Today, I chat with S&H's staff, including artistic director Javen Tanner; managing director David D'Agostini; director of new works Laura D'Agostini; and director of special programs Tara Lynn Tanner, about their careers and forming the company, as well as their thoughts on local theater. (All pictures courtesy of Sting & Honey.)
Javen Tanner, David & Laura D'Agostini and Tara Lynn Tanne
Gavin: Hey, everyone. First off, tell us a bit about yourselves.
Laura: I'm our director of new works. I grew up in northern California; David is my brother. I attended Brigham Young as a theater major for two years, and then took a 20-year break from school. I did a lot of theater in Sacramento, moved to New York and spent eight years there. In 1998, I returned to BYU to finish my degree and have lived in Utah since. I have focused on playwriting for the longest time, only occasionally acting. I enjoyed the opportunity of playing Paulina in our recent production of The Winter’s Tale, though it was terrifying to be an understudy. I immediately liked Kathryn Atwood, our wonderful original Paulina. She is so much fun and was so gracious and helpful. I, of course, really missed her right before the first time I went on. But this cast was so talented, professional, and helpful. The students kept me in line, making sure I made my entrances on time.
Tara: I am Sting & Honey's director of special programs. I have a Masters from Middlebury College, and teach at the Waterford School. I have years of experience directing and acting, as well as designing costumes for the last two Sting & Honey productions. I'm also a mom of two darling children, whom I adore.
David: I'm Sting & Honey's managing director. I have been a fan of the musical theater genre since I was a 7-year-old boy and saw Gene Kelly do Singing In The Rain. I was enthralled. He seemed so happy, and that charming happiness was contagious. Not long after, I resolved I would be the next Gene Kelly and convinced my mother to let me audition for every community-theater role I was the right type for. I spent much of my youth learning the painful truth that I had no real talent for dancing, but I had a decent voice, and was a pretty decent actor. Resolved that my aspirations to be Gene Kelly were not to be, I also discovered my theatrical tastes were rather eclectic when I saw King Lear at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was absolutely fascinated by the beauty of what I heard. Not saw, but heard. I didn’t understand most of what they were saying word for word, but I was fascinated that somehow my thick teenage mind understood everything that was happening. After a short break from performing, I married my wife of now-17 years, and completed my BFA in music, dance and theater from Brigham Young University -- perhaps in the hopes of bringing some sense of coordination to my hapless legs. With two children and a degree in musical theater, it seemed prudent to round out my training and create some opportunity for myself. I completed my MFA in dramatic arts from the University of San Diego/Old Globe Professional Actor Training Program in 2003, and by 2004 had moved to New York City, where we had our third child, and had the opportunity to perform in a number of Off-Broadway productions including the title role in Homer’s Odyssey, an adaptation by Simon Armitage.
Javen: I'm the artistic director of Sting & Honey. I'm an actor, a director, and a poet. I have an MFA in acting from The Old Globe, where I was awarded the Craig Noel Fellowship. In New York, I worked as the associate artistic director of Handcart Ensemble. Handcart produces mainly new adaptations of great verse works. We produced plays written or adapted by poets such as W.B. Yeats and Ted Hughes. We worked personally with Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Simon Armitage. My poems have appeared in journals and magazines around the country, and I have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I am now the theater department chair at the Waterford School. I'm married to Tara.
Gavin: How did you each take an interest in theater, and what influenced you early on?
Laura: Our parents participated in some community theater in rural northern California when I was young, even before David was born. These were fantastic memories for me, and they seemed to love what they were doing. It was only two summers of watching them performing in a broad, funny, musical melodrama. My mother was the pure heroine, my father the conflicted but goodhearted hero, and the antagonist was a hilarious villain character in a black cape who laughed menacingly and had a real Old Western villain’s mustache. But as often is the case, there was a lot of talent in small venues in remote locations. At least, that was my perception as a child; I thought everyone was wonderful. I also had a teacher in high school, Alice Shaver, who opened up the classics in a wonderful way for her students. I fell in love with Shakespeare's works and was a lost cause from then on. I couldn’t imagine anything else I’d rather do.
Gavin: Each of you also have had some success on either one of the Coasts, except for Tara, who chose to study Shakespeare at Oxford. What was it like for you to branch out in your respective careers and knowledge of the profession?
Tara: During my undergrad, I went on study abroad to London, and it opened me eyes to what theater could really do. Later, I lived in New York City for more than five years and taught school, helped in the theater department and, best of all, saw as much theater as possible. Seeing great -- and not-so-great -- productions is a school like no other. Then at Oxford a couple of years ago, I studied the great plays and saw as many productions as possible at Stratford and down in London in what was called a page-to-stage class. It meant I would read the text, have my own ideas about how I might stage it, design it, act it, and then go and watch someone else's vision. I learned that sometimes I was dead on, and sometimes I missed the target. Seeing good productions and being a part of good productions is really where the learning happens.
