Salt Lake City theater ignites First Amendment debate after signaling it will only allow kid-friendly plays

SLC mayor’s office says it learned of the issue only Tuesday.

| Courtesy Stephanie Howell starred as Juliana in Utah Repertory Theater's production of "The Other Place," earlier this year at Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office was unaware a west-side community center was moving toward booting out a local theater company because its slate of plays includes material at odds with the city facility’s new “family friendly” mission.

Utah Repertory Theater Company, which strives to bring “adventuresome” shows to Utah audiences, has rented the Sorenson Unity Center’s theater space since 2015.

The company was informed on Monday by Sean Martin, the center’s community programs manager, that the center was newly dedicated to a youth development mission. The call was summarized in an email that Utah Repertory artistic director Johnny Hebda shared with The Tribune. 

The group’s slate of plays includes Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced” and the 2012 play “Straight.” Hebda said the center reviewed those scripts and said the shows might be important as literature, but their content doesn’t suit the center’s new mission.

Akhtar’s play explores issues of Islamophobia in post-9/11 America, after discussions of politics and religion spark tension at a dinner party. During last year’s Off-Broadway premiere run, the New York Times described “Straight” as “a bisexual romantic triangle” filled with “thought-provoking observations on sexual identity.”

Matthew Rojas, a spokesman for Biskupski, said the mayor’s office first learned of the issue when contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday.

He acknowledged Utah Repertory Theater and the administrators of the Sorenson Unity Center have had discussions about the content of the nonprofit company’s plays, but he said no decision had been finalized.

“Our hope is that conversations with Utah Repertory can continue to move forward and we as a city can continue to look at Sorenson and see how we can balance those needs,” Rojas said.

The discussion ignited a debate over First Amendment rights with a public theater that has a history of allowing all types of plays since its opening in 2008.

“A government facility should be a champion of free speech and artistic expression,” said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance, a Utah arts advocacy group. “Censorship is always concerning. And any venue that is a public space … should be accessible to anyone who wants to pay the rental fee.”

The unity center’s beginnings can be traced to a battle over free-speech rights. Land under the facility was given to the city by the Mormon church in exchange for the city’s surrender of the public easement on Main Street between the LDS Temple and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. That cleared the way for the church to control speech and behavior on the plaza created where the street had been.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who helped broker the land exchange for the surrender of the Main Street easement during his tenure, said there was no dictate for programming at the center when it opened.

“I don’t ever recall any discussion about limiting what would be presented at the Sorenson Unity Center,” Anderson said. “I also would never have approved it. Limits that go beyond what is obscene may be unconstitutional.”

Center managers didn’t respond to requests for comment, referring all questions to Kim Thomas, programs manager of the city department that oversees the center. Thomas didn’t comment, either.

Sorenson officials and the city were considering moving in a new direction, and the center’s officials had spoken with Hebda, but no decision has been finalized, Rojas said.

“They had a conversation about content, but there is no mission change,” he said. “There’s nothing written down at this point. They have not communicated to the Repertory Theater that it is a no.”

Any effort to consider content when approving rental contracts would be new, Hebda said. There are no guidelines listed on the website for the center, which is run by the city’s Youth & Family division within Public Services. Since the theater company charges fees for its tickets, audiences are already self-selected, Hebda says.

In fact, Sorenson officials have often praised the company for the large audiences its works draw.

“The whole idea that the director of the center is making the judgment call on what they feel is appropriate for the community to come to does not seem like a very fair analysis of the situation,” Hebda said.

Rojas said the center is interested in negotiating shorter contracts with Utah Repertory Theater, which he said has weekslong runs for its plays. Shorter agreements would open the center to more community activities, he said.

But any final agreement or mission change would still include a space for “diverse art,” he said.

“Youth and family are one audience of that facility and we need to be sure that we’re being respectful of all the other audiences,” he said. “That includes audiences that appreciate diverse art, art protected by the First Amendment.”