The Utah performing-arts scene is as varied as the landscape of the state itself, with artists continually pushing the boundaries of their disciplines. Here’s a look at a baker’s dozen—13 individuals—whose contributions to the performing arts have had a profound influence on the works residents and visitors have a chance to experience every day.
Brittany Reese Dew
The Sugar Space, 616 E. Wilmington Ave. (2190 South), 888-300-7898, TheSugarSpace.com
As a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Brittany Reese Dew came to Salt Lake City after having taught, performed and choreographed with a variety of companies around the world. But perhaps it is her experience living for 16 years in New York City that opened her eyes to the ways she could help make Utah’s vibrant dance scene even brighter.
“I think there is a lot of great art and talented artists here, but it is very spread out and there are not a lot of central outlets that tie it all together,” says Reese Dew. She addressed that problem by opening her performing-arts venue, Sugar Space—a multidisciplinary arts center that presents and produces innovative dance, theater and visual arts by creating and developing programs that aid up-and-coming artists and independent thinkers. Her core idea was to create an affordable venue for performances, workshops and discussions that she felt would broaden the community’s appreciation for the arts by creating a unique creative sphere where international, national and local artists would feel safe to experiment with their craft. (Jacob Stringer)
Shirley Ririe, Joan Woodbury and Charlotte Boye-Christensen
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, 138 W. 300 South, 801-297-4241, RirieWoodbury.com
Founded nearly half a century ago by friends Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company is one of Utah’s premier performing-arts groups. Both women studied under several modern-dance pioneers, including Alwin Nikolais, whose work RWDC re-creates the world over to wild applause and critical acclaim. Knowing that the two needed to place the company into capable hands, they chose Denmark native Charlotte Boye-Christensen as their artistic director nine years ago. For her part, the well-traveled and highly praised choreographer Boye-Christensen sees Utah as a unique and fertile ground for creativity.
“Because we are away from major art centers,” she explains, “artists here are free from patterns, conventions, trends that would be associated with the creative climate of those places. I think there is a huge potential in this freedom; however, I do feel that we could all benefit from, and be motivated and inspired by, broader critical energy. Many respond originally to this place, which makes their work different from anything else visible on the contemporary art scene. I do think there is a lot of potential yet to unfold. Because of the uniqueness and the freedom here, our community is both exciting to watch and to engage in.” (JS)
Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, 801-581-6961, PioneerTheatre.org
Playwright Charles Morey has been artistic director for Utah’s premier regional theatre, Pioneer Theatre Company, since 1984, with the 2011 season scheduled to be the last in that role. Having penned nine plays, including originals Laughing Stock, Dumas’ Camille and The Yellow Leaf, alongside the expert adaptations of several 19th-century classic novels, Morey has also directed more than 80 productions during his lauded PTC tenure.
In all that time, Morey has learned that, “The Utah arts scene in general and the theater community in particular will be surprisingly diverse and vibrant to those who come to the state with preconceptions about the local culture. It is somewhat amazing that a city the size of Salt Lake should have a major symphony, and nationally known theater, ballet and modern dance companies. The Utah theater scene boasts two nationally recognized LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theaters—Pioneer Theatre Company and the Utah Shakespeare Festival—producing work with artists drawn from around the country from the classics to the contemporary repertoire to world premieres.”
In 2008, Morey helped launch PTC’s New Plays Initiative, in which the organization aims to work with playwrights from across the spectrum—from beginners to well-established veterans of the field—hoping to foster an environment that sees development of new plays from inception to the stage. (JS)
Wiseguys Comedy Café, in Orem, Trolley Square, Ogden, West Valley City, WiseguysComedy.com
Sometime back in 1991, Keith Stubbs made a personally monumental move to permanently scratch his very itchy funny bone—he decided to hang up his suit as a dual-coast stockbroker and hit the stage running as a hopeful stand-up comedian.
Although Stubbs has had a very successful career ever since that fateful move, his biggest mark has been left on Utah’s own comedy scene. Realizing that the state of comedy affairs here in Utah left much to be desired, he knew that the unique political and religious environment around these parts created a perfect storm, so to speak, for developing young and fresh comedic talent. But when he came on the scene, most comedians were slinging jokes at VFWs and hole-in-the-wall taverns. With the aim of fashioning the ranks into something unique, Stubbs opened a comedy club, rapidly expanding the chain to four Wiseguys Comedy Clubs statewide.
