For this Monday morning rehearsal, the cast of "Man of La Mancha" is focused, but it's not Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Charles Morey who's cracking the whip.
That's left to an extra who, as one of Don Quixote's attackers, must wrap his whip around the knight-errant's javelin during one of the production's many fight scenes.
When the sequence goes awry, and the whip instead lands on a ceiling light fixture, Morey climbs on a ladder to secure it.
Even when mopping up after mishaps, Morey revels in details. He's the kind of theater person who believes the precision of even one or two steps by an actor can reap immeasurable benefits during a performance.
Detail builds upon detail, he said, spelling the difference between dud and delight. Carry that attention over every production in a theater company's season, year after year, and the effort will be visible.
Rocking theatrical boats • "No one season or production has defined us," Morey said, reflecting on his tenure. "I've always told people to look at five years' worth of our plays, or even 10 years. Every theater company is an institution for the long haul."
Morey, more than most theater professionals, ought to know. In his 28-year stint as artistic director for PTC, a time thought to be longest of any current artistic director in American regional theaters, he's grown a sleepy company with a penchant for musicals into a full-fledged, professionally cast theater.
He's also a nationally produced playwright who has forgone royalties whenever his plays and adaptations are performed on the PTC stage, and in 2008 he launched the company's New Plays Initiative. That, in turn, launched several world-premiere productions from PTC's stage, giving the company more of a national profile.
His legacy will be recognized with PTC's "Bravo!" award during a May 4 fundraising dinner and gala, followed by the opening performance of "Man of La Mancha," which he directed.
Ever since landing the position in 1984, he's rocked Utah's theater boat, then calmed its waters.
In the early 1990s, his season selections and programming decisions came under fire. Audiences were jolted by Morey's mixed-race casting, while salty language earned the company a 1994 letter of reproach from LDS Church officials.
"It's amazing that any one artistic director would stay at any one theater for as long as he has," said actress Anne Cullimore Decker, referring to Morey's tenure. "It's equally amazing that he accomplished as much as he did. Talk to any New York actor with an [Actors'] Equity card. They love gigs with Pioneer Theatre Company."
'More like living in any other place' • Compared with the graying 62-year-old of today, Morey's dark brown beard was his most prominent facial feature at 37, when he first took the artistic director's seat in 1984. A graduate of Dartmouth College with an MFA from Columbia University, his bailiwick at the time was firmly East Coast. Growing up in Seattle and Portland, though, he wasn't unfamiliar with the Intermountain West.
After working as a freelance director in New York City, Morey moved to Salt Lake City with wife Joyce Cohen, a professional actress who was pregnant at the time with their son Will. At first sight, he found the mountain setting overwhelming, but then it became just a backdrop.
"I told all my curious East Coast friends it's more like living in any other place than it is unlike," he remembers.
This same seeming indifference, almost gruff at times, carries over to other questions. How has theater changed or enriched his life? How have his views on theater changed, given the rare retrospect of so many years in the profession?
"I'm not sure I could even begin to approach that question," he said, in answer to both.
William Michals, the lead in the upcoming production of "Man of La Mancha," believes that given the play's theme of story as human necessity, it's no mistake the musical was chosen as the swan song of Morey's last season. Morey shoots down the theory.
"It fits," he agreed. "But quite frankly, we had other productions in mind we couldn't get the rights to."
Playing to make a living • As the water line embedded in his office ceiling rumbles "All these years, it's gotten so I hardly notice it," he remarks Morey would rather talk about his good fortune, and what a joy it's been to feel like a kid in a candy store every day he comes to work.
"Sometimes you look at yourself in certain situations and say, 'This is a silly way for a grown man to make a living,' " he said. "We play with toys swords and whips. It beats the hell out of any other job you care to name."
Anne Stewart Mark, a Utah-based professional actress who has worked with Morey from the beginning of his Utah career, said both the rigorous responsibilities and stature of his position often preclude an amiable manner. For good reason, too.
His style is more intellectual than passionate and, above all, pragmatic.
"He gets everyone on their feet very fast, finding a framework so everyone can get to work," Mark said. "Every now and then you can see his reserve drop just a little. You peer into his soul and see there's a kind, old soul hidden deeply. For his own sake, he has to keep that covered, though. If he told everyone it would be wonderful to work with them, everyone would beat a path to his door."
The audience for Pioneer Memorial Theatre, as it was then called, was gray and getting grayer when he arrived. Morey saw an immediate need for dramatic productions and contemporary works that would reinvigorate programming to attract a new audience.
Perhaps more controversially, he began casting professional actors from afar, rather than hiring only Utah actors.
"When he did that, you realized you had to raise your own stakes as an artist," said Max Robinson, a longtime Salt Lake City actor who has worked with Morey on many productions. "You knew you had to watch and learn. But by raising the quality of theater at Pioneer, it's safe to say he raised the quality of all theater in Utah because a hallmark standard was set."
'Family theater' vs. 'smut' • As the programming changed from a steady diet of musicals, new faces attended the theater, while some traditional audiences mumbled, then grumbled loudly. Controversy hit a peak in 1994, when the season included cross-dressing in "Cabaret," a "Romeo and Juliet" with white Capulets and black Montagues, and God's name taken in vain in "Conversations With My Father."
That same year, two trustees from the theater's 32-member board resigned over scenes in other productions "Inspecting Carol" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" they thought crossed the artistic line.
On top of that, Gordon B. Hinckley, then-president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wrote theater managing director Chris Lino a letter objecting to swearing in multiple productions. The church threatened to withdraw its annual foundation grant, and then did. However, the theater continued to receive philanthropic gifts from LDS Church-owned companies.
