SALT LAKE CITY — One of the biggest theatrical news stories of 2011 in Utah was the announcement that Karen Azenberg would be the new artistic director at Pionner Theatre Company, beginning July 1, 2012. As she prepares to assume her new position, Azenberg took some time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions from UTBA. Read the interview below to learn about Azenberg’s fascinating theatrical roots, her previous Utah experiences, and her goals for Pioneer Theatre Company in future years.
UTBA: By way of introduction, please let our readers know a little bit about your extensive background in theatre. How were you introduced to the art?
Azenberg: I have been taken to the theatre literally all my life. When I was a very young child my father worked as a company manager for the legendary David Merrick; he was sent out on national tours of Oliver! and Stop the World I Want to Get Off and since I was not even in school yet, my mother and I traveled with him. Even as a pre-teenager, Saturday afternoons were often spent with Dad at work, which meant going to the Saturday matinee of whatever show he was working on at the time. So obviously theatre has been an integral part of my life.
UTBA: What was your first job in the theatre?
Azenberg: My first job as a performer was working at Hershey Park as a dancer. My first job in theatre in general was work as a receptionist in my Dad’s office the summer I was 18.
UTBA: Please describe your training and one of the defining experiences or productions of your career.
Azenberg: My training was initially as a dancer and choreographer. I received a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. However, I think my career path was redefined when I choreographed a production of Guys and Dolls at the Indiana Reperatory Theatre. Tom Haas, the artistic director at the time, turned to me one day and said, “You don’t think like a choreographer. You think like a director. You should direct a play!” And the next season he offered me a play to direct on the mainstage at that theater! It really changed the way I thought about my work and it changed the way other people thought about me.
UTBA: Until you took the position at Pioneer, you were based in New York City. For people who may not be familiar with the nationwide professional theatre community, what is Pioneer Theatre Company’s reputation outside of Utah?
Azenberg: Pioneer has a wonerful reputation within the national theatre community, but I daresay it is a quiet reputation. People who know the theater know that it is a wonderful facility that consistently produces high quality work on par with any theater in the country (including Broadway). However, there are still a lot of people who are not familiar with PTC and that is something I would like to change.
UTBA: What is it about Pioneer Theatre Company and Utah that attracted you to the position?
Azenberg: There are not a lot of theaters that can produce shows at this level, both because of the size of the theater and because of the incredible group of artisans and technicians that work at PTC. This alone would get me on a plane to anywhere. However, PTC also has this amazing audience who is interested and excited about diverse programming. On top of all THAT, there is the fact that it is so beautiful here. The views are stunning and for someone like me, born and raised in New York, it is completely different from what I am used to.
UTBA: Before becoming artistic director, you worked on a number of productions for Pioneer Theatre Company, including Next to Normal, Rent, and Les Misérables. How has that experience prepared you for taking the helm at Pioneer?
Azenberg: It let me get to know the staff and the way the theater works. It let me get to know the audience a little bit, although I think I have more to learn in that area.
UTBA: Charles Morey was the head of Pioneer for 28 years and his name is practically synonymous with Pioneer Theatre Company. What are your feelings as you assume the position that he has held for so long?
Azenberg: Yikes! I have very big shoes to fill. Chuck is a briliant man and he has left a theatrical legacy here at PTC that will live forever. However, I can’t be Charles Morey. I can only be myself. I will endeavor to honor all that he has done here, but also bring my own vision to the future of Pioneer Theatre.
UTBA: Pioneer Theatre Company typically produces a mix of productions: usually a Shakespeare play, a few modern plays (often including a world premiere), and a few musicals. From your viewpoint, what makes a script a candidate for being produced at Pioneer?
Azenberg: Did I laugh, or cry, or think, or feel? Was I affected by this work? That is the makings of great theatre.
UTBA: As artistic director, what are your goals for developing Pioneer Theatre Company?
Azenberg: I want to continue to bring a wide range of theatrical offerings to this audience, but also to expand the theater’s developmental programming. I’d like to let our audience feel invested in supporting the development of new works—both plays and musicals—and know that they started their creative life at our theater. This will also increase our visibility to the wider theatrical community.
UTBA: What are some of the challenges facing regional theaters today and how do you plan on helping Pioneer overcome those?
Azenberg: Economics are a challenge for all theaters everywhere; the cost of doing business always increases. For the audiences, theater can be seen as an unnecessary expense and therefore opt out of their subscriptions and/or their support. I would offer that for the community having their own resident theatre is critical. The educational value for our children, the diversion from the stress of everyday living for ourselves, and the importance of cultural enrichment in our world today cannot be ignored or downplayed. I hope that I can encourage even more of our community to continue their interest in and support of Pioneer going forward so that Pioneer can continue to be an important member of this community.
UTBA: What is your impression of Utah audiences? Do they differ from other theatre audiences who have seen your work?
Azenberg: I love this audience. They are smart and opinionated. They pay attention and that says to me that they are interested.
UTBA: Finally, do you have any words for the Utah theatre community as you prepare to start your new job this summer?
Azenberg: I am really excited to get to know this community, both as an artist and as an audience member. The arts community in the Salt Lake Valley is extraordinary and I am excited to be part of it.
UTBA: And we’re excited to have you join our state’s theatre community. UTBA wishes you the best of luck as you prepare to move to Salt Lake and create more great art in our state. Thank you for giving us a piece of your valuable time.