If you run a regional theater in America, you can sometimes find yourself in trouble. Not trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P and stands for pool, because that would be The Music Man, which is always a safe bet. No, we’re talking about trouble that can make you lose season subscribers.
Which brings us to the stage of Pioneer Theatre Company at the University of Utah, where one afternoon this past fall artistic director Karen Azenberg sat fielding questions from a talkback audience that had just seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which Azenberg also directed. The funny, softhearted musical includes a song in which a middle-school speller bemoans his “unfortunate erection” as he waits his turn at the microphone. At PTC, though, a milder version of the song, this one called “My Unfortunate Distraction,” was used for all but two shows of the two-week run. “Why?” wondered an audience member in row D.
Azenberg smiled and jumped right in with a little lesson on the politics of theater. The musical’s lyricist, she explained, provided two versions of the script. So at PTC, where many season-ticket holders expect a tame theater experience, she mostly opted for the “distraction” version. Still, she pointed out, there were many audience members who felt just as strongly that Pioneer should have used the “less mild” version. Just the week before, in fact, a subscriber had called to say he was giving back all his future tickets in protest.
Now in her third season as artistic director of PTC, Azenberg knows that if you run a big theater in a place like Salt Lake City, sometimes you’re caught in the middle, trying to please everyone.
Azenberg is a New Yorker to her core but is no stranger to American regional theater, having worked as a freelance choreographer and director for three decades in 28 states. When she heard that Pioneer Theatre Company’s artistic director Charles Morey would be retiring after a 25-year career, she put her name in the running, along with nearly 100 other applicants.
Azenberg was chosen in 2011 and officially took the reins the next summer. She was the unanimous choice, says Chris Lino, PTC’s managing director, who sat on the selection committee. Azenberg was well known to the PTC staff because she had been guest director and choreographer of Rent, Next to Normal, and Miss Saigon, and choreographer of the sell-out Les Miz in 2007.
“We knew how smart she was,” says Lino. “Plus she knew every director in the country, including the up-and-coming directors, and that was very attractive to us.” At the time, Azenberg was president of the board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, the national union for her crafts. She currently serves on the advisory board and is also a board member of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, a launching pad for new musicals.
“A lot of the applicants, on paper you’d think this is your dream candidate,” Lino says. (Some, in fact, had worked as artistic directors at well-known theaters, and Azenberg had never run a theater of any size.) “But none of them matched what Karen brought to the table.”
David Ivers, artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, who directed One Man, Two Guvnors at PTC this year, describes Azenberg this way: “The thing that sets her apart is she has theater in her DNA. She has in her bones an innate understanding of how the theater world works”—including years of tagging along with her father.
Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg began his career as company manager for touring and Broadway shows, and later was producer of most of Neil Simon’s plays, as well as producer or general manager for blockbusters including Rent, George M!, and Sunday in the Park with George. Ten of the plays he has either produced or managed have won Tony Awards, and in 2012 Azenberg himself won a “Lifetime Achievement in Theatre” Tony.
Long before there were take-your-daughter-to-work days, Manny took little Karen to the theater (and also sometimes to watch him play softball with Robert Redford in the Broadway Show League). “You sit there,” her dad would instruct her, and so from a chair backstage she would watch the show behind the show.
“How I work here,” she says about her life now at PTC, “is how I perceive he worked; it’s my model.” That means dropping in every day to chat with scenic carpenters and the costume shop, and wanting to know all the details about lighting and sound boards and props. But Manny Azenberg told his daughter over and over: “Don’t go into theater.”
“As a kid,” she says, “this is how I translated ‘Don’t go into theater’: Don’t be an actor. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be a dancer!’” Of course she meant dancing in musical theater, and the showdown came when it was time to go to college.
“There were lots of tears, and me saying ‘I can’t just dance three times a week! I have to dance all day every day!’ ” She ended up majoring in dance at New York University, and she wonders now if her father’s opposition was a kind of test, to see if she had the drive to make it in a business that can be brutal.
You might think that the daughter of a Broadway producer would have an easy entrée to Broadway. “Oh, no,” she says. “He hates nepotism… Dad’s theory is, anything you achieve, you achieve on your own.”
So he gave her a job answering phones in his office, which helped pay the bills as she auditioned for dance roles. In her early 20s, she got her first choreography job, in a summer stock theater in Connecticut. Then her work was noticed at a community theater in Manhattan, and from that came a chance to choreograph a revue at the Smithsonian, and that led to a gig choreographing Sweeney Todd at Michigan Opera Theatre, and the next year, at age 24, choreographing West Side Story.
But there were also plenty of dry periods. And this is where being Manny Azenberg’s daughter did get her a foot in the door. When one of his shows moved to Broadway and in a pinch they needed an assistant stage manager, they hired her because they knew she was adept at coordinating sound, lighting, and scene-change cues for performances. And from there came other offers, including Brighton Beach Memoirs and Master Harold and the Boys.