Morey is loath to dredge up those controversies, but he notes that season was the most successful in the theater's history. Theatergoers, who lobbed letters to the editor at both The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, argued that it was Morey's choice to program such works.
"Good family theater doesn't require smut," huffed a Provo couple in print.
"When the water is dirty, who will drink from it, regardless of its source?" asked a Holladay theatergoer in another letter. "PMT just received six more tickets in their coffer, or should I say coffin."
Morey argued, then and now, that he would never dare to supersede the wishes of playwrights by changing or censoring their work.
"It's very, very simple," Morey said. "We're bound by contract with the author and copyright law to perform what's written. That really came home to me during a production of 'Mice and Men.' I'm not going to edit John Steinbeck."
Content advisories, or counting swear words • Theater staff began publishing advisories in newsletters alerting ticket-holders to any potentially risquÃ© content. The tradition continues on the PTC website, as does the company's standing offer that season ticket-holders may opt out of purchasing shows that might raise red flags.
The practice first drew laughs from theatergoers who scoffed at the objections from conservative audience members, but it has since been adopted by several other regional theater companies.
"Everyone has a claim to fame," Lino said. "Ours was a policy making sure no one paid for something that might make them uncomfortable."
Some local observers see the recent rise of West Valley City's large community theater company, Hale Centre Theatre, with its far more mainstream season programming, as a response, of sorts, to PTC's more risk-taking fare, which last season included a special production of risquÃ© "Rent."
The play took 16 years after its 1996 off-Broadway premiere to make its way to the University of Utah-based stage, but in 2011 its youth-oriented story and gritty language didn't spark angry letters to the editor.
Hale Centre Theatre currently sells out all 613 of its seats for most productions, with 23,000 season-ticket holders, and an annual operating budget of $6.4 million. PTC's season-ticket holders number 7,100 in its 932-seat theater, with an annual budget of $4.5 million.
"I'm sure there have been many who said they'd quit that filthy PTC and go over to the safe side at Hale Centre Theater," Robinson said. "There, within a certain parameter, you know what's going to happen."
Fiscal, artistic adrenaline • Artistic arguments take care of themselves over time, Morey notes. The perennial challenge and one becoming more difficult every year is maintaining financial resources that make live theater possible. Competition for work among actors has become more fierce, he notes. At the same time, young actors and theater artists are better trained and educated than he's ever seen.
In many ways, Morey established the template by which PTC has established its success, with programming that mixes traditional musicals, beloved dramas, and renegade world premieres to attract newcomers as well as longtime subscribers.
With Morey keeping his eye on the long view, that programming mix helped PTC pay off the last debts incurred in the 1980s and 1990s. For the 15-year period from 1992 to 2007, the company was in the red for only one year.
Building on that success came a dramatic gift that kept on giving. In 2007, PTC scored a national coup, striking musical theater gold as the first regional company in the nation to stage "Les MisÃ©rables." With night after night of sold-out shows leading to an extended eight-week run, the musical resulted in thousands of new season-ticket holders, many of whom had never stepped in Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre before.
"Les Miz" was the best kind of advertisement for the quality of Utah-produced theater. Thanks to Utahns' ongoing love affair with the epic musical, PTC paid off the company's remaining debt and funded the launch of the New Plays Initiative.
The "Les Miz" juggernaut also led to another longtime dream: the establishment of the company's Meldrum House for visiting actors at 1310 E. 200 South, which opened last year.
"It wouldn't be accurate to say it ["Les Miz"] saved us," Lino said. "We were always operating in the black and whittling away at our debt. But it did give us a shot of fiscal and season-ticket adrenaline."
'Vanishing moments in time' • In the national theater world, PTC remains one of the few regional companies with a robust bottom line. Theatre Facts, a comprehensive annual fiscal survey of national theater by the Theatre Communications Group, found that "average working capital was negative in each of the five past years" for theater companies surveyed since 2006.
Karen Azenberg, who in July will become just the fourth artistic director in the theater's history, acknowledged her artistic debt to Morey when she accepted the position last November. She hopes to honor Morey's affinity for occasionally pushing boundaries while respecting Utah audiences' mainstream tastes.
"What this audience wants, and will get from me, is the best productions for Salt Lake City's audience and community. That I can guarantee," said Azenberg, who has returned frequently to Pioneer as a guest director and choreographer, most recently for productions of "Rent" and "Next to Normal." "But it will not always be what's been done before."
Taking a lunch break from rehearsals, Morey remains as intellectual as ever in his view of the theater world. His reserve, as Mark noted, rarely drops. The resolve that's carried him through the controversy and lean years is evident in his demeanor.
"Everything you do is on its way to disappearing forever, in a sense," he said. "I don't find that a difficult truth."
What's marvelous about theater, he said, is its vanishing moments in time, and its very nature as a collaborative event, served piping hot to the intimacy of an audience sitting together in a darkened room.
"Theater as an enterprise gets frustrating when directors think they can do everything by themselves," he said. "They forget it's about being open to the joy of what's happening."
Charles Morey: Bravo!
Outgoing artistic director to receive Pioneer Theatre Company's 2012 award at annual fundraiser.
When • Friday, May 4, 5:30 p.m. reception, 6:15 p.m. dinner, with 8 p.m. award presentation and performance of "Man of La Mancha."
Where • Rice-Eccles Stadium, 451 S. 1400 East, Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Info • $250 individual, $2,000 for table of eight. Call 801-581-6960 or visit http://www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.