Salt Lake Acting Company latest local independent performing arts organization to mark milestone anniversary: 50th season opens this week

Longevity of independent arts organizations in Salt Lake City is an encouraging marker of the local acknowledgment of the indispensability of community cultural and arts activities, especially given the metropolitan area’s compact size. The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Ballet West will mark its 60th anniversary in 2023. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company has begun its 58th season and Repertory Dance Theatre is in its 56th season. The NOVA Chamber Music Series is in its 45th year, as is the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation. Plan-B Theatre recently marked its 30th anniversary. The Utah Symphony recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

This week, Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) will embark on its formal golden anniversary season, with the premiere of Elaine Jarvik’s Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet. SLAC also is close to fulfilling its $1 million goal in raising monies for The Amberlee Fund, for capital improvements to the company’s 130-year old building, including an elevator and special considerations for those with varying visual, auditory and sensory needs. Meanwhile, costs for accessibility initiatives will be ongoing  — including captioning, American Sign Language interpreters, audio-described and sensory-friendly performances so donations to the Fund are still being accepted and naming opportunities are still available. Likewise, with the assistance of Third Sun Productions, SLAC has launched a new website design that emphasizes accessibility for all interested patrons and visitors.

Artwork by Courtney Blair.

With its 1970 founding by Ed Gryska, SLAC immediately jumped into the mission of socially conscious theater. Its first production was Megan Terry’s antiwar musical Viet Rock, written in 1966, a show that inspired the Broadway musical Hair. Gryska also wrote several plays that received their world premieres at SLAC. The company became a major producer of numerous plays that paralleled the gay rights movement and the expansion of the LGTBTQ+ community. For 41 years, Saturday’s Voyeur was among the most anticipated summer arts offerings, as the company translated annually the quirks and kinks of Utah politics into a satirical musical that consistently packed the house. 

Among the productions that have stood out as significant mile markers in the broader artistic development of SLAC throughout its history and have cemented the company’s position as a leader in independent theater in Utah were both parts of Angels in America in 1995, as a Utah premiere. “It was one of the first productions outside of New York City and given the themes of Tony’s Kushner’s play, it really struck a chord with audiences,” says Cynthia Fleming, current executive artistic director at SLAC. “Many of our patrons still talk about that original production to this day, and that popularity led us, in 2010, to produce it again (which was a first for us.)”

Artwork by Mo Willems.

As for Saturday’s Voyeur and #SLACabaret, its newest successor in SLAC’s summer schedule, Fleming says both shows “have all provided a form of catharsis for Utah audiences. We love celebrating our state and its ability to spark a love/hate relationship in so many.” She adds, “It’s also created such a celebratory atmosphere within our walls each summer. The energy is electric and we look forward to seeing how our summer programming continues to evolve.”

So much of SLAC’s work is propelled by social themes framed by issues that are both timely and timeless. “That is, the plays we produce tackle some pretty important social issues: whether it be marriage equality vs. religious freedom in The Cake, the right to end one’s own life in Winter, or 21st-century female adolescence in The Wolves (to name but a few recent examples),” Fleming explains.

Artwork by Courtney Blair.

Likewise, SLAC has provided a platform for nourishing and cultivating Utah playwrights but also it has been an opportunity to showcase stories that are not limited to geographical location or a necessarily localized audience. Fleming lists several examples of shows that received their Utah premieres and have consolidated their place among American theatrical classics, including Little Shop of Horrors, Angels in America, Nunsense, Nine and La Cage Aux Folles. “In fact, the original rights holders for Hair were so astounded that a little theatre company in Salt Lake City wanted to produce the show that they granted the rights to SLAC for free—while the original production was still playing on Broadway,” Fleming adds. “We’ve also produced some pretty incredible local playwrights like Elaine Jarvik, Kathleen Cahill, Julie Jensen and David Kranes.”

SLAC also has committed to producing work by a new generation of plays including works by Charly Evon Simpson, Melissa Crespo, Will Snider, Chisa Hutchinson and Steve Yockey. “SLAC continues to make a name for itself nationally through our involvement as a charter member of the National New Play Network and our partnerships with theaters and artists from around the country,” Fleming notes.