“Pay her minimum,” Manny insisted.
Her next big break came in 1989 when she was choreographing Guys and Dolls at Indiana Repertory Theatre. “You think like a director,” the artistic director told her, and the next year he offered her a job directing. “Like many things, I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ and so I did,” Azenberg remembers. “I was winging it.” Later, that same self-confidence led her to apply for the artistic director job at Pioneer Theatre Company.
The Utah job felt like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. But it also meant that her husband, Augie Mericola, would have to give up his job as head of props for the Broadway company of Wicked. And it meant uprooting their son and daughter, then 12 and 15. On the other hand, their home was an hour commute into Manhattan for Augie, and her job as a freelance choreographer and director meant being gone for long stretches of time. On the other other hand, her daughter hated the idea of moving so much that she offered to live in their car in the garage of their house. In the end, though, Utah won out.
“There are a lot of theaters in the U.S., but not of this size, with this kind of facility, with this kind of financial stability,” Azenberg explains.
Like her favorite musicals, Azenberg is high-voltage and straightforward. “You always know where you stand with her, which is a rarity in the theater,” says the Shakespeare Festival’s Ivers. Adds PTC resident scenic designer George Maxwell: “She’s very precise, and she doesn’t give up until she gets what she wants.”
A person driven like that can sometimes get stressed out, of course. “I have a barometer of how stressed she is by her hair,” says PTC managing director Lino. “It has its own emotional life.”
PTC runs a “very lean ship,” says Lino. “Our peers—large middle-America theaters with at least a $4 million budget—all have larger budgets but don’t produce work as big as ours. A greater percentage of our operating budget goes into what you see on stage.” (The 932-seat theater is affiliated with the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts but gets no direct funding from the U.) “Karen knows how to stick to a budget,” Lino adds, “because she instinctively prioritizes. Not every artistic director can also think like a producer.”
Azenberg travels back to New York seven or eight times a year, to do auditions for PTC shows (most hires are New York actors, although she also auditions in Salt Lake and hires a fair number of locals), and to see what’s new on Broadway and off—a requirement since she’s a Tony Awards voter. That also puts her in the loop for what new plays and musicals might be a good fit for PTC.
In sheer volume of potential audience members, Pioneer’s biggest rival is Broadway Across America and the “Broadway-style” 2,500-seat mega-theater now under construction three miles away in downtown Salt Lake City. Here’s how Azenberg and Lino explain the difference between the two venues: The caliber of the actors is equal, but PTC’s stage design, costuming, and other crews are Utahns who pay Utah taxes; the tickets are less than half the price; and, says Azenberg, “our productions are staged for this theater and this cast, so everything is fresh for this production.” Of course, convincing Utahns to pick PTC over the tour is a hard sell, especially when the tour is Wicked or The Book of Mormon.
Would Pioneer Theatre Company ever stage the irreverent, award-winning Book of Mormon? The theater chose not to stage Tony Kushner’s Angels in America two decades ago. “There was no way we could do that in this theater, named after the pioneers, and not have a large part of our audience think we were attacking them,” Lino recalls. Azenberg says she figures that by the time the rights to The Book of Mormon become available for regional theaters, she’ll “be sitting in an old-age home somewhere.”
Theater audiences in general are a graying lot. But the average age of season-ticket holders at PTC has dropped from 65 to 55 in the past 10 years, and from 55 to 45 for single-ticket sales—perhaps because, over the years, the shows have incrementally included newer works, not just the old chestnuts.
Azenberg strives for a balance in each theater season: mysteries and musicals, comedies and drama, familiar and surprising. “I like doing fun and good and eclectic theater,” she says. But she knows “not everyone is going to like everything.” Sometimes there are nasty letters and phone calls.
During her second season, some audience members called and wrote to say they had blanched at the interracial casting of Elf: The Musical. And there was a flap over a three-second gay kiss in the murder mystery Deathtrap. (Twenty years ago, PTC became one of the first big regional theaters to institute a “content advisory,” but to have warned the audience about this kiss would have been a plot spoiler, Azenberg says.) “I’m not producing these plays and musicals to offend people,” she adds. “I’m trying to cover as wide a range of content as possible.”
To reach newer audiences, Azenberg has also instituted “concert” performances (including the recent scaled-down version of the camp musical The Rocky Horror Show) and a new-play-development reading series, Play-by-Play—no sets, no costumes, just actors reading from scripts she has culled from the hundreds sent to her from playwrights across the United States.
She hopes Play-by-Play will draw a new Utah audience. But she also knows that new play development can boost Pioneer’s standing among actors, directors, and writers nationwide, as PTC launches world premieres that might have a chance of making their way to New York because of Azenberg’s connections. “When I arrived, Pioneer Theatre Company had a wonderful but quiet reputation—which is starting to change,” she says. “Now we are still wonderful, but a little more raucous.”
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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