OREM — The announcement was unprecedented. For the second year in a row, the same university had won several of the highest awards given to college theatre: the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). More remarkably, this triumph was accomplished by Utah Valley University—perhaps one of the most underrated theatre departments in the state. UVU’s production of Next to Normal took home five national awards, including the highly coveted Outstanding Production of a Musical and separate awards for its director (Dave Tinney), lighting designer (Michael Gray), lead actress (Jacquelyne Jones), and ensemble.
The previous year’s award-winning production, Vincent in Brixton, was even more successful. In addition to winning the Outstanding Production of a Play award, Vincent in Brixton also garnered top awards for its director (Christopher Clark), lead actress (Elizabeth Golden), costume designer (Jennessa Law), set designer (Stephen Purdy), and ensemble.
Department chair Christopher Clark states that this level of excellence permeates the UVU theatre department. “I feel like these honors represent more than just one particular show. It’s a reflection of the fantastic work happening in this department as a whole. So many people contributed to the success of Next to Normal. ”
Creating an award-winning production
“I hoped we had a great production when we finished casting,” said Next to Normal director Dave Tinney. “We had no ideas that this would take off the way it did. Everyone involved just wanted to tell the story the best way we knew how. Everything else was kind of a bonus.”
It’s not surprising that Tinney was optimistic about the production after casting. UTBA reviewer Paige Guthrie stated, “Jacquelyne Jones’s performance as Diana may make her my favorite Diana (and I saw original Broadway cast member Alice Ripley back in 2010), and her voice was skillfully breathtaking. Jones’s songs were all gorgeous, but her character became more and more interesting and complex and intriguing as the night went on.”
“Zoe Wilde as daughter Natalie found the true teenager in every line, something I haven’t seen other actresses do with that role,” continued Guthrie. “There were countless moments when she said or sung a few words and I was struck with how genuine the sentiment was. The representation of complicated, confused teenagers everywhere is safe in the capable hands of Wilde.” In her UTBA review Guthrie had similar praise for every cast member.
In discussing these performances Tinney stated, “We worked very hard to keep it honest, grounded in relationships and not in the ‘illness’ that is the catalyst for the story.”
But the ingredients to a successful production like Next to Normal extend beyond one particular cast and director. “The thing I love about UVU is the courage of everyone in the department,” Tinney said. “Maybe it’s naivety, but these students don’t know they shouldn’t be able to do some of the things they do. So, they just dive in and try. They are fearless. We also have an incredibly supportive department and School of the Arts. They have fostered an environment of creative empowerment.”
Clark stated, “So many people contributed to the success of Next to Normal. And so many people contribute to all of our shows in this department. It’s just a really collaborate, positive, and energetic place to work and learn.”
Consistency in Excellence
Even though Next to Normal and Vincent in Brixton are national award winning productions, UVU’s excellence does not end with these two shows. Browsing the UTBA archive of UVU productions turns up words like “exciting,” “absolutely beautiful,” and “authentic.” Even when a show receives a negative review, the daring artistic risks are admirable. Tinney explained that students at UVU have “Freedom to try anything. Freedom to fail, and freedom to try again.”
Clark said, “We have a real focus on innovation in our productions. We almost never present our work in a straightforward way. We try to think outside the box and give our students exciting design and performance challenges. I love that.”
A clear example of this trend towards innovation is UVU’s most recent production, The Taming of the Shrew. Rather than creating a traditional production with period costumes and traditional Shakespeare directing, director Lisa Hagen moved the action to the 1980’s and infused the show with the slang, fashion, and music of that decade. The result was a delightful, clever show.
Coming Up . . .
Not content to rest on their laurels, UVU has ambitious plans for the future. Next season’s schedule includes the historical drama Murder in the Cathedral, the Dickens musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the 1930’s crowd pleaser You Can’t Take It With You.
Clark also shared with UTBA some exciting opportunities for new students. “We are beginning a new BA degree in Theatre Arts this fall that we’re very excited about. But we’re hoping to have a brand new BFA program with emphases in Acting, Musical Theatre, and Design starting next fall, which will be fantastic for our program.” The university is also hoping to start construction on a new arts building in the future.
With new degree productions, new programs, and a new building, UVU’s theatre department has some fascinating developments. Given the widely recognized quality of the productions at UVU, these developments are sure to foster even greater innovation and creativity among the student and faculty artists at UVU. If UTBA readers have’t attended a production at UVU, they are depriving themselves of consistently excellent, imaginative plays that make rich contributions to the state’s vibrant theatre scene.