Spring theatrical news: Salt Lake Acting Company’s The Amberlee Fund campaign, SONDERimmersive’s The Lost Generation, Pygmalion Productions’ If This Wall Could Talk

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Spring 2021 news from three independent theatrical companies in Salt Lake City include a $1 million capital campaign, a fine update on the dinner theater genre and a video piece highlighting the multifaceted legacy of Utah women.

SALT LAKE ACTING COMPANY: THE AMBERLEE FUND: ACCESSIBILITY ELEVATED  

Capital campaigns can be a formidable undertaking for small independent performing arts organizations, particularly in the midst of a pandemic where the challenge of staying visible already is substantial. The April 27 announcement by the Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) of a $1 million campaign emphasizes a solid example of how independent arts organizations can be sincere in their efforts to make the theatrical experience accessible to all.

With the official kickoff announced, the campaign already has raised $775,000 of its goal. There also is a matching challenge of up to $500,000 by the Linda and Don Price Legacy Fund. Last year,after SLAC canceled its productions, the company offered to refund the costs of tickets, issue a gift certificate or give the opportunity to donate to the company’s plans to improve its accessibility in the theater. SLAC reported that many patrons decided to contribute to the campaign. 

Amberlee Hatton-Ward (right) with fellow theater patrons. Photo: Shauna Rasmussen Hutton-Ward.

The campaign honors the memory of Amberlee Hatton-Ward, who used a wheelchair and required alternative means of communications and frequently attended the company’s holiday season productions for children, prior to her passing in 2019. SLAC’s theater, a 130-year-old building that once served as a Mormon ward house, however, did not have an elevator and it took several people to carry her and her wheelchair into the Upstairs Theatre where the productions took place. As her mother, Shauna Rasmussen Hatton-Ward, noted at the campaign kickoff, recalling the joy her daughter experienced every year with the company’s holiday season show, “The stage and performances captivated us and let us forget for just a moment the difficulties of life. SLAC will always be one of our favorite memories. Amberlee loved music and the theater. It was by far the most precious way she could express herself, in her limited condition of confinement, and it will always be one of the fondest memories we have. Forever.”

Construction, which is expected to be completed in time for the summer premiere of SLAC’s new cabaret show in advance of the golden anniversary season next fall, will bring many improvements not just for the benefit of audiences but also for actors. For solving the architectural challenges of improvements in a building constructed in the late 19th century, SLAC turned to the local nonprofit ASSIST Inc. Community Design Center. As a result, the recommended changes are dramatic in the interior without compromising the overall historical integrity of the structure.

Salt Lake Acting Company box office construction. Photo: John Downing.

The space has been reconfigured to accommodate an elevator while the lobby and box office area have been redesigned as well. Accessible restroom facilities will be located on the lobby level with additional restrooms placed on the lower level. Dressing room space also is being remodeled in the adjacent LDS Relief Society Building for the actors and their respective accessibility needs. During the renovation, crews also discovered that the Relief Society building, completed more than 110 years ago, incurred some damage during the March 2020 earthquake. 

Patrons also will note some new design elements, courtesy of CityHomeCOLLECTIVE, which complement the focus on accessibility. Likewise, Third Sun Productions is redesigning SLAC’s website to accommodate visitors and users who have visual and auditory disabilities. 

For more information about donations to the campaign fund, see the SLAC website

SONDERIMMERSIVE: THE LOST GENERATION

Following an excellent run of the newest version of Through Yonder Window, as presented on the top level of a downtown Salt Lake City parking garage, SONDERimmersive’s latest creative venture is The Lost Generation, which elevates the dinner theater experience to an artistically more satisfying level than what this format has typically promised.

Conceived, choreographed and directed by Graham Brown, the show is performed in the spot-on period vibe setting of the CytyByrd Cafe, located in the downtown City and County Building. With four actors, the story adeptly conflates two key phases of Ernest Hemingway’s life: the short-lived tempestuous marriage with writer and journalist Martha Gellhorn and the genesis for The Old Man and The Sea, the short novel that would be the last published during his life but also would earn him the Pulitzer Prize and cement the Nobel Prize for Literature. The script for this movement theater piece is adapted from the writings of the two principal characters, with Brown being assisted by Rick Curtiss as well as actors Tyler Fox and Catherine Mortimer, respectively, who take the roles of Hemingway and Gellhorn. Kevin Giddens plays the Old Man and Amber Golden plays the Marlin. The choreography resonates with the rivalry that marked the marriage of Gellhorn and Hemingway. The most intense moments involve the Old Man’s exhausting attempt to capture the Marlin. There are few calm moments, which serve to invigorate the setting and make for excellent dinner conversation among the audience guests.

The Lost Generation. SONDERimmersive, with Kevin Giddens, Tyler Fox and Amber Golden.

Each performance, which requires paid reservations in advance, is exclusive to a single party of up to a maximum of 10, at a cost of $1,500. Each additional person beyond that is $75 per ticket. Reservations can be arranged according to preferred date and time, with coordinated schedules. All pandemic restrictions are followed. Likewise, the event is suited specifically for those who come from the same household or social bubble.