Gavin: What brought all of you to Utah, or, in some cases, back to Utah, and what made you decide to stick around rather than move on to the next thing?
Dave: Providing for a wife and three children in NYC can be an adventure, and with the market downturn in 2008, and with our children getting older, it seemed prudent to look west to our roots. With much of my family in Utah, and with Utah’s employment opportunity relatively strong compared to most of the country, it seemed like a good landing spot for the family.
Gavin: How did all of you come to meet each other and become friends professionally?
Tara: Javen and I met way back when we were young at a theater competition. He did a beautifully sad monologue that made me cry, and I did Ariel from The Tempest. After I sat down, he leaned over and said, "Will you marry me?" He's really a sucker for a girl who knows her Shakespeare. And we did get married -- many years later. We have known David and his lovely wife, Annette, for many years. They kept following us around the country, from Utah Valley to San Diego to New York. When we moved back to Salt Lake City, I knew it was inevitable: They'd eventually have to come here. And they did. Starting Sting & Honey was something Javen and I have wanted to do for a long time, but it was very nice to have David on the business side, and he brought his sister Laura in. Lucky for us.
Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start up Sting & Honey, and how did you come up with the Utah-influenced name?
Javen: Dave and I had helped run Handcart Ensemble in New York for years. When we both found ourselves in Salt Lake City, we decided we'd take our experience with Handcart and use it to start our own company. Tara and I had talked about starting a company for some time, but the pieces finally came together when Dave and Laura joined the effort. I've always liked the tradition of naming a theater company with a specific location in mind. There's a great moment in Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, where an actor explains the importance of respecting the audience. He says, "Once you respect them, they can understand anything you can tell them." Naming our company with Utah in mind is one way of telling our audience that we are happy to be a part of this community, and that we respect them. Sting & Honey is also a clear reference to the theatrical traditions of tragedy and comedy. Our logo features a honeybee inside an abstraction of Shakespeare's Globe, which for us is the symbol of great theater.
Gavin: What was it like for all of you putting the company together, and what made you take on your specific roles within S&H?
David: Not long after settling in Utah in 2010, I was sure to look up my old friend, Javen, with whom I had gone to school with, both at Brigham Young, as well as in San Diego. By that time, Javen and I had performed in a number of shows together and had gained a mutual respect for each other’s work, as well a trust and shorthand in communicating that similar training and experience can bring. We both longed to perform again after the year-long hiatus we had been on since our last show in NYC and concluded that we should simply produce something. After more conversations, it became evident that rather than just a single small production to sate our performing appetite, Javen had a strong vision for a theatre company in Utah, one which I could certainly get behind. Most of my “day-job” experience has been in business development of one sort or another, and as we talked things through, it seemed like a perfect fit to have me handle most of the business affairs of our fledgling company and for Javen to handle the artistic direction. In this spirit, Laura’s training and work as a playwright and Tara’s work and experience in theater education seemed a perfect fit to round out the company’s core team.
Gavin: What made you decide to work with the Rose Wagner for a performance space?
Javen: Dave and I have joked that we have done our time in found spaces and with guerrilla theater; we respect them, but we're done with them. The Rose Wagner is an excellent facility that suits our needs well; its central location makes it ideal. We love working there, and we love the people who run it.
Gavin: The first production you put on was Waiting For Godot in September 2011. What was it like for all of you setting that one up, and how was the debut?
Javen: I have been a Beckett disciple since college, and I strongly believe that Godot remains the greatest play since Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. But it was actually Dave who suggested we produce it as our first piece. It was a practical choice in the sense that we needed a small cast, name recognition and a play the established us as a company that can handle the great works. That's Godot. But we were well aware of the academic baggage that comes with the play, so we went into it with some trepidation. After years of studying, acting in, directing and teaching Beckett, I had let go of the way his works are "supposed to be done." I had come to know Godot as a great piece of theater, hugely emotional, hilarious and entertaining. I believed we could produce it as a piece that our audience both loved and understood. We weren't about to bore our audience in the hopes of receiving some silly cultural or academic brownie points––nor do I believe that Godot was ever intended to be performed in that way. The response was overwhelming. The critics loved it and, more importantly, our audiences loved it. I'm so proud of that show.
Gavin: Did you know you'd be back to do This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long at that point, or were you waiting to see how the first one did?
Javen: This will be our fifth year staging This Bird of Dawning. I originally created it as a Handcart Ensemble fundraiser. When we started Sting & Honey, it became an annual piece for us. It is, admittedly, a hard sell -- masks and poetry. But our audiences have loved it each year, and each year they have grown. It's a beautiful show that manages to feel both new and traditional. I think that's why it has been so well-received.
Gavin: You recently kicked off your 2012 season with The Winter's Tale. How was it returning for a second year, and what was the reaction like from the public to the latest production?
