Plan-B Theatre Company: A 25 Year Retrospective | Buzz Blog

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Plan-B Theatre Company: A 25 Year Retrospective

Posted By on October 17, 2015, 11:01 AM

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click to enlarge Jerry Rapier
  • Jerry Rapier
In September, Plan-B Theatre Company artistic director Jerry Rapier spoke with City Weekly, providing an oral history of how the award-winning company was born and evolved into becoming what it is today.

The Utah theater scene in the early '90s: In the summer, there was Sundance, two musicals six nights a week. [There was Pioneer Theatre Company, Salt Lake Acting Company]. Theatre Works West at Westminster College, and then stuff was happening at the Egyptian in Park City, and Utah Musical Theatre in Ogden, … and Hale was kind of strong at that point, and that was kind of it. 

Two things surprised me when I moved to Utah in 1993: that high school football was on the nightly news, and that University of Utah productions were reviewed in the Salt Lake Tribune. And that spoke to the limited options of theater, that university productions were review alongside Pioneer. And really SLAC didn’t become an Equity company until 1997, so until then Pioneer was the only truly professional theater anywhere in the metro area.

In the Beginning: Tobin [Atkinson] and Cheryl [Ann Cluff]'s "plan-A," as it were, was to go to New York and become famous actors. Those are Cheryl’s words. When reality set in, plan B was to do the kind of work they wanted to do elsewhere that they weren’t seeing here. ... The first show was an evening of one-acts; there was a partnership with Another Language when they had a space on Pierpont, while it was still an ArtSpace property. Several early shows were produced in their office space. So from '91-'98, there was never a guarantee that a) the next show was going to happen, and b) that it was going to happen in the same space as the previous one. And it wasn’t that the company was doing site-specific work or anything; there was just nowhere to do work.

The first official season was '95-'96, at the Art Barn, which has no theatrical anything, no lighting, but it was a space. In that first decade, before we landed for two years at Salt Lake Acting Company, it was classrooms at the U, Art Barn, the New Hope Center—which Cheryl called the “No Hope Center”—an old Mormon church that was unbearably hot in the summer and unbearably cold in the winter. Where Pallet is now, where Big City Soup used to be, [there was a bookstore], and the bookstore and the café would have to be cleared, the set installed, the show would happen, then it would have to be torn down and the store restored. It was pretty wacky.

Cheryl has always been the constant from day one. The early days were all Tobin’s original work. Then Tobin enlisted in the army at the age of 35 and left. ... In 1999,  Tobin came back [for the 1999-2000 season], then moved to D.C. 

Enter Jerry: In summer of 2000, I was working at the Egyptian in Park City, and Cheryl was about to call it quits when Tobin left the second time. Morgan Ludlow got involved, ... and he programmed this season that was Molly Sweeney, A Perfect Ganesh and Psycho Beach Party. Six weeks into his time, right after Tobin had left the second time, [Ludlow] decided to move to San Francisco. So Cheryl and I got together, and we didn’t know each other at all. She asked if I would be interested in helping her run the company, so I talked to my boss, Richard Scott, and he didn’t have any problem with it because it was so different. And Cheryl and I decided we’d give it a shot and see if it worked for a couple of shows. It was just a big experiment.

She was so exhausted at that point. Nobody was making any money at all, everything was just so itinerant. She was really keeping the company afloat financially. It was too small to pay anyone, but just big enough to have to deal with … stuff. She was working full time for SelectHealth, worked for them for 18 years before she was able to work just for Plan-B.

It kind of worked out that Joyce Cohen was really interested [in doing Molly Sweeney]. ... It was just a Hail Mary to see if she was interested, so her doing Molly Sweeney was the first Equity contract, and it just changed things a little bit, artistically. It just worked out that there were these people who wanted to do what we were doing, and it helped elevate the work. A Perfect Ganesh was the first really successful show box-office-wise; we sold out the run in that 46-seat space. 

click to enlarge The Laramie Project
  • The Laramie Project
The Laramie Project (produced by Plan-B in summer 2001): I had heard about the development of The Laramie Project, but I couldn’t get my hands on a script, because it wasn’t published. It was kind of in the ether because it was developed at Sundance, and Tectonic was still in the process of finishing touring it. So they were holding pretty tight to the script. I found out that Dramatists [Play Service] was going to represent the play, so I called this poor guy every day for about four months, and just hounded him about getting a copy. Finally they agreed to let me have a manuscript copy, and it was probably the most visceral experience I’ve ever had reading a script. ... I read it, and I just fell apart; Cheryl read it, and she just fell apart. It was electric. We had to do this play.

It played here totally differently than it did in Tectonic’s world, because it became much more about faith and place, and theirs was about the invasion of the media on a very private thing. I think ultimately because we were here is the reason they gave it to us, because we were a non-Equity company with really no track record. And we did the first regional production anywhere. That show literally changed everything about Plan-B. It helped us understand the power of socially-conscious theater and the power of theater beyond sitting in the audience. ... That was our last show renting from SLAC. It helped us see that here there’s a place for character-driven stories about issues that affect us, here, in this place. It shaped how we prepared to shift back to original work.

Finding a home: After The Laramie Project,  SLAC [raised the rent they were asking]. It was clear they needed their space, because the company was really growing. So we had no place to go, and literally the next day, David Barber called me from the [Rose Wagner Center] and said, “Hey, some people from the University of Utah just did [a show] in the studio," and we thought, maybe this is a place where we could do theater. It had no theatrical lighting. The walls were just cinderblock. So we said, “We’ll come, please, thank you.” We did our first show there in June 2002 [My Left Breast].

The Rose is ultimately the biggest thing that happened to us. It just gave us a home. And it’s a compromised, funky space, but in a lot of cities it would be a dream space. And I love that it’s funky and that it’s not perfect. It’s the one additional cast member in every show that we do.

Developing new plays: We were focused on trying to figure out a way to segue back into developing new work, in a way that made sense to me. There’d been so much new work done in Tobin’s years, but that was all stuff he’d written or adapted himself. So I was web-surfing, and I read about this event at a theater in Wisconsin called “Blitzkrieg,” a much bigger thing than what our SLAM became. And I shamelessly stole it, but as a nod to them, Julie Jensen’s play in the first SLAM was called “Blitzkrieg.”

We didn’t know how it was going to go, but that first SLAM in 2004 was amazing. It was really the incubator. Two plays surfaced: Eric Samuelsen’s "Miasma" and Aden Ross’s "Running Up That Hill," which became Amerika. At the end we had a post-mortem meeting and I said, “I want to know more about the people in those two plays.” So that was in 2004. And by 2006 those two plays were our season. And it kind of blossomed from there. Now, like 80 percent of our productions are original work. ... There’s so much talent here, so many talented writers, and there’s an audience for this, and a passion for it. In the last 10 years, we’ve been able to shift from having relationships with specific plays to having relationships with playwrights. The success of Matt [Bennett]’s season and Eric [Samuelsen]’s season was really rewarding for everyone involved, for many reasons, but really for showing the range of work one playwright can create. It’s exciting to have a front-row seat , and literally watch them settle in to their voices as writers.

Avoiding the pitfalls of success: Honestly, every decision we make is mission-based. So we really are looking for work that is more than a play. Not that it’s preachy or didactic, but something that hits me in the gut. If I don’t have a gut reaction to it, I can’t produce it. ... We had a meeting with [then-Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director] Chuck Morey right after The Laramie Project. He said, “You’ve got to decide, are you going to be an institution, or are you going to be what you are now?” And we decided that we never wanted to be an institution.

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