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Step Into an Artistic Vision

The pros at Pioneer Theatre Company go big under director Karen Azenberg

Written By Katya Wagstaff

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Austen Diamond

The columns of Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre slowly appear as you climb to its perch above downtown Salt Lake City. The theatre sits on the campus of the state’s flagship university with metropolitan lights below and mountains behind that rise several thousand feet off the valley floor to provide a backdrop to the east and south.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Photo: Austen Diamond

Photo: Austen Diamond

Photo: Austen Diamond

Photo: Austen Diamond

Photo: Austen Diamond

“At Pioneer, like most of Utah, we do things big,” explains Karen Azenberg, artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company. She takes a beat to let “big” sink in, her gaze direct and intentional to fully convey Utah’s scale. “When you go to Salt Lake City, the streets are wide, the mountains are big.”

Pioneer Theatre Company is “able to produce shows that look like Broadway shows — They look BIG and look like people imagine them to look, which is kind of exciting,” Azenberg adds.

Around 60 years ago, professional regional theatres began popping up all over the country, Pioneer Theatre Company among them in 1962. Typically, regional theatres have a high turnover rate with staff staying less than five years, then moving on to another theatre. The professionals who come to Pioneer tend to come and stay.  

The word “professional” gets thrown around a bit, so what does it mean in this context? At Pioneer Theatre Company, everyone from the directors, actors, musicians, designers and stage managers are professionals.

“This is not what they do after their other job, “Azenberg says, her speech gradually accelerating as she adds: “This is their job. This is their career. This is what they spend their life doing.”

Because many people stay at Pioneer Theatre Company for a majority of their career, they improve year by year instead of going somewhere else and repeating the same standard of work.

“These are people who are always trying to one-up themselves in terms of making better theatre, which is kind of was a little daunting to come and be a part of, but is also very exciting,” Azenberg says.

Enter Karen

In 2018–19, Karen Azenberg started her seventh season at PTC. Before coming to the Intermountain West, the New York native traveled the country as a freelance director and choreographer. Sitting in her office, she turns to a note to fact-check that she has directed and choreographed around 100 shows in 36 out of the 50 states (only 14 more to go!).  

Moving to Utah was a big step for someone who grew up in New York City then settled in the New York suburbs.

She laughs, “I’m a New York person — I will fully admit it. I’m not a Utah person. But people were really embracing of somebody new coming to this community.”

What community? Azenberg means the theatre community, arts community, University of Utah and Salt Lake community as a whole. Everyone. Azenberg smiles, “You sort of, kind of go, ‘Oh, thanks!’”

SLC Arts Keeping Step With the Nation

As a relative newcomer to the SLC arts scene, Azenberg brings a new perspective.

“For the size of the city, this is the largest arts scene anywhere,” says Azenberg.

That may seem surprising or a bit of a stretch. However she clarifies that yes, cities like New York are bigger in population, but that for Salt Lake City’s smaller population, there seem to be more arts organizations per capita.

Salt Lake City is home to multiple professional theatres, an opera company, symphony, ballet, several modern dance companies and an array of museums which are accessible to anyone.  

In fact, right before moving to Utah, Azenberg attended a high school reunion and ran into an old friend who excitedly exclaimed that he had a house in Park City and would check out her shows. Since she moved, he’s kept his word and calls every time he’s in town. “What do you have playing?” he’ll ask, then pop over, try a restaurant in the valley and enjoy Pioneer’s current show.

“I feel this should be the model I should try and get everyone who’s flying in to Utah to do.”

In New York, Azenberg has friends who go out to a different cultural offering every night. “You could do that in Salt Lake!”

Azenberg is pleased to have discovered something not widely understood outside the state: The arts are important to the people of Salt Lake and the extended Utah community.

Arts organizations in Utah reciprocate their community’s support by continually offering high quality productions that keep getting better. Azenberg notes that many organizations in Salt Lake, like the Utah Symphony and Pioneer Theatre Company are nationally recognized.

“Pioneer Theatre, I’ll stake us, we’re as good as any theatre in the country,” Azenberg says with a shrug.

World-Class Moments at Pioneer Theatre Company

At Pioneer Theatre Company, world-class shows happen regularly. Over the years they have mounted many regional, Utah and even world premieres.  Last year’s season included the regional premiere of a relatively unknown new musical, “Bright Star.” Despite its unknown status, Azenberg felt certain that the show would resonate with her audience.

And she was right. There were long lines outside of the box office in January.

“Let’s remember this wasn’t like ‘Oh a pretty day in September, let’s pop over to the theatre.’ This was January. In Utah,” Azenberg emphasizes. To put a fine point on it, the average high in January in the city is 39 degrees — chilly outside but ideal for theatre and winter sports. The overwhelming response was exciting for Azenberg and everyone at Pioneer.

While premieres and sold-out shows are exciting, Azenberg particularly loves hearing audience members’ touching experiences.  

Photo: Austen Diamond

Photo: Austen Diamond

“Every show we do has a direct connection to someone,” Azenberg states.

She doesn’t mean that a connection must be solely deep and emotional; sometimes they can be light and silly.

For example, “Mamma Mia” played over Mother’s Day weekend earlier this year. That weekend was “insanity because everybody brought their mom.”

Azenberg asks, “Is ‘Mamma Mia’ going to change your life? No. It is definitely not going to change your life. But is it a way to be together with your family and celebrate together? How terrific. I’m so happy that we could be a little part of somebody’s happy weekend.”

Theatre doesn’t always have to be intense and make the audience gasp or cry in order to be effective. “Sometimes it’s just — we had a blast!”

Slope Side to Center Stage

Karen Azenberg plans to stick around as artistic director at Pioneer Theatre Company for a while.

“I’m here because of the facility we have, because of the incredible staff that I get to work with. Why would I go someplace else?”

And while she stays, she’ll work on one goal: spread the word about Pioneer Theatre Company.

“My mission is to — not just Salt Lake City, not just Utah — let the whole country know that there’s some really great stuff happening here. If you’re coming for the skiing, you can also stop by and see some pretty fabulous theatre.”

Find out about upcoming shows and get tickets by visiting pioneertheatre.org.

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