The Empress Theatre | Buzz Blog

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Empress Theatre

A chat with the crew running Magna's longest-standing theater.

Posted By on December 30, 2016, 8:00 AM

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One of the longest running theaters in the Salt Lake Valley is one you may not even realize exists. The Empress Theatre in Magna has had an interesting history, starting as a burlesque and later silent film cinema, spending most of its existence being refit and refurbished until the city finally got behind it and brought new life to it a decade ago. Now the theater presents classic plays and musicals with all-local casts and crews producing every show, with a year-long schedule to give audiences on the west end of the valley something entertaining beyond the seasonal shows. Today we chat with some of the theater's crew:  David Sullivan (Executive Director), Lindy Davis (Artistic Director) and Amy Livingston-Metler (Vice Chair of the Board), about the current state of the place and the shows they put on. (All photos courtesy of Facebook.)

David Sullivan, Lindy Davis & Amy Livingston-Metler

Gavin: Hey everyone! First off, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Amy: I'm Amy Livingston-Metler, currently the Vice Chair of the parent organization, the Oquirrh Hills Performing Arts Alliance, which runs the Empress Theatre.

Lindy: My name is Lindy Davis, a native Utahn, I currently live in Daybreak with my husband Shaun and our two dogs. I am the current Artistic Director at the Empress Theatre. I love all types of theater and try to see as much as I can, whether it be professional or community. There is nothing like live theater and I love every aspect of it!

David: I'm David Sullivan, the Executive Director of the Empress Theatre. I also occasionally do shows at the Empress, either as a character actor or with an improv group.

What got each of you interested in theater as you were growing up?

Amy: I've always enjoyed singing and dancing and performing, but never made the leap to live theater until long after I was grown up.

Lindy: I grew up in Draper, which had a fantastic city Arts Council. The first show I participated in was The Wiz. I loved the entire experience, everything from auditions, to rehearsals, to performing; I was captivated by all of it. The next summer the Arts Council produced Annie, I was 11 and got to be an orphan. From there, I was hooked. I participated in every Draper Arts Council Summer Musical from age 10 to 19. It was something I looked forward to every year.

David: I hadn't taken an interest in theater until very recently. I saw a handful of shows growing up, but had never really realized there was a very active theater scene in Utah until the last couple of years. I fell into it quite by accident.

click to enlarge The Dentist (Bradley Hatch) giving Seymore (Kurt Christensen) a check-up in Little Shop of Horrors. - DAVID SULLIVAN
  • David Sullivan
  • The Dentist (Bradley Hatch) giving Seymore (Kurt Christensen) a check-up in Little Shop of Horrors.

What kind of education and experience did each of you seek out over the years?

Amy: The only theater education I have is a few college acting classes. My degrees are in English and Law, but acting is often required in the courtroom.

Lindy: I continued to perform in different community theater productions along the Wasatch Front in my early 20s, and with my dance background I had the opportunity to choreograph a handful of shows. My husband and I moved to northern Davis County, where I immediately became involved with the Syracuse Community Arts Council. This is where I learned the production side of “putting on a show.” We lived in the Syracuse area for five years. I am very grateful to those who took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew about stage managing, set design, directing & blocking, producing, production management, etc. Everything I know about “putting on a show” I learned in Syracuse; they’re a great group of talented volunteers! After moving back to Salt Lake County, I was a member of the Cottonwood Heights Arts Council, where I costumed, directed and choreographed several shows.

David: I'm still very new to the theater scene! I've had a few music lessons, but I'm still learning the ropes of theater.

For those who aren't aware, what's the history behind The Empress Theatre?

Lindy: From what I’ve been told, The Empress opened as a burlesque theater for the miners in the early 20th century. My grandmother who grew up in Magna in the 1940s has told me that she remembers the Empress as a movie theater. I’ve been told that it was closed and abandoned for a number of years and in the 1980s, local stage and screen actor Leo Ware purchased the building and began renovating it to be a live theater venue. He never completed it, then about 10 years ago, a local Magna group formed the Oquirrh Hills Performing Arts Alliance, they sought out funding to resurrect the old abandoned theater and worked tirelessly in doing so in order for the theater to open with their first production which was Forever Plaid in November of 2006.

Princess Winnifred (Kat Tietjen) lifted by a knight (Randal McGuire) and the Wizard (Josh Astle) in Once Upon a Mattress. - DAVID SULLIVAN
  • David Sullivan
  • Princess Winnifred (Kat Tietjen) lifted by a knight (Randal McGuire) and the Wizard (Josh Astle) in Once Upon a Mattress.

The theater has changed owners a few times and received several renovations. What's the current state of the theater today after all the changes?

Amy: The building is owned by the Leo and Aileen Ware family. Oquirrah Hills Performing Arts Alliance has been around for 10 years and runs the business side of The Empress Theatre. OHPAA is run by a board of volunteers with various areas of expertise who donate their time and talents to ensure the artistic side of the Empress Theatre has what it needs.