Nearly 19 months after its originally scheduled premiere was sidelined by the pandemic, Four Women Talking about the Man under the Sheet, by Elaine Jarvik and co-directed by Martine Kei Green-Rogers and Jason Bowcutt, will receive its premiere in a run from Sept. 29 to Oct. 31. Jarvik, a former Utah journalist who has become a prolific playwright, explores the intersections of feminism and racism in the play, which is set in 1895, the day after Frederick Douglass has died and Susan B. Anthony appears to offer her condolences to the family. Jarvik’s journalistic background serves her writing well, as she always manages to raise complex historical questions with an elucidating and fresh perspective that puts an incisive contemporary context on social issues and concerns. Original cast members Colleen Baum, Latoya Cameron, Susanna Florence, Tamara Howell and Yolanda Stange will perform in the long-awaited premiere.

Artwork by Courtney Blair.

The play was part of the 2020 Kilroys List, an annual recognition of new and under-produced work by female, transgender and nonbinary American playwrights. The postponement, however, also has given Jarvik and the company time to revisit the script and strengthen several scenes. The actors play characters on two different dates: February 22, 1895, the day after Douglass’ death, and Election Day in 2020.

While the words of Anthony’s condolences have not been preserved for historical sake, Jarvik imagines what the conversation in 1895 might have been like. Jarvik’s thorough historical research has paid nicely in imagining the exchanges in conversations involving historical figures for other plays she has written. In An Evening with Two Awful Men, a 2019 play premiered in a Plan-B Theatre production, Jarvik paired James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the U.S., with Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, as they auditioned for a fictional television contest show with the hopes of advancing to the finals where they can argue to remake their historical legacy. 

In her artistic statement for her newest work, Jarvik says she set out to explore the “messy intersections of idealism and compromise, feminism and race.” If An Evening with Two Awful Men provides a ruler as a guide, Jarvik’s latest work will mix incisive comedic moments with dramatic pulses that pack a wallop. Jarvik lays out the details: “The play features four historical characters: Susan B. Anthony; Helen, (Frederick Douglass’s second wife, who was white); his daughter Rosetta from his first marriage; and the incorrigible Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The cast also includes Zoe, director of what turns out to be a play within the play, who is trying to keep her 21st century cast on track while she navigates demands from a funding organization that would prefer a more reverential portrayal of suffragist icon.”

Artwork by Courtney Blair.

The season will continue with SLAC’s annual children theater offering’s return to live performances Dec. 3-30 after a two-year hiatus. The production will be the Utah premiere of Elephant & Piggie’s “We Are in a Play!” by Mo Willems and Deborah Wicks La Puma. The musical is based on a long-running series of best-selling books for young readers, written in comic book style with conversations between the two characters emphasizing the experiences of friendship. The production will be presented through SLAC’s Title I Arts Education Program both in-person and virtually to kindergarten through second graders across the state and country. 

The winter portion of the season will bring the Utah premiere of Egress, by Melissa Crespo and Sarah Saltwick, described as a psychological thriller. The new work received a virtual reading as part of SLAC’s New Play Sounding Series Festival last March, and will receive a fully-staged production in SLAC’s Upstairs Theatre Feb. 2-March 6.

The spring portion of the season features the Utah premiere of the 2008 Tony-nominated musical Passing Strange by Stew, Heidi Rodewald, and Annie Dorsen (April 6-May 15). NPR’s David Bianculli noted that “Passing Strange was written and performed by indie-rock musician Stew, whose real name is Mark Stewart. With his band, The Negro Problem, the self-proclaimed ‘rock ‘n’ roll lifer’ has toured around the world, putting out albums of what he calls ‘Afro-Baroque cabaret’ music.” The show revolves around a character known as Youth as he travels from Los Angeles to Europe including Amsterdam and Berlin. From Stew’s interview with NPR in 2008: “It’s what I like to call autobiographical fiction, in that every single thing that’s happening on the stage, I can point to something in my life, some kind of corollary, you know, that corresponds in some way.” 

The season will close next summer with the second edition of #SLACabaret, featuring plenty of fresh examples leveraging the comedic punch celebrating Utah’s peculiarities.

Performances of Four Women Talking about the Man under the Sheet will take place in the Chapel Theatre at SLAC on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Friday’s and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. through Oct. 31. Audience members will be asked to produce proof of COVID-19 vaccination and will be required to wear a mask in the theater. A streaming version of the production will be available Oct. 17-31 on SLAC Digital, with the film version directed by Kenny Riches in partnership with the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists (The Davey Foundation). For more information and tickets, see the SLAC website.

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