Utah Repertory Theatre is relatively new to local audiences, but it is carving out a respectable reputation with high production values and fresh scripts. Utah Rep is presenting a season of premiers in conjunction with several fellow theatre companies. Next up is Grace by Craig Wright co-produced by Around the Globe Theatre. ATG veteran director JC Carter shares some thoughts on the upcoming production.

JC CarterUTBA: You’ve been part of the Utah theatre world for quite some time. What first brought you to theatre?

Carter: Theatre was an opportunity to express my imagination in a productive and collaborative way. It allowed me to play someone I wasn’t and freed me from any social stigma of being someone else just for fun. Eventually, I found I was less interested in whom I could play, and more interested in storytelling, which started me directing.

UTBA: What brought about your partnership with Utah Rep?

Carter: Johnny Hebda posted on Facebook that they were looking for people to join the board of their newly formed company. I let him know I was interested in helping him launch his fledgling company, but I held back in actually joining the board until I saw their production quality and their overall professionalism with their first production, Side Show.  From there, I became a company member and work as their business manager.

UTBA: How would you classify your directing style? Why do you like to work that way?

Carter: My actors classify it as an “organic style” and I think that’s an apt description. I like everything on stage to come from a place in reality. So we work on figuring out who the characters are and where they’re coming from. Nothing performed should feel contrived or put-on. It should be as real as possible.

I let actors explore their characters in rehearsal, finding them through both dialogue and movement. Often this means something different every night of rehearsal until we finally settle into the familiar patterns that will become the performances.  I’m also a big fan of Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints method and utilize that to shape my own storytelling as much as the actors use it to shape their performances.

UTBA: What interests you about new/unknown work?

Carter: I’ve spent my time in the classics and same-old-same-old works that are commonly produced. They’re safe for producers and audiences, and are sometimes fun to work on as a director. I find new ways to tell these old stories, to give the audience something they’ve never seen before. But like I said, I’ve done my time there, and if I’m going to grow as a director, I need to take a few risks.

One risk is working on new and unknown plays. Taking a playwright’s untested material and bringing it to life. Or taking shows that have never been done in Utah before and seeing if the audience will fall in love with it as much as they love the tried-and-true plays everyone else is producing.

I look at the work Plan-B does with all original plays or The Hive with both original and unknown plays, and I wonder why more of us don’t do this. Everyone’s seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by now. Why not take a chance and show them something new? Saying that, I do think there’s an important place for revivals, but does Hairspray really need to be revived this year when it was done multiple times since it became available?

UTBA: Grace is a dark comedy that includes some classically tragic events. How do you approach humor in that situation?

Carter: The nice part is that the humor is written in. I didn’t have to go and find it, or make the characters over the top in any way to bring out the comedy. I think what helps the humor along is the universal appeal of the principle characters. Each one is someone we will recognize from our own lives and that helps us relate to them and like them immediately.

UTBA: Religious ideology and the nature of belief are also thematic elements of the script. Are those difficult elements to present locally?

Carter: I don’t think so, because despite all the things that happen in the play, the characters are not unsympathetic. The characters that hold tightly to their ideology and dogma aren’t doing anything unusual or out of the ordinary. They hold to their beliefs because it comforts them, and gives them confidence in a difficult world. The same holds true for the agnostic and atheist characters. It’s about coping with reality and being human. We can all relate to that. Some of us cope by turning to a higher power. Others find different ways to cope, but in the end, that’s all we’re really doing… just trying to make sense out of our existence on this world.

UTBA: What has been your favorite part about this process?

Carter: By far it’s been watching the characters come to life, but I equally love getting to see what the production team is creating for this play, and I can’t wait to bring it all together.

UTBA: Is there anything your audience should know before attending?

Carter: There are gun shots, so if you’re sensitive to that, you may want to bring ear plugs for the first and last scenes. There is foul language, primarily from one character, so if you’re sensitive to that, maybe keep the earplugs in for his moments. Apart from that, there are a couple of unusual conventions in the play that will take a minute to get used to, but I think you’ll enjoy them.

UTBA: How do you think the theatre scene in Utah has changed since you joined?

Carter: When I first got involved in Utah theatre, we had literal community theatres cropping up all over, all run by the given community’s arts council. Hale had yet to arrive in Utah, and Promise Valley was a destination for professional theatre as much as PTC was.

Since then, we’ve seen the rise of the Hale, which marketed perfectly to Utah audiences with “family friendly fare” which has, unfortunately, made them expect that from everyone else. Not every channel on TV is the Disney Channel, why is theatre expected to be only one type? We’ve also seen less municipal community theatre and more independent non-profit community theater companies crop up. Frankly, we now have more community theater companies than we have viable performance spaces. But I’ve also seen some pretty amazing things happen. Like Plan-B taking a risk at producing only original and provocative works, finding an audience and being successful at it. From this success we have more and more companies taking risks and trying new things.

UTBA: What do you think Utah theatre needs most?

Carter: We need audiences willing to take more risks on lesser known and original works. And we need the people involved in theater to be more frequent audience-goers, particular to these new productions.

For example, a few years ago, three small theatre companies were each producing original/unknown works. They were all outsold by a mediocre production of an over-done play that was running at the same time. A couple of months later, an actor was lamenting on Facebook that there weren’t enough new and original works; an actor I know had gone to the aforementioned mediocre production and had talked about it on his Facebook feed, but had not bothered with the 3 other productions that were playing at the same time. When I look at the success of television shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or House of Cards, I know there are people interested in something provocative and different, we just need to change their expectations of what theater is and that it can deliver those kinds of stories to them. I know they’re out there; we just need to get them to see past the 100 safe productions and buy tickets to our “unsafe” fare.

Grace plays April 25-May 10 at Sugar Space (616 Wilmington Ave., Salt Lake City). Seating is general admission with 90 seats available per performance. Audiences should be advised that there is no late seating. Tickets are $15 general admission; $12 for students/seniors/children in advance, $2 more at the door. More information can be found at UtahRep.org.

Grace - ATG and Utah Rep