As mentioned, we are simply renters of this historic building at the present time. Perhaps at some point in the future we will be able to purchase it, but for now, we are concentrated on putting on quality productions. Most of the upgrades one will see today are on the interior. For example, we are upgrading our stage lighting to LEDs and putting in better seating.

Elle Woods (Kelsey Costello) giving Paulette Bonafonté (Emma Thomas) a pep talk in Legally Blonde. - DAVID SULLIVAN
  • David Sullivan
  • Elle Woods (Kelsey Costello) giving Paulette Bonafonté (Emma Thomas) a pep talk in Legally Blonde.

How did each of you find out about the theater and eventually come to work for it?

Amy: I found out about the theater quite by accident. I drove down Magna's Main Street a couple of times when a show was going on and saw the lights. Since I love theater I decided I needed to see a show there. Shortly after that, I learned through a friend about a performance and upcoming auditions. During that first show I was in, I learned they had a need for board members so I applied. From there my involvement behind the stage has grown; I see a need and do what I can to fulfill it.

Lindy: A childhood friend that I grew up doing theater with posted on Facebook that she was in a show at the Empress. I was living in Syracuse at the time, but was interested and began following the theater's Facebook page. When we moved back to Salt Lake City, my husband and I went to a few shows at the Empress. I saw they were having auditions for Xanadu which is one of my all-time favorite musicals. So although I had not performed in over five years and had strictly been part of production teams, I thought it might be fun to be on stage again. I auditioned, got the part I wanted, and immediately fell in love with the people! Due to my experience as a Director and Producer, I was quickly asked to join the OHPAA board. When the former AD resigned, I was asked to chair the Artistic Committee which comprised members of the OHPAA board. We acted as the AD throughout a leadership transition. Last year, I became the sole Artistic Director. It should be noted that this, along with all of our leadership positions, is voluntary. No one aside from our individual production teams received a paycheck.

David: I had just taken a series of improv classes from Eric Jensen at the Off-Broadway Theater downtown, and was looking for an improv troupe to join. I saw auditions posted for the troupe playing at the Empress Theatre at the time, and I gave it a shot! They accepted me in, but I just stuck with improv. I didn't do an actual show for over a year after that. I joined the board after seeing some of the struggles non-profits go through and wanting to help. I took over the Executive Director position just a few months after when the previous ED had to resign due to work commitments. I've been in the position just over a year now and things are looking great!

click to enlarge Street Urchins Ronette (Andrea Fife), Crystal (Kylee Robinson) and Chiffon (Cassidy Ellenberger) in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo Credit - DAVID SULLIVAN
  • David Sullivan
  • Street Urchins Ronette (Andrea Fife), Crystal (Kylee Robinson) and Chiffon (Cassidy Ellenberger) in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo Credit

What's the process like for you to choose the kind of productions you'll hold each year?

Amy: It's a long process that starts with a huge list of shows we'd like to see done. It's whittled down based on cost and availability, and then again based on what we think audiences would like to see.

Lindy: This is undoubtedly my biggest responsibility as AD. I have now chosen three seasons. The 2015 season was chosen by the Artistic Committee which I chaired. I chose the 2016 and 2017 seasons, which the OHPAA board ratifies. I have a checklist of things I look for when choosing a season: A) Does it fit within the OHPAA mission statement? B) Will it appeal to a variety of people? C) Can we do it with the restrictions of our space? Is it even possible? And D) Are the performance rights available, and what is the cost? Once these are all met, I try to put together a good mixture of shows, I try to put together shows in a season that I think will sell (first and foremost). If our shows don’t sell, then we won’t be able to keep the doors open, there are many shows I personally would love to put on stage, but they simply will not sell the amount of tickets needed to pay for themselves. There are a few opportunities for some lesser-known works throughout the year, but those are few and far between. After the “Will it sell” question is answered, I then get into more of the artistic element of putting a season of shows together, those items include; a female star vehicle, a male star vehicle, an ensemble show, a romance, a comedy, a drama, something for a particular season (Halloween, Christmas, Summer), a dance show, a classic, something new, etc., the list goes on and on. I try my best to give a good mixture that will not only appeal to our patrons but also the actors in the community. Nothing thrills me more than to get new talent into our theater.

David: What Lindy said! The show selection is always a rigorous process, sometimes involving a fair amount of arguing, crying, bribery, physical violence and blackmail, but we hopefully end up with a varied list of quality shows that interest both our patrons and our actors.

Pseudolus (Monte Garcia) posing with the three Proteans (Gabrielle Neafsy, Kristina Stone, BreaAnna Torres) in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. - DEANNE JONES
  • Deanne Jones
  • Pseudolus (Monte Garcia) posing with the three Proteans (Gabrielle Neafsy, Kristina Stone, BreaAnna Torres) in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

What's the response been like from the community over the past ten years?

Amy: The response has grown every year. There are more and more people coming to audition for the first time, and more and more coming out to see a show for the first time. Performances for sold-out crowds is happening all the time.

