For more than two years, Utah Repertory Theater, a modest non-profit company has been renting space to present contemporary theater productions in the small, black box studio at the Sorenson Unity Center on Salt Lake’s west side. Utah Rep’s purpose, says artistic director Johnny Hebda, is to tackle challenging works of theater that aren’t often performed in Utah where audiences tend to favor performances that range from Rodgers and Hammerstein to not much further south than Stephen Sondheim.
“That’s been our mission from the beginning,” Hebda says. “We produce shows that, in the past, weren’t produced in Utah—shows that are topical, current and relevant. Accordingly, they are often more edgy but we knew there was an audience here in Utah for this type of theater so we felt we could support a small 99-seat space.”
And Lo! The humble company found an intermittent home in the 99-seat black box theater at the Sorensen Unity Center—a center founded on ideals of inclusion, diversity and free speech. You may recall that that the center’s very existence is an olive branch extended to civil libertarians in the battle over the LDS Church’s Main Street Plaza way back in 2002 (The Tribune’s Ellen Fagg Weist, dug up this excellent rundown in her coverage of this issue). It was built as community space to replace the chunk of Main Street that’s now a church park where you have to behave like you’ve signed the BYU honor code. You know, how they do with wetlands when they want to build a freeway? Same deal.
And, until recently, it was all working out swell. The small little theater was perfect for those of us who, thank you very much, will be skipping yet another staging of Forever Plaid at the Hale in favor of, say, Kiss of the Spider Woman. The plays were at night, they were ticketed, each run included a free performance for folks in the Glendale neighborhood, which is part of the Unity Center’s inclusive mission, and audiences were duly alerted whenever a performance contained mature themes and strong language. Oh also, the company paid rent to the city. What’s wrong here?
“I think of it like a movie theater,” Hebda says. “People come to the center for all sorts of things and one of the options is Rated R. They don’t have to go to that movie if they don’t want to.”
But, last Monday, Hebda was informed by the center’s programing director that the performance space would be henceforth ambiguously committed to family friendly programing. And sadly the next two plays on the docket—Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced and the 2012 play Straight—did not fall under that vague umbrella ostensibly because there are gay people and Middle-eastern types in them. If only Hebda had nice, good ol’ fashioned staging of The Music Man waiting in the wings.
However, the Salt Lake City Mayor’s office is saying that this is all just a big misunderstanding. Spokesman Mathew Rojas told me that the purview for programming was recently moved under the city’s youth services division and well, umm, those folks weren’t supposed to assume that meant plays with mature themes weren’t welcome at the Sorensen Unity Center.
“Our standpoint is that this is a community center,” Rojas says. “It serves a variety of different audiences of all ages and that is how it will continue to be moving forward.”
That seems pretty clear, right?
But then Rojas added, confusingly, that the city will be looking at the limiting the time any given group can book the theater, which, considering the multi-week runs of Utah Rep’s shows, leaves the matter up in the air.
“Nothing has been decided yet,” Rojas says. “But we are looking at whether or not to limit the amount of time a group can use the space for.”
Sigh. You almost had it there Matt.
“At the time we started, the space was hardly being used,” Hebda says. “They were advertising for people to come do shows here. We received praise [from The Center’s Administration] for the amount of attendance we were bringing. They [Center Administrators] keep track of how many people come because facility usage affects their funding. So here they’ve been praising us for attracting big crowds into the theater but somehow we are no longer meeting the needs of the community. It’s confusing.”
Confusing indeed. So what’s next?
Well, hopefully, everyone will come to their senses. The mayor’s office simply needs to issue a clear statement and stop hedging. Diversity is diverse after all. Utah Rep, like any other performing arts group who books the center should be allowed to stage the two (only two!) plays it had planned to produce at the Sorensen Center and me and my 98 friends can enjoy the company’s excellent work for another season and many seasons to come.
And if you don’t care for Pulitzer-prize winning, contemporary theater, that’s perfectly fine. Don’t buy a ticket. Don’t go. The Hale has yet another production of The Music Man waiting in the wings.