technological capacity that’s pretty breathtaking.”
In crafting the season, the theater’s directors look for “a good season balance,” including productions fresh out of New York, family geared shows, something with “a little bit of depth and richness” and a couple of comedies.
“It’s the hardest thing we do,” Dietlein said. “In order of importance, the season’s No. 1, getting the directing team is No. 2 and casting is No. 3. If you can do that, then you’re good.”
Pioneer Theatre Company
Location: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Stage type: Proscenium
Productions per season: 7
While community theaters help give opportunities to anyone who wants to participate in theater, Azenberg said, Pioneer Theatre Company demands and presents a higher level of skill.
“What we have to offer is the professional theater experience, both for the people that work here and for our audience that is able to come and join us,” she said.
According to PTC’s website, the theater opened in 1962 at the University of Utah as the Pioneer Memorial Theater, meant to replace the Salt Lake Theatre that was built in 1862 and demolished in 1928.
Over time, PTC was separated from the U.’s academic program and made financially independent, and it became fully professional after forming a League of Resident Theatres contract with Actors’ Equity, according to the website.
The arrangement with Actors’ Equity requires the theater to hire a number of professional Equity actors for each production — an arrangement, Azenberg said, that helps the theater attract impressive talent.
Auditions for a role in a PTC production are open to anyone, but actors must be available to rehearse full time during normal business hours. And along with holding local auditions to cast a show, PTC scouts in cities such as New York.
But once casting is complete, the differentiation between actors begins to break down.
“We try to ultimately treat all of our actors the same, partially because many of the non-Equity actors that we use are hoping to become Equity actors, and so I think we all feel that it’s really important that they understand what they’re working toward,” Azenberg said.
In addition to its production staff and actors, PTC employs about 40 full-time and seasonal employees.
Producing theater that’s “the best that we can be” is a primary goal for Azenberg.
“I want to be able to continue to produce shows at the level of the best theaters in this country,” Azenberg said. “I want to be able to excite people. I want to be able to challenge them. I want to be able to surprise them. The thing that would make me saddest was if somebody came and felt like every time they came, they saw the same kind of thing,” she said.
In each season, Azenberg aims to present at least one show aimed at families, something recently done on Broadway, something classic, a comedy and whatever shows are needed to balance the season.
“Hopefully there’s something for everybody, but you’re not going to always love everything that we have to offer,” she said. “But for me personally, as a theatergoer, I don’t want to go and see the same kind of thing every time. For me, the fun of theater is it’s like a Christmas present — you never quite know what’s inside.”
Rachel Brutsch is an assistant editor in the features department at Deseret News.