Javen: For me, Shakespeare is the center of the theatrical universe. I wanted our audience to know early on that we are a company that can do Shakespeare's plays well, and that we will do them with some regularity. The Winter's Tale is a play that not a lot of people have seen, but when they do see it, it becomes their favorite. The show received good reviews, and throughout the run I received e-mails, Facebook message, and even a couple of phone calls from people I've never met, telling me how much they loved the show. One guy saw us packing up our set outside of the Rose Wagner and stopped his car in the middle of the road to get out and tell us how much he enjoyed the show. The whole experience was very gratifying.
Gavin: How has it been for you working with the acting community and giving it a new place to hone its craft?
Javen: Simply wonderful. We had never before worked with most of the actors in The Winter's Tale. Each of the principals had worked with other companies in the city, and they opened those worlds to us. It has been so good to get to know Salt Lake's theater community better through our cast. The four of us did our undergraduate work at BYU, and we will always love our roots, but we feel this community is the right fit for us. We very much want to be seen as an actor-centric company. We want our actors to return to us, and we want other Salt Lake actors to seek us out and join us in making great theater.
Gavin: To date, your company has only put on already established works. Are you looking to branch out into locally created pieces like some of the bigger independent companies, or do you just want to stick with familiar plays?
Laura: Javen, as artistic director, will ultimately be able to speak to the bigger picture of the company’s future productions. But as director of new works, I absolutely want to branch out into locally created pieces – I like the way you phrased that. I am primarily interested in promoting local playwrights and their works. I would like to first do a night of one-acts, even this December, if possible.
Javen: Our plan is to establish ourselves as a company that does the great works of the theatrical canon well, but we definitely want to branch out to contemporary and new works. We hope to "mainstage" a new work within the next couple of years.
Gavin: Going local, what's your take on the theater scene in Utah, both good and bad?
Laura: I am impressed with the wealth of local talent. I am amazed with what the other companies have built and what they’ve accomplished, now that we have a couple of shows under our belt and know what it takes. I am still getting to know people, but it has been a great experience so far.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Laura: Ultimately, I’d like to see Salt Lake City become a destination city for theater, especially for new works -- a TKTS booth on Main Street! I am planning to have this first night of one-acts, and it will be a playwriting competition. As part of the new works program, I plan on building this into an annual theater festival, focused on the work of playwrights. I'm hoping to have a meeting of interested people to get this thing produced – I've spoken to a few. This first event will be really small, but each year it will build until it's bigger than Sundance -- LOL, as the kids say. A girl's gotta drea:. POETOMACHIA: The War of the Poets, coming soon to Salt Lake City. For now, it would be a fundraiser -- if there are any net proceeds -- for Sting & Honey as a nonprofit. There will be prizes for the playwrights of all ages. I would involve students, as we have an obligation for educational outreach as part of our charitable purpose, and we always have something to learn from young minds. I already own Poetomachia.com, .org, etc., so I will set up a website soon.
Gavin: What's your opinion on other local companies and the work they're doing to promote the art?
Laura: As we are still getting to know them, I don't know that we are in a position to discuss this. But we want to work with them, we want them to work with us, and together promote theater in Salt Lake City and all of Utah.
Tara: I think a common thing in theater communities is a focus on the messages in plays. One difference with Sting & Honey is that we are more interested in the actual ritual of theater. That's our focus.
Gavin: What were your thoughts on the push to “bring Broadway to Utah” and the plans underway to make that happen on Main Street?
David: As I mentioned, I fell in love with musical theater at a very young age, and it is very likely that if you were to ask the average Utahn what Broadway theater means, the “mega-musical” comes to mind -- plenty of spectacle, soaring voices that hit impossible notes and songs you can hum coming out of the theater. There can be great entertainment value in these types of productions, and as someone who understands how difficult it is to support a family as a performer, I also strongly appreciate the number of working contracts these shows create for performers in the industry. Indeed, musical-theater contracts account for the majority of all production contracts on Broadway, and the vast majority of all touring productions. In addition, there is a strong argument for the analogy that as the water level rises, so do all the ships, both great and small. As Salt Lake City continues to become a draw for the large Broadway-musical touring productions, it can help the city be recognized as a center for arts entertainment. However, all that said, it will be vitally important for Salt Lake City to nurture the organic growth of not only its well-established theater tradition, but also upcoming theater companies like Sting & Honey if it wants to be considered a nationally recognized center for the arts and not just a stopping point for Broadway shows to pull a good profit.
Gavin: What can we expect from S&H over the rest of the year?
Javen: Our annual Nativity piece, This Bird of Dawning Singeth All Night Long, will be coming up in December. It's a neutral and blank-mask telling of the Christmas story, accompanied by classical and contemporary poetry, from Shakespeare to Li-Young Lee. Look for details on our website soon. Our next full-length show will take place in September of next year. We should decide on a show by the end of this month. So, again, look for details soon.
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