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Provided by Pioneer Theatre Company
Playwright Jeff Talbott, center, stands with the cast of "i."

SALT LAKE CITY — There are two sides to the theater, according to Todd Gearheart, an actor with the Pioneer Theater Company in Salt Lake City. There is the theater that everyone already knows — the shows that are brand name — and then there is the other side, that of the new and unknown.

And for Gearheart, “the other part of theater … the emerging artists and the opportunity to go to the theater and see something that you’ve never heard of and know nothing about, is a really exciting way to go to the theater.”

It is this “other” side that Pioneer Theater Company is currently working to present to its Utah audiences. From Feb. 16 through March 3, the company will premiere a play that has been specially produced with Utah audiences in mind.

As playwright Jeff Talbott explained in his PTC blog series "i & me & you" — which was set up to help audiences understand the process of producing a play — things started a year ago when PTC presented his play “i" as part of its play-by-play series. The series offers new plays and playwrights a chance to bring their work to life in front of an audience at a table reading and rehearsals.

Speaking about the play-by play series, Gearheart explained that until a play is read aloud by actors for an audience, it can be hard for writers and directors to get a feel for how it really works.

Courtesy of PTC
From left to right, Nafeesa Monroe, Kathleen McElfresh, Todd Gearhart and Colleen Baum appear in "i."

“It’s like the theory of the thing versus what actually happened when you watch it work,” Gearheart said.

The play-by-play series, which was put together by PTC’s artistic director, Karen Azenburg, is currently in its fourth season, and “i” is the second play from the series to go through the entire production process.

Gearheart is one of two actors re-cast in the same role they held at last year’s play-by-play reading. The other is local actress Colleen Baum.

According to Baum and Gearheart, the audience’s response to “i” last year during its table reading was overwhelmingly positive. And Gearheart explained that for him, “It’s a really exciting thing to be part of a world premiere. Especially something that’s this good.”

“i” is set in what Baum calls the “near future” or “soon.” She described it as feeling futuristic, but not so far away that it feels unfamiliar, and the story focuses on relationships, which makes it feel like something the audience can relate to.

“You see the way in which different people struggle with different kinds of pain,” Baum said. “That’s why I love that it’s a love story, because people connect even through the worst nightmares that they’ve lived through.”

Talbott said that when he sat down to start writing it, all he knew was that he wanted to write a love story. The futuristic/science fiction focus was just the means by which he revealed the characters and their love story.

The protagonist, Sarah, is faced with medical issues in the first scene, then she meets Jake — Gearheart’s character. From there, Talbott explained, “the play folds back and forth on these questions of technology and love on a scene-by-scene basis. But the real thrust of the play is these two people and how they are both struggling in a world that kind of doesn’t always help us to find love, to find love and each other.”

And while Baum explained that “i” is a story we can all relate to, Talbott said he has been working throughout the production process to shape it specifically for the audience here in Salt Lake.

“I think the audience here leans forward in a really terrific way,” Talbott said. “They are very invested in the human experience. … Which is very exciting.”

Talbott said the knowledge that it was headed to production helped him chip away at it over the last year. As such, audiences shouldn’t expect the show to be exactly the same as it was at last year’s read-through.

“We’re trying to deliver an experience to this audience that allows them to take a little bit of a roller coaster ride with really honest emotions,” Talbott said.

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And according to Talbott, every good play should start a conversation. As he explained it, his job as a playwright is to start something alone and eventually turn it over to the audience to respond as they see fit. He hopes the audience here will view “i” with a “big open heart,” and that when people leave the theater, they’ll want to turn to their friends and ask, “What did you think about that?”

If you go …

What: “i” world premiere, Pioneer Theater Company

When: Feb. 16 to March 3, times vary

Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater, 300 S. 1400 E.

How much: $25-$44

Phone: 801-581-6961

Web: pioneertheater.org