A new Utah theater puts audiences close to the actors. Here’s when it opens.

Pioneer Theatre will inaugurate the Meldrum Theatre with Tony-winning ‘The Lehman Trilogy.’

Every Thursday for the past five years, Pioneer Theatre Company’s artistic director Karen Azenberg has had a standing meeting to discuss something she’s dreamed about since she first started at the company 13 years ago.

“When I first got to PTC,” Azenberg said, one of the things she wanted to do “was get a more intimate space for new work [and] contemporary plays where you want the audience to experience the piece close.”

That dream is about to become a reality: The Meldrum Theatre in the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse on the University of Utah campus.

The Meldrum is getting its finishing touches done, ahead of its first production: The Tony Award-winning “The Lehman Trilogy,” opening March 29 and running through April 13.

Once the theater and the show have opened, Azenberg said, “The joke everywhere is, ‘What are you going to do with that Thursday meeting time now?’”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers at Pioneer Theatre Company's new theatre space, the Meldrum Theatre at the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 15, 2024.

From athletic space to theater

As Azenberg leads a tour of the theater, it’s two weeks to the opening. She’s wearing a bright yellow hard hat with “PTC” printed in red ink. There’s a camaraderie between her and the construction workers, who are laying down the stage floor and installing carpeting on the staircase leading to the theater area.

The theater is named for Peter Meldrum, founder of the Utah biotech firm Myriad Genetics. Meldrum, a University of Utah alumnus and arts philanthropist, chaired the search committee that hired Azenberg. She said Meldrum, who died in 2019, was always supportive of her idea to create a new theater space.

It was Meldrum, Azenberg said, who “made a decision to force it forward, by committing a significant gift” — $4.5 million — to the theater.

With that donation committed, Azenberg said they started looking for a space on campus. They found it at the Nielsen Fieldhouse, which opened in 1939 and saw 30 years of Utes basketball played there before the team moved in 1969 to the Special Events Center (which was renamed the Jon M. Huntsman Center in 1987). The fieldhouse became a general fitness and recreation center.

“I could imagine us in the old fieldhouse, with the track around, for the audience to sit and look down into the space,” Azenberg said. “I mean, it was already like, ‘I see a theater here.’”

The Meldrum seats 387 theatergoers, with the seats arranged around three sides of the “thrust” stage. The front row is just inches from the stage — though, Azenberg said, they’ve measured to make sure there’s enough leg room for everyone.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers at Pioneer Theatre Company's new theatre space, the Meldrum Theatre at the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 15, 2024.

Bringing the stage out into the audience, Azenberg said, provides a viewing experience that’s different from the proscenium layout of PTC’s main stage, the 932-seat Simmons Memorial Theatre.

“As much as I love our mainstage in our big expansive space, it isn’t fully conducive to intimate work,” she said. “Certainly, doing a play with two or three people on that stage is even challenging because it’s just big.”

Azenberg cited PTC’s production last year in the Simmons of Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” — essentially a one-woman show with a small supporting cast. An alternate space, she said, would give such a show a whole new dimension.

Each season, PTC schedules seven productions, plus a new play reading series. Going forward, Azenberg said, the plan is to move two productions into the Meldrum.

“They will be specifically curated for this space, so those smaller plays for two, three, four, five people, as opposed to the bigger projects which fit in our big space,” she said. “It’s meant to enhance the user experience from the designer, director, actor and audience standpoint.”

“Some people call a space like this a second stage, and we’re not calling it that because it’s not,” Azenberg said. “It’s not productions that will be given less. It’s just different kinds of productions that are in a different space, but it’s all part of our mainstage season.”

Pioneer Theatre will be sharing the Meldrum with the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre, which will have its first production there in the fall.

Working with Salt Lake City-based Method Studio — whose design and architecture work can be seen in such buildings as the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville and the Noorda Center at Utah Valley University in Orem — Pioneer Theatre has kept many of the fieldhouse’s original features, and replicated such elements as lights, bricks, windows and the roof’s exposed wood.

The stage has a catwalk hovering above it, for lighting and audio, which is “a more contemporary approach,” Azenberg said. “My hope is that the whole vibe is modern, new, fresh, even though we’re in this historic building, but that counterpoint is perfect.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Workers at Pioneer Theatre Company's new theatre space, the Meldrum Theatre at the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 15, 2024.

The theater also has new dressing rooms, a scene shop space, and a multipurpose area — called the “Future Space” — between the entry from the staircase and the theater entrance that the university will utilize.

The Meldrum is in a bustling part of the U. of U. campus — right next to a TRAX line, and across the street from Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the Utes football team is scheduled to play half-a-dozen home games this fall.

“Football is always a problem for us,” Azenberg said. “The challenge with football is we can’t completely work around it, because they don’t set the time of the football game ‘til so late.”

PTC, she said, will manage the parking and noise issues as they arise.

“The analogy I give is in New York, in most of the theaters, you feel the subway, you hear the sirens. Is it ideal? Of course not,” she said. “We’re going to have trial by fire.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Karen Azenberg talks about Pioneer Theatre Company's new theatre space, the Meldrum Theatre at the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 15, 2024.

A three-actor ‘epic’

The Meldrum’s debut will showcase what Azenberg called “a giant play with three people — they each play dozens of characters.”

“The Lehman Trilogy,” written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, follows three German immigrant brothers who form the financial firm Lehman Brothers — and how the family and the company, over 163 years, “forever change the financial world,” as the show’s notes put it.

“It’s exactly the kind of theater I love — It’s epic,” said Azenberg, who’s directing the production. “You get drawn in. It’s got a hint of a story, because it’s Lehman Corporation, the banking concern that imploded in 2008.”

The play “humanizes the whole saga,” Azenberg said. “It starts at the beginning of their story, which I don’t think most people know. It’s literally the three Lehman brothers, who start with a shop in Alabama and grow to become a small bank to become a big bank to become a corporate banking entity. … You see where it starts to go wrong.”

Performing the play on the Meldrum stage, she said, “it’s going to be that much better, because the audience, is going to be this close. Not 75 feet away. … Because they’re going to be with those people in that story. It’s just the kind of piece of theater that will show off this space, and it’s how I wanted to introduce the community to that space.”

Azenberg said she hopes people will come out and support the new theater and — on a broader scale — theater in Utah.

“To me, there’s still nothing better than a good night of the theater,” she said. “You leave having had an experience — a live, touch-me experience, whether you’re laughing, crying, feeling [or] learning. I’m sure you can get that on Netflix. But I cannot believe you leave with the same feeling of connection.”

Pioneer Theatre, like the theater community in general, is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it brought, she said.

“The theaters will not survive. This is an absolute,” she said. “The economics don’t work right now because people aren’t coming. If you think it’s always going to be here, you’re wrong. It’s not. It won’t make it.”

The dire situation, she said, reminds her of a scene she just directed in “The Lehman Trilogy.”

“[It’s] about the stock market crash [of 1929] and what the banking industry needed to do, which was some banks are going to fail, some banks are going to close, and we have to let that happen,” she said. “That’s true for theater. Everybody’s got to be aware that that’s going to happen, and if it’s a theater of this size with this many people who work there and derive their living from it, you’ve got to be aware.”

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