Driven by ambition, new Utah theater company looks for the heart of 'Hedda Gabler'
When Hurricane Hedda blew through Broadway with Cate Blanchett at its eye, the 2006 show earned high-profile buzz. But in Salt Lake City, a "Les MisÃ©rables" kind of town, it has been more than a decade since audiences have had a chance to see a local production of Henrik Ibsen's classic "Hedda Gabler."
It's a much-studied classic, to be sure, but considered immensely difficult to produce. That's partly thanks to the main character, a potentially admirable woman driven to villainy by her lack of options. Hedda, a role considered as daunting to perform as Shakespeare's Macbeth, is completely fascinating, with layer after layer after layer of complications, says Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen, whose translation of the 1891 Norwegian play was produced at Brigham Young University in 1995.
In addition, the story's other characters including Hedda's husband, George Tesman, her schoolmate Thea and her father's friend Judge Brock are equally complicated. "You need really good actors to play that," Samuelsen says. "And a smart director who really understands the piece."
That's a perfect introduction to the fledgling Sting and Honey Company, which has operated for four years in Salt Lake City on little more than its founders' ambitious ideas. Now, in only its third full-length production, the company is showcasing "Hedda" in all of its complexities.
Ambitious, sure, but right in line for a company that launched in 2011 with a production of Samuel Beckett's absurdist "Waiting for Godot."
Making the plays come alive is hard, but finding an audience might be an even bigger challenge. "Right now, we are establishing ourselves as a company who does the great works of the theatrical canon," says artistic director Javen Tanner, who is directing "Hedda." "I choose plays that fit in with my view of the history of theater, plays that I believe are great because they do what theater set out to do at the beginning: They create a ritual."
Company co-founder Tara Lynn Tanner, Javen's wife, explains their approach this way: "We tend to do ambitious things. And that's Javen. That's what he does. He doesn't think prudently. He doesn't think: 'We have a small budget. We can only hire this many people.' Or: 'Can we get an audience to come?' He doesn't think about that, which I think is just fantastic, because then we do things we are excited and passionate about. We try to do them to the best of our ability, and hopefully we can take an audience along with us."
'Not like anybody else' • No matter how many "Heddas" a theatergoer might have seen, this production will be different because Javen Tanner is directing it.
"On the surface, 'Hedda Gabler' looks like another realistic costume drama from the period," Tanner says. "What the play actually is, is a full-on festival of Dionysus fertility rites."
He explains the allusions he's drawn from a new translation of the text, how Hedda's former lover is an alcoholic whom she encourages to drink again, bringing Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, back to what he was supposed to be. Women characters have the names of Greek goddesses, including a reference to a prostitute named Diana. And then there's the play's central ritual, the burning of a manuscript, which serves as a child sacrifice.
Run that imagery by Samuelsen, and he laughs through the phone line. "That's Javen," he says of his former BYU acting student, who was always seeking material that would provide an artistic challenge.
"He's not like anyone else around here," actor Kathryn Atwood says of how Tanner works with actors.
Yet Tanner's intellectual approach isn't heavy-handed. "Rather than a political agenda or a concept overlay for the sake of the concept, Javen is a die-hard believer that the beauty of the art can touch people," says David D'Agostini, the company's managing director.
In directing "Hedda," Tanner has stayed true to the language of the script, but found Ibsen's humor. "We are playing it with all the realism it deserves, but he adds this overlay of archetypical characters," Atwood says. "It's beautiful. My part is small, but I like hanging around just watching him work with the other actors."
Deena Marie Manzanares, who is taking on the role of a lifetime in the character of 29-year-old Hedda, praises her director's thoughtful approach to the play. "He's really different, so smart and so detailed, the way he comes to every rehearsal, the way he starts a project so far in advance," she says. "I trust him to take me on the journey of Hedda, and I know he trusts me to bring it to life."
Tanner says he introduced the mythological themes and allusions at the cast's first read-through. "Our conversations about character and motivations have very much included the conversation about Dionysus and Diana and the fertility rites," Tanner says. "But we spend our time in rehearsal doing what every cast does, very basic acting stuff, like asking: 'What does your character want?' We don't start rehearsal with a chant."
Theater orphans • "That's Javen," friends and colleagues explain over and over again.
"He's an artist who is also a thinker," is how Tara Tanner describes her husband. "Every once in a while, we're having an inane conversation over dinner and he's just talking, and suddenly we are back with the ancient Greeks, we're in the woods, we're taking about nymphs and orgies. He'll just take you down the road, and we're all along for the ride."
Javen Tanner, approaching 40, grew up in Kanab. After serving an LDS mission to New Zealand, he married Tara when both were studying theater at BYU. Before declaring his major, he dabbled in pre-dentistry, psychology, "all sorts of silliness," he recalls, with a laugh. "I finally realized I had to not commit suicide, and I went into theater. As soon as I changed my major, my whole life changed. I was so happy."
At BYU, the couple had a son, River, now 16. While Javen Tanner was studying for an MFA at San Diego's The Old Globe theater, the family expanded to include Rain, now 13. "Theater orphans," Tara Tanner jokes.
The family settled in New York City, where Tara taught high school, and in the summers, earned a graduate degree in English lit at Vermont's Middlebury College. Javen connected with several other BYU alums, including D'Agostini, and helped run the Handcart Ensemble, a theater company that produced new translations of classic plays. In addition, he studied clown and mask work.
He was acting in a successful play, "Creation," when he and Tara received a lunch invitation to an expensive restaurant and after lunch, two job offers from Nancy Heuston, head of Sandy's Waterford School. At first, they weren't interested. They liked their lives in New York. But moving home to Utah started to seem like the right thing, Tanner says.
Tara and the kids moved two weeks later, with Tanner heading right to JFK Airport after the closing of his show.
That's how he found himself in an office at Waterford, his new office, where he was the head of the theater faculty. He knew something about teaching teaching college students, anyway after working as an adjunct at New York University. He found a high-school theater text on the shelf, opened it up and started to feel depressed.
"I literally started crying," he recalls. "I closed the book, thought: 'I'm going to do my own thing. I'm going to teach these kids real theater, and they're going to fire me, and I'll go back to New York City.' "
That was eight years ago. Now he's into the rhythm of helping Utah students take the history of the art form seriously, with Shakespeare at the center of the curriculum. And he's supported by his wife in his love of theater. Every year, Tara Tanner says she tells her boss: "I'll teach whatever else you want, as long as I get to teach Intro to Theater to the eighth-graders."
Four years ago, the Tanners teamed with D'Agostini, who had moved back to Utah, and his sister, Laura, to form Sting and Honey, the name a nod to theater tradition while emphasizing the tragedy and comedy rooted in the Beehive State.
They're committed to paying actors and crew members, although so far they've only raised enough money to afford two or three Equity contracts per show. "Fundraising is a constant thing for us," Tanner says. "We don't pay people a lot because we don't have a lot." D'Agostini says they expect to produce three shows this year, with an annual budget of $60,000.
The company rehearses in Waterford's black box theater, which, along with the company's professional aims, adds another level of seriousness to rehearsals.
All of the co-founders have day jobs, and schedules overlap. "It's maddening," Javen Tanner says. "In the week 'Hedda' goes up, I start directing 'Uncle Vanya' at Waterford School."
That's Javen, his friends might say.
All about 'Hedda'
The Sting and Honey Company production opens April 11 and plays eight shows.
When • April 11-19; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Black Box Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Ticktets • $18 (plus $3.50 in service fees), $15 plus fees for students, at 801-355-2787
Info • stingandhoney.org/hedda-gabler