Lindy: I can only really speak for the past two and a half years. The response is tremendous, especially this past 2016 Season! To my knowledge, it was our highest-grossing season on record. Our show attendance increased by 50 percent. That’s huge! Being the first season I had chosen, those numbers make me very happy, and I’m very hopeful that the momentum will continue as we head into our 2017 Season!

David: I can also only speak for the last couple of years. The Empress has had her ups and downs, and hopefully, now we are looking at more "ups." Our audiences have grown over the last year, we have new talent showing up to do shows, and we have been selling out more often. That said, we still have a ways to go. I am surprised at how many Magna residents still don't know our theater exists!

Do you have any plans down the road to incorporate more local material, like standup comedy or original productions?

Lindy: Unfortunately our calendar does not have much room for stand up comedy nights or anything other than our productions. We have done "Empress Idol," which is a singing competition, the last two years. I’m hopeful we will be able to host that event again in 2017. As far as original productions, there is one in particular that I’ve had my eye on over the past three years, and I’m hopeful to be able to produce it in 2018. I will begin 2018 season selection this coming spring. The season is always very secretive until it’s revealed at our Gala event every August.

David: I hope we get to at some point! 2017 is very full, but 2018 may be more promising. I know in the early days of the Empress we did a series of locally-written one act shows. I would love to see something like that again! We are doing some improv training and the members of the group On the Spot Improv, who put on a show once a month.

  • Deanne Jones

What are your thoughts on the theater having survived 100 years and continuing to thrive now?

Amy: Things that are loved and taken care of last a long time. There is a lot of love in that little theater and that is what makes it thrive today.

Lindy: I think it’s remarkable that we all get to play in such a historic building. As for thriving over the last 10 years, that is all due to the people. The people is what makes The Empress so great. But, those people change. Some move on, some stay, but what remains the same is that people are so willing to freely give of their time and talents to make the theater run. It’s quite humbling to be a part of.

David: This place has character. Yes, it's an old building, but that's part of the charm! The setting is very intimate, we only seat 118, and our audiences love the close-up feel they get, we're small enough that there aren't any nosebleed seats to sell! The unique stage layout is fun for actors too, it's a new challenge to adapt to being so close to the audience, and they seem to love it.

Mr. Mayor (David Sullivan) with Mrs. Mayor (Hailey Margetts) in Seussical. Photo Credit: - DEANNE JONES
  • Deanne Jones
  • Mr. Mayor (David Sullivan) with Mrs. Mayor (Hailey Margetts) in Seussical. Photo Credit:

Tell us a little bit about what you have in store for the upcoming season.

Lindy: In 2016 we made some major capital improvements to our space: new chairs, new lighting system, remodeled lobby, cleaned out our storage space, etc. Aside from hopefully finishing some of the projects we have started, I hope that we’re able to spread the word about our little theater at the end of old historic Magna Main Street. Even though our 2017 season will be in full swing and going strong, I personally will begin working on our 2018 season which includes show selection & interviewing potential directors. Keep an eye on our website and Facebook page for that information coming in the New Year.

David: There are a lot of Utah favorites like Footloose, Noises Off and Annie, but a few wonderful shows that aren't as well known. The Fantasticks is a beautiful musical that only seems to be produced once every several years in Utah, which is odd considering it's the longest running show in New York. Peter and the Starcatcher is very new and is also definitely worth the price of admission.

click to enlarge The Narrator (Melissa Holm) surrounded by Brothers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. - JENNY MAHLER
  • Jenny Mahler
  • The Narrator (Melissa Holm) surrounded by Brothers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

What can we expect from all of you and The Empress Theatre going into 2017?

Lindy: I hope to continue to have high-quality entertaining community theater productions, being a place where actors of all types and backgrounds are welcomed and treated the same. Whether you’re an experienced actor or someone who has never done a show before but has always wanted to; come give us a shot! I personally guarantee you will have a wonderful experience! We have a very busy 2017 planned with 11 shows. There is something for everyone!

David: As Lindy said, we made some major improvements in the last several months—upgraded seating, improved lighting, etc. We hope to continue to make patron improvements to give our visitors a pleasant experience. We're also investing in technology; we hope to upgrade our sound system for better balance and clarity throughout the building.

Is there anything else you'd like to plug or promote?

Lindy: I’d just like to add that the Empress is only what it is because of the amazing volunteers we have! None of what I do would be possible if it weren’t for my team! I am in no way a one-woman show, and I’d love to give credit to the following if possible; This is my artistic team: David Sullivan, Amy Metler, Tanner Lindsey, Ty Whiting, Justina Spencer, Logan Gifford, Ehlana Gifford, Andrea Fife, Bradley Hatch, Skyler Bluemel. Our show directors, producers, teams and, of course, the OHPAA Board of Directors.

David: Come out and see us! Everyone thinks Magna is "so far away," but it's only a 15-minute drive from downtown on the 201. Our tickets are the most affordable in the valley and you'll love the community atmosphere. We also encourage you to come audition for shows; we love having new actors and actresses join us!

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