‘An impossible act to follow’: Chris Lino, who helped Pioneer Theatre overcome debt and kept count of the swear words, is preparing to retire

The theater’s longtime managing director announces his retirement after a stellar financial run at the University of Utah-based professional theater.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company, leads a backstage tour of the theater and shows off the set for the upcoming production of “Twelfth Night.”

In the fitting room deep in the bowels of the Pioneer Theatre Company, Chris Lino pauses to tell a story.

During rehearsals for a 1997 production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods,” the appendage on the Wolf’s costume appeared “bigger and stiffer” on each run-through, the company’s longtime managing director recalls.

Lino thought the anatomically correct costume would distract from the actor’s rendition of “Hello, Little Girl,” but his concerns were dismissed as prudish. After all, his colleagues love to tease him about his duty to count swear words in scripts for content warnings.

He was proven right at dress rehearsal. When the Wolf made his entrance, “400 pairs of heads were bent together, pointing,” he recalls. “By opening night, the Wolf had undergone a surgical procedure.”

Lino tells stories as he leads theatergoers around set pieces under construction on the stage. The theater’s upcoming production of “Twelfth Night,” set in New Orleans at the beginning of Mardi Gras in 1912, is scheduled to open Friday, March 30.

After a long run, Lino, 60, has announced plans to retire next year. His partnerships with artistic directors Charles Morey (for 21 years) and Karen Azenberg (for the past six) have led to groundbreaking stage productions, as well as one of the most financially strong regional theaters in the country. A national search is underway to name a successor by next spring.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company, leads a backstage tour of the theater and shows off the set for the upcoming production of “Twelfth Night."

Theatergoers mostly know Lino from his curtain speeches. Staffers joke that he should have been a lawyer, noting his love of a good argument, as well as his buttoned-up frugality and competitive nature. Board members praise his mix of creativity with strategic business skills. Arts colleagues praise his leadership in supporting the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts & Parks program.

As a numbers guy who has spent years shepherding dramatic personalities, Lino relishes every detail as his stories flow to a punchline. The wolf costume anecdote underscores 28 years’ worth of backstage dramas at the state’s oldest professional theater company, which under Lino’s tenure has earned a national reputation for its fiscal health.

In the past 27 years, Pioneer Theatre Company has a 23-year track record of balanced (or surplus) budgets. That’s against a backdrop of an unprecedented entertainment revolution competing for consumers’ time and money.

“We may be an arts organization, but we’re also a factory,” Lino says to tourgoers as he stands onstage looking at the 932 seats of the Broadway-size Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre. “Every six weeks, we have to have a new show up for a paying audience.”

(Courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company) Actors Kelsey Rainwater (Olivia), Zach Fifer (Sebastian), Grace Morrison (Viola) and A.K. Murtadha (Orsino), who will perform in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Twelfth Night."

Lino is proud of his track record in heading successful fundraising campaigns: the 1996 expansion of the theater and the 2010 purchase and renovation of Meldrum House, 20 apartments for visiting artists just west of the theater on the University of Utah campus. (“Some of the best actor housing in the country,” he says.)

That’s in contrast to the $1.4 million deficit Lino inherited when he arrived in 1991. Now the company has an endowment of more than $4.5 million. “We get more out of our budgets than any theater in the country,” Lino says. “When we spend money, we spend money on the art and the artists. We put it on the stage. I don’t have an assistant — that’s six actor contracts.”

When he arrived at Pioneer Theatre Company, Lino dug in to improve fundraising efforts as the U. transferred money from the now-professional theater to its academic department. He also streamlined administrative costs and recruited powerhouse volunteers for the theater’s board.

Azenberg says she can’t think of another theater company where staffers have had such a long run working together across a variety of positions. Lino isn’t just a hard act to follow, but “an impossible act to follow,” Morey says.

Lino, an upstate New York native, wasn’t interested in acting and never planned a theater career. He studied theater as part of his literature degree, and then worked as a fundraiser at a prestigious engineering school and Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre before Pioneer recruited him.

On his first visit to Utah, the company sent the box-office supervisor, Colleen Lindstrom, to pick him up at the airport. She didn’t say a word on the drive, Lino jokes (not true, Lindstrom says), and it took him three years to coax her to smile (possibly true, Lindstrom adds).

Lino settled in, sealing the deal when he married Lindstrom in 1998. (When they began dating, Lindstrom, who retired as patron services manager last year, was assigned to report to a University of Utah dean instead of to Lino.)

Staffers joke about the farcical tension at the company each year when the next season is being selected. They recount office-door-slamming arguments as Lino worked with Morey, and then Azenberg, to set programming.

Healthy disagreements, Lino says, before they united to present the season to the company’s board and staffers. “Nothing ever works the first time,” he says, adding there’s always a gap between costs and revenue projections in the planning stages.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Lino, managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company, talks with Larry Carpenter, director of the upcoming production of “Twelfth Night,” Tuesday, March 20, 2018.

Lino calls himself extremely proud of Pioneer’s artistic track record and of helping to produce “tremendous work, work that was as good as anything in the country.”

In an interview, he happily recounts funny stage stories over the years, such as the time legendary Pioneer actor Robert Peterson was so caught up in playing poker in the men’s room, he forgot to flip down his eyepatch as he stepped onstage for a scene in “The Three Musketeers.”

Another time, in a dress rehearsal, Lino was upset to hear two women laughing outrageously as Peterson’s towel kept slipping during a run-through of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” With perfect timing, Lino delivers a button to the scene: That was the first time he met Peterson’s daughters.

He’s amused, too, to tell about the first time he approved an expense report for dozens of condoms, having to explain to university auditors that sound engineers use them to cover microphones. Theaters buy weird stuff, he says with a laugh.

Despite his stellar financial leadership, Lino acknowledges he’ll probably be remembered for his annual task of highlighting swear words in the season’s scripts. The company began issuing content advisories in the mid-1990s after a series of controversies sparked passionate letters to the editor and several board resignations.

Content advisories have helped Utah arts lovers make informed choices about shows, Lino says, while helping the theater company communicate more effectively with its audience. He thinks the attention to profanity is as much a generational issue for Pioneer theatergoers as it is as a religious one.

“At the time we started it, nobody was doing it. Now most theater companies are doing it,” Lino says. “I won’t miss that part of the job, but I won’t apologize for it.”

‘Twelfth Night’<br>Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of the popular Shakespeare comedy is led by guest director Larry Carpenter, who previously directed PTC productions of “Ragtime,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “The Pirates of Penzance.”<br>When • March 30-April 14; 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees<br>Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $25-$44 ($5 more day of show); K-12 students qualify for half-price tickets on Monday and Tuesday; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lighting technicians prepare the set for the upcoming production of “Twelfth Night,” Tuesday, March 20, 2018.