The menu, designed by CytyByrd’s Liberty Valentine, coincides with the progress of the performance. Courses include black beans and rice with plantain chips, corn on the cob prepared Cuban style, red snapper with peppers and onions and garlic bread, and coffee ice cream with coconut. Drinks served with each course include a glass of rose wine, mojito, tropical sangria and Pinot Grigio.

The performance begins as soon as guests are welcomed into the cafe by the actors who already are in character. The performance occurs in the main dining room and the overarching effect works as the creative team has intended.

Tyler Fox and Catherine Mortimer. The Lost Generation. SONDERimmersive.

The instincts are good and credible here. Hemingway and Gellhorn were equals as journalists and writers and when they married in 1940, their professional rivalry only intensified — a point heightened in The Lost Generation. Gellhorn’s work was published in Collier’s magazine and she had already embedded herself in the European theater of World War II as the D-Day invasion had approached in 1944. However, Hemingway was not in Europe, staying instead either in Key West or near the Cuban shorelines. Hemingway eventually would join Gellhorn in Europe, deciding to submit his own dispatches about the war to Collier’s. That led to the breakup of their marriage, which was finalized as the war ended. For those planning to attend the dinner theater production, one would do well to reacquaint themselves with Hemingway’s short novel as well as Gellhorn’s work, nicely summarized in Kate McLoughlin’s excellent book Martha Gellhorn: The War Writer in the Field and in the Text

The show captures effectively the contrasts in the writing styles of both principals. Hemingway’s terse prose bristled with a swashbuckling, vivid rhythm while Gellhorn, who had spent more time in the battlefields than her husband, transmitted the details in darker, muted tones reflecting the tragic sacrifices she had observed. When Gellhorn died in 1998 at the age of 89, the New York Times obituary indicated, “‘Why should I be a footnote to somebody else’s life?’ she bitterly asked in an interview, pointing out that she had written two novels before meeting Hemingway and continued writing for almost a half-century after leaving him.” 

For more information about The Lost Generation and reservations, see the SONDERimmersive website.

PYGMALION PRODUCTIONS: IF THIS WALL COULD TALK

There is no doubt that had 2020 not been beset by a pandemic, many Utah organizations would have celebrated publicly the coinciding hallmark anniversaries of three events in the history of the state’s women: the 150th anniversary of Utah as the first place where women had the right of enfranchisement in the U.S.; the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which banned race-based discriminating in enfranchisement laws. 

In downtown Salt Lake City, a 5,000-square-foot mural honoring more than 250 women who have made an impact in Utah is on the east side of the Dinwoody Building (37 West 100 South). The Utah Women mural was created by Jann Haworth and Alex Johnston’s with contributions from 178 artists.

One of Utah’s best known independent theatrical companies for advancing the works of and performances by women, Pygmalion Productions has produced a richly informative documentary style theatrical piece, If This Wall Could Talk. It emphasizes the breadth and depth of women’s pioneering roles in so many realms of life in Utah, interspersing enlightening, relevant counterpoints between the past and present.

Jann Haworth.

Directed by Teresa Sanderson, the 40-minute video, available to the public as a free offering on the company’s website, comprises a decent representation. There are clips with six women, who are depicted on the mural, talking about how their lives have adjusted to the pandemic and their plans as restrictions and social distancing protocols are relaxed and eventually lifted. They include Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City mayor; Dr. Kristen Ries, a leader in HIV/AIDS treatment; Linda Smith, one of the founders of Repertory Dance Theatre; actor and singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin; playwright Julie Jensen and Jensie Anderson, University of Utah law professor who also has been instrumental in the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. Pygmalion Productions’ artistic director, Fran Pruyn, also appears in the video.

In between the clips are short theatrical pieces written by Utah playwrights and performed by Utah actors, which feature historical characters from the mural. They include Juanita Brooks, a Utah historian who wrote one of the earliest and most definitive historical accounts of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, which occurred in 1857. Another is Emma J. McVicker, the first woman to serve as state superintendent of schools who pushed for statewide kindergarten. Others are actor Maude Adams; cultural figure Calamity Jane; Maud May Babcock, the first female on the University of Utah faculty, and Belle London (a/k/a Dora B. Topham), the famous madam who ran brothels in Ogden. 

Vicky Pugmire as Calamity Jane.

Debora Threedy’s piece about Brooks, acted by Barb Gandy, pops with the respective strengths of both playwright and actor in communicating authenticity of character and voice, as does Olivia Custodio’s piece about Belle London, marvelously performed by Natalie Keezer. The results are just as compelling with the other playwrights — Jensen, Morag Shepherd, Elaine Jarvik and Jenny Kokai — and actors Kay Howell Shean and Stephanie Howell (playing Adams and her mother in Jensen’s astute piece about the timelessness of gender roles and identities), along with other short set pieces featuring Brenda Hattingh and Vicky Pugmire.

Even after the pandemic, the video, which screens on the company’s YouTube channel, will be a solid ongoing reminder of the roots of how Utah female voices have defined many creative expressive possibilities in the Utah Enlightenment.

For more information, see the Pygmalion productions website

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