There’s a strong egalitarian streak running through the creation of Salt Lake City’s ThreePenny Theatre Company.
“Anybody can see our show,” said Jonah Ericson, who co-founded the company with Cody O’Hare. “You have a dollar in your pocket, you can see a show. Or, as Cody often likes to say, if you have three pennies, you can see a show.”
The name Ericson and Cody O’Hare, two transplants from Kansas, gave to their company is an homage to the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and his 1928 collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, “The Threepenny Opera.”
Brecht, Ericson said, “was very focused on the concepts of socialist theater. … How [do] you create theater that comments on social themes and ideas, and allows people to go home and continue to mull over those ideas?”
In the opening monologue of “The Threepenny Opera” — a musical best known for the opening song, “Mack the Knife,” later recorded by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin — Brecht has a character declare the work to be “an opera for beggars.” The musical gets its name, Brecht wrote, “because this opera was created so glamorously, the way only beggars can dream something up, and because it should still be so cheap that only beggars would pay for it.”
In its mission statement, the company declares a specific, double goal: To “engage impoverished, lower-income and homeless communities in classes and rehearsal in the theatrical arts.”
Deconstructing theater class
As students at Kansas State University, Ericson and O’Hare found studying theater “dissociative,” because they didn’t “come from money,” like 95% of the people around them, Ericson said.
Also, they were not driven with the same idea others in theater were, “that you either have to be in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago to really ‘work,’” Ericson said.
“Cody and I were interested in theater as a different tool than necessarily just making productions and making money,” Ericson said. “Both of us are people who came from a place where theater was this thing that became this huge community development aspect of our lives.”
The pair also were interested in civic work, Ericson said, and started “looking at theater that can be brought to unhoused, homeless, impoverished populations to help develop community.” The idea, he said, was “utilizing theater as a way of connecting people who are islands, you could say.”
Another part of the inspiration was the notion of “putting people on stage that audiences are not used to seeing — whether that be minorities in any general sense of the world, but particularly the financial minority,” Ericson said, adding that in the majority of theater productions, “most of the people you see on stage have been people who have a very rich family.”
Ericson said one of ThreePenny’s principles is “the more we can deconstruct the concepts of class, a lot of solutions will begin to follow.”
No experience required
Salt Lake City is a good fit for ThreePenny to work, Ericson said, because it has well-known programs for people experiencing homelessness, such as The Road Home.
“ThreePenny adds a layer of stability to people’s lives by building community across people, between the larger Salt Lake City space and the smaller unhoused community,” Ericson said. “There’s a really great transitional process there that I think ThreePenny can sit in very effectively.”
The stability comes, Ericson said, from following the traditional theatrical production model, and teaching people different skill sets — writing, acting, set building or directing.
“You don’t have to be a trained actor,” said O’Hare, who is in charge of ThreePenny’s educational outreach programs. “You can just be someone, anyone, that [is] interested.”
In fact, O’Hare said the company seeks to hire performers and workers who don’t have a long resumé of past acting roles or backstage jobs. “We’ll teach you what you need to know if you want to learn carpentry, lights rigging, anything — to teach you what you need to know in order to do these skills,” O’Hare said.
The jobs are paid positions, something many theater groups this size often would not be able to do, the founders said. The company also works with local homeless initiatives, such as the Other Side Village.
The jobs aren’t permanent — this is the theater, after all. Ericson said the group usually is “able to work with eight to 10 people effectively for two to three months. … We aren’t broad rehabilitation, but we’re all about small building blocks that continue to radiate outwards.”
The company’s current production, running through Saturday, is “Love and Information,” a play by British playwright Caryl Churchill about how humans communicate and connect.
In September, ThreePenny will present “Indian Radio Days,” a work by Choctaw playwrights LeAnne Howe and Roxy Gordon, which looks at Indigenous history. And “The Life of Galileo,” a work by Brecht to be staged in November, uses the astronomer’s biography to depict the battle between religion and science.
Ericson and O’Hare recall several “beautiful” moments since they started their company three years ago. For example, at one recent rehearsal, during the regular end-of-day check-ins, someone said how excited they were to come to rehearsals, because it didn’t feel like work.
“That was really gratifying,” O’Hare said, “to know that not only is this something that we’re doing for ourselves or the community at large — this is something that actually means something to the people in it.”