With such a stable of talent, Stubbs has created plenty of space and time for both locals and national touring acts. Sure, he has the somewhat obligatory open-mic nights for beginners, but he also frequently slots young locals to open for bigger names in comedy such as Louis C.K., Pauly Shore and Eddie Griffin. (JS)
Ballet West, 50 West 200 South, 801-323-6900, BalletWest.org
When he accepted the artistic director position at Ballet West in 2007, Adam Sklute knew he was stepping into some mighty big slippers. Founded in 1963, the company had grown into one of the country’s top ballet troupes and academies under the direct tutelage of 20th-century dance pioneer William Christensen.
Luckily, that weighty history did not scare him away. In turn, Sklute has worked hard to further cement Ballet West’s role in classical American ballet theater by introducing even more historical masterpieces. While certainly cautious of preserving Ballet West’s classical legacy, he also is sure to keep an eye trained on the future direction of the company by bringing new and inventive work by choreographers such as Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp and Stanton Welch, among others.
Sklute also aims to promote new work, creating “a platform to present and experiment with new ballet creations” by local, national and international choreographers. According to Sklute, his annual Ballet West production Innovations has a distinct two-fold mission, “A. to expose our audiences and artists alike to new and cutting-edge creations from around the world; and B. to develop our company artists’ abilities not just as dancers but as choreographers.” (JS)
Weber State University Musical Theatre Program, Department of Performing Arts, Ogden, 801-626-6437, Weber.edu
In 1988, Ogden’s Weber State University was looking to put together a musical-theater major based on a similar program that had previously existed at the University of Utah. Just 22 years later, graduates of that program—led by Jim Christian—have become ubiquitous in local musical productions.
While such a program might seem unusually specialized, Christian recognizes its practical value both locally and at a national level. “In the local market, [musical theater] has a lot of appeal,” says Christian. “But just in terms of professionally, in Actors Equity, the majority are making their money in musical theater.” To prepare them for that professional world, Christian and his fellow faculty members craft a liberal-arts curriculum that has turned out not just singing actors, but choreographers, writers, directors and other technical professionals.
Christian gives credit to his colleagues, as well as to the increasing level of raw talent coming into the program each year. “Success breeds success,” Christian says. “As a program grows, you attract good people. … But I think even more than that, everyone who comes through our program does technical work, does design work, does theater history. So when they come out of the program, they don’t just see themselves as a performer. They see themselves as a practitioner.” (Scott Renshaw)
Plan-B Theatre Company, 138 W. 300 South, 801-297-4200, PlanBTheatreCompany.org
Small theater companies come and go in a smaller market like this one, so it’s a particular achievement to be celebrating a 20th anniversary. Overseeing that happy birthday is producing director Jerry Rapier, who has seen Plan-B Theatre Company evolve from a little company that could into a vibrant, vital voice for innovative local theater.
Rapier himself has directed dozens of productions during that span, including the world premiere of Carol Lynn Pearson’s drama Facing East that graduated from its local run to stops off-Broadway and in San Francisco, and a production of Aden Ross’ Amerika that traveled to the Toronto Fringe Festival. Indeed, local writing voices have become a staple of Plan-B’s seasons under Rapier’s stewardship, including an entire season devoted to new works by Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett, and the first regional production of The Laramie Project. And every year, Plan-B shows its dedication to free artistic voices by creating a new evening of theater thematically connected to acts of censorship and banned works of literature and music.
Far from working alone, Rapier has an impressive group to work with, including producing director Cheryl Ann Cluff. But his guidance has helped Plan-B change the face of what theater can accomplish in this community. (SR)
Nancy Borgenicht & Allen Nevins
Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, 801-363-7522, SaltLakeActingCompany.org
In many ways, Utah is an oddity, especially when it comes to its homogeneity in politics and religion. As such, this place can be quite the social powder keg, where the smallest spark can lead to cataclysmic events. One unique way it has been able to release all that pressure and keep from exploding is a bit of self-deprecation via the brilliant theatrical foundation of Saturday’s Voyeur—penned by Salt Lake Acting Company’s Nancy Borgenicht and Allen Nevins.
