Cabaret of Light | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Cabaret of Light 

Salt Lake Acting Company emerges from a year full of change with a new musical comedy production.

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  • David Daniels

For Salt Lake Acting Company executive artistic director Cynthia Fleming, returning to the world of creating an in-person theatrical production—as director of the upcoming #SLACabaret—after more than a year off seemed like magical thinking for a while. "Even the thought of it, as we were in planning meetings and as we got closer to rehearsal, I was thinking I was in a land of make-believe," Fleming recalls. "It felt like, 'it's not going to happen, I'm just doing this to make myself feel better.' But it did happen."

#SLACabaret marks the next phase in a year that has been full of change for the company, even beyond that which all arts organizations experienced during the pandemic. They explored the world of digital theater presentations, with short-form works and this spring's all-virtual production Alabaster. They began an ambitious renovation of their theater space for increased accessibility. They discontinued the successful, long-running annual production of Saturday's Voyeur. And they even launched a new website, just for good measure.

Returning to a good old-fashioned live theater production might seem like just the dose of normalcy called for in the face of so much upheaval, yet for Fleming, it was important that the company took this opportunity to look at how they created theater, and to not return to business as usual. "My team and I had a lot of discussions about how we want to enter into the world of creating theater again," she says. "What does it look like, how can it be kinder, how can it be 'people first,' not 'play first.'"

To that end, Fleming solicited input from all of the company's staff, actors and designers to find out what they needed in order to do their best work. Some of the answers challenged long-standing traditions, like a costume designer asking why it was necessary for the first full dress rehearsal to be one that allows for no stopping to problem-solve with actors. And there was a clear new focus on allowing anyone the time they needed for any personal challenges that might emerge. "With this new philosophy," Fleming says, "watching the actors work through the play, help develop the play and just feel that creative spirit, it did jump-start my heart."

The production of #SLACabaret is itself part of the aforementioned change that removed Saturday's Voyeur from its traditional summer slot. The new work, written by Martine Kei Green-Rogers, Aaron Swenson and Amy Wolk, is also a musical comedy presentation, with a premise that focuses on a new arrival to Utah learning about the state's peculiarities through folks she meets at the newly-renovated Salt Lake City Airport. The decision to replace Voyeur, according to Fleming, was part of a broader goal in the world of theater towards looking at the inclusiveness of the kind of works they presented—including the jabs at Latter-day Saint theology and culture that were often part of the Saturday's Voyeur humor.

"Is it right to make fun of somebody's beliefs?," Fleming says. "How can we still find joy and comedy and entertainment that isn't at somebody's expense? That was kind of the shift—there's this new world of theater inspiring us to be better, and do better. It was just time."

Fleming notes that while #SLACabaret might not replicate the Saturday's Voyeur model of focusing explicitly on local and national headlines from the previous year, it still manages to address what we've all been going through. "It does, kind of underneath it all, explore our journey over the past 18 months—'I went through that, I went through that,'" Fleming says. "It kind of asks us, are you still searching, have you figured out what matters? I think we're all still on this journey."

We're certainly still on the journey through the COVID era, and SLAC made a decision early-on to require proof of vaccination for everyone who attends performances of #SLACabaret. "At one time, the [Actors Equity] rules were that the audience all needs to be vaccinated," Fleming says. "I don't think they say that now, but it makes me feel that the actors are going to be safe, the audience is going to be safe, and we can all have a good time. ... We've gotten a little pushback, but I'm sorry, I don't want anybody getting sick because of SLAC."

And for those who remain unsure about being in a live theater space, there remains the option of streaming the production, with professional filming overseen by local filmmaker Kenny Riches. The lessons learned from the pandemic year, and the ongoing option for virtual theater, allow Fleming to approach the upcoming 50th anniversary season with peace of mind, despite the ongoing uncertainty of the COVID world. "I don't think we're ever going to be as bad as we were," Fleming says of case numbers. Then she adds with a laugh, "But because of streaming, I can sleep at night."

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