DRAPER — Even though 2024 started just a few months ago, it has already been a momentous year for UTBA. Last month, UTBA vice president Maren Swensen took on the position of UTBA president, and Scott Savage replaced her as vice president. UTBA also got a new secretary in Danica Francom and a new board member at large with Alissa Frazier. The leadership shuffle is due to the resignation of former UTBA secretary Tara Nicole Haas and UTBA president Russell Warne. Haas served on the board since UTBA became a non-profit organization in 2018, and Warne has served in the organization’s leadership (first as managing editor and later as president) since UTBA’s founding in 2010.

UTBA member Rachel Wagner sat down with Warne to talk about his 14-year tenure at UTBA, the 341 reviews he has written in that time, the changes he has seen in the Utah theatre scene, and the future for him as he moves to Georgia. Enjoy the interview!

Here are other questions that UTBA members had for Warne:

UTBA: You say in the video that you will miss the people the most. What are you not going to miss?

Warne: Editing reviews. Of the 2,725 reviews on UTBA’s site, I have probably edited about 2,200 of them. But I’m not a professional editor, and if a typo or grammatical error crept into the review, then it’s probably my fault. Editing takes about half an hour for each review, and often it was a task I needed to do at the end of a long day with my day job, raising my kids, and even sometimes writing my own reviews. On the other hand, I did like being the first person to read a rave that came in.

Russell Warne, UTBA President

UTBA: What do you hope for in the future for UTBA?

Warne: UTBA has already surpassed the expectations that I and the site’s founder, Dave Mortensen, had in 2010. Thanks to UTBA, Utah is one of the few places in the country where theatre criticism has expanded in the 21st century, and our reviews are read, quoted, and talked about by people all over the U.S. and even overseas. Theatre artists I admire a lot are fans of the site and check UTBA’s reviews to understand the conversation around the performing arts in this state. So, in the future, I hope that the site keeps doing what it’s doing, but on a bigger scale. Maybe the site will publish 300 reviews in a year. That would be awesome!

UTBA: What is your favorite show you have ever seen?

Warne: That is not a fair question to answer. In addition to writing over 300 reviews for UTBA, I have seen a lot of shows as a patron. Conservatively, I have seen at least 700 productions in Utah, perhaps a few hundred more. If you count shows I have seen out of state, the number could be over 1,000. In Utah, there have been some special productions, though. Ragtime at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 2021 was a perfect production of a show that I think is a masterpiece. Hamlet in 2022 at the Parker Theatre knocked my socks off. Grassroots Shakespeare’s 2014 Titus Andronicus was the most shocking production I have ever seen of any play. I’m partial to the classics, but I adored Last Train to Nibroc at the Covey Center in 2017 and some of the experimental shows I have seen in Utah are special memories.

UTBA: What is your favorite review you have written?

Warne: That’s another unfair question. I love different reviews for different reasons. My favorite type of review to write is a rave for a show by a new company or a ragtag group of college students. But there are some reviews I am proud of because of a clever turn of phrase. A lot of people don’t realize that writing a review is a creative act, and finding a witty way to say something about a play while under a tight deadline is not easy. So, I’m proud when I have a “zinger” or a snappy line in my reviews. I also love when I feel like I’m contributing to the conversation about a play. I did that in my last review for UTBA: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Hale Center Theater Orem. Instead of just harping on the show’s sexism, I tried to go a step beyond and explain how this production overcame that aspect of the script. Hopefully, someone will read that review and get a more nuanced view of How to Succeed.

UTBA: What are some of the most extreme reactions to reviews from theatre companies?

Warne: Oh, gosh… I gave up over a decade ago trying to predict how people will respond to a review. I have seen artists or producers get irrationally angry after positive reviews. An I have also seen theater companies tout a review on social media, even though I thought it was a negative review that they would want to bury. Probably the most extreme response was to a negative review I wrote. One of the actors sent me multiple messages online saying that I was a monster for writing what I did and that I would die alone because no one could love a person who was so mean in a review. Ironically, I got engaged a few days later! Luckily, responses like that are rare. Utah theatre artists are generally a very professional and open-minded group. Even when reviews are negative, the most common response I hear is an appreciation for the feedback — and often reports on how the show improved in response to the review. I’ve also had people come up to me at intermission or reach out through social media or email to tell me how much a review (good or bad) meant to them. UTBA reviews have cheered people up when they’re feeling down, validated artistic risks, and fostered improvement.

UTBA: What are some shows that you wish were produced more often in Utah?

Warne: I love classic musicals and Shakespeare, but we rely on those plays too much. I can die a happy man if I never see As You Like It again. I have reviewed it 11 times, and I have never cared for the story. I have lost track of how many times I have seen Newsies, The Music Man, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beauty and the Beast, and other local favorites. While I like those shows, you can have too much of a good thing. It is so rewarding to discover a new play that I love as much as an old favorite. It’s a rush to be surprised by a jewel of a play that I love as much as my old favorites. I have had that experience with Trouble in Mind, Merrily We Roll Along, and Children of Eden, and I have only seen them once or twice on stage. Utah audience members deserve more of these thrilling discovery experiences.

UTBA: You keep in touch with critics and read the theatre news in other parts of the country. How has the COVID recovery differed in Utah compared to other parts of the country?

Warne: Before the pandemic performing arts attendance in Utah was already much higher than the national average. After everything shut down in 2020, Utah’s theatre community bounced back from COVID a lot faster and more forcefully than theatre in many other parts of the country. We are lucky that none of the major Equity or semi-professional companies have shut down in the state, though I am aware of a few that are not fully out of the woods. Utah audiences are back in force, whereas Broadway audiences are down 17% from pre-pandemic levels. Some people were very critical of Utah for opening up facilities so quickly after the pandemic shut them down, but I think that history has vindicated the Utah theatre companies that opened as soon as they could.

UTBA: What do you think the future holds for Utah theatre companies?

Warne: I am very optimistic about the future for Utah’s theatre community. There are probably more theatre performances per capita in Utah than anywhere in the country outside of the nation’s great arts hubs (like New York City, San Francisco, downtown Chicago, and the DC beltway) and some tourist towns (like Las Vegas, Sarasota, and Branson). A new arts facility opens in this state about every other year, and the audiences come in droves to watch plays. That being said, I think that the economics of theatre means that ticket prices will continue to go up in Utah, just as they have elsewhere. That seems unavoidable, and that disappoints me because I did not grow up in a wealthy family; affordable arts options were critical to my development as a theatre lover. I also do not think that we will see any new Equity companies in the state if current trends continue. It is just too expensive to follow all the unions’ rules, and Utah audiences can often see non-Equity productions that are just as good as some fully professional shows. But I think we have something special in Utah, and I hope UTBA continues to spread the word of the great theatre productions people can see every week in the Beehive State. I will miss it a lot.