By parodying all things Utah, the twosome have been able to turn their annual production into a much-needed outlet for dialogue, dissent and derisive humour, taking every last cheap shot they can at elected officials and public buffoonery alike. So you can bet that nearly 365 days a year, one can find them cutting out headlines from papers, watching nightly newscasts and doing the math behind which topics add up to funny and memorable. And some stories—like polygamy and political/moral conservatism—just go on and on, lending themselves so beautifully to parody that when spring once again rolls around, Borgenicht and Nevins simply can’t help themselves but be Voyeurs all over again. (JS)
Utah Symphony, 123 W. South Temple, 801-533-5626, UtahSymphony.org
The Utah Symphony has become quite a classical-music institution during its long and illustrious tenure in Salt Lake City. The newest music director, Maestro Thierry Fischer, is only the seventh individual in a surprisingly short line of masters who have taken up the organization’s reins. As such, he is charged with the unique and sometimes trying mission of reinvigorating the past while turning his fine-tuned ear toward energizing a clear path forward.
Hailing from Switzerland, Fischer brings an international background—he was principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and also chief conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic in Japan. His aim is not only to breathe fresh air into what often gets misconstrued as a stodgy affair, but also to show Utahns what flair, excitement and genuine personality he can bring from across the pond. “A new music director should bring new energy and a new way of looking at things,” says Fischer. “I can bring a lot to the Utah Symphony, and they will bring a lot to me. As a team, we can raise our level of performing to new heights.” (JS)
R. Scott Phillips
Utah Shakespeare Festival, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City, 435-586-7880, Bard.org
It is not every day that a Tony Award comes home to roost in Utah. That’s what happened when Utah Shakespeare Festival founder Fred C. Adams accepted the award for America’s Outstanding Regional Theatre in 2000. In 2007, R. Scott Phillips stepped up to take the helm of the institution that’s been going strong since 1962 and is now poised to celebrate its 50th season.
Steering such a large and long-standing ship can be quite a challenge. Phillips, who has a long association with the program—having served as festival director, managing director and marketing and public-relations director—is certainly up for the task. First, he’s gone out of his way to make sure that attendees are treated to more than just a turn at the theater by ensuring a true festival environment. He has also continued the path of mixing contemporary plays with a heavy helping of the Bard’s best. More significantly, as part of a new direction, Phillips and company have decided to combine their two previously distinct seasons, and will now open during the summer months and continue on one long festival haul into the fall. (JS)
| Linda C. Smith
Repertory Dance Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, 801-534-1000, RDTUtah.org
Current executive/artistic director Linda C. Smith has been a performer, teacher, choreographer, writer and producer for professional modern-dance company Repertory Dance Theatre since 1966. Her commitment to dance preservation is seen in RDT’s collection of historic choreography by America’s most revered choreographers. Smith has seen the need for community outreach among artists in Salt Lake City and has developed programs in response, such as the current Green Map Project, which works to promote sustainability through dance among Utah students. “I try and find ways to make dance relevant in the community and to address social issues,” she says. “I feel that it is important to help people realize how the arts connect them to a vast array of subjects … all things are connected.” (Gabi Gaston)
| Casey Jarman
Salt Lake City Arts Council, 54 Finch Lane, Salt Lake City, 801-596-5000, SLCGov.com/arts/
The cultural fabric of Salt Lake City is richer for the weaving done by Salt Lake City Arts Council program director since 1985. He founded and directed the three-day Living Traditions Festival celebrating music, dance, food and arts produced by the city’s ethnic communities. An independent concert presenter for over 30 years, he’s the driving force behind the much beloved Twilight Summer Concert Series, free summer concerts that feature jaw-dropping lineups such as Sonic Youth, The Black Keys and Q-Tip. (Jerre Wroble)
| Derryl Yeager
Odyssey Dance Theatre, OdysseyDance.com
Odyssey Dance founder Derryl Yeager earned his BFA and MFA at the University of Utah while becoming a principal dancer with Ballet West. He went on to perform in Broadway, film and TV productions and choreograph music videos, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the Tuacahn festival. Yeager brings his passion for movement and showmanship together directing Odyssey Dance Theatre seasonally themed productions that include Thriller, It’s a Wonderful Life and Shut Up & Dance. Comprised of 24 dancers who blend ballet, jazz, hip-hop, tap, ballroom, Broadway and vaudeville styles into energetic mixed-bill performances, ODT’s following is loyal and family-oriented. (JW)