Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Interview: Artistic Director Karen Azenberg on Pioneer Theatre Company During the Pandemic

Article Pixel

2021 season, artisan masks, Second Act line, more

BWW Interview: Artistic Director Karen Azenberg on Pioneer Theatre Company During the Pandemic

Soon after the postponement of ASS and SOMETHING ROTTEN! due to COVID-19, Pioneer Theatre Company saw the writing on the wall and announced an abbreviated season to begin in 2021. While the professional theatre is working to return to full productions in February (with perhaps a surprise sooner), it is focusing on keeping its full-time artists employed in the meantime with initiatives such as creating and selling artisan masks and the unique items in the theatre's Second Act line of merchandise from repurposed costumes, sets, and props. Artistic Director Karen Azenberg shared with BroadwayWorld how she and her team have navigated this time together.


1. How are you and the rest of the staff at PTC holding up with everything you are facing this year?

It's been a challenging time, obviously for everyone, but especially for people who have dedicated their lives and their full-time professional careers to theatre. Not just actors but directors, choreographers, stage managers, lighting designers, sound designers, costume designers, scenic artists, painters and builders, costume shop employees, writers, musicians, and more.

Instead of being hobbyists, or people who do-stuff-in-the-evenings-as-time-permits, these are professionals in their fields. They have trained and studied hard, apprenticed and practiced and have succeeding in making a full time living, with benefits. And while some creative work is being done right now with theatre, even here in Salt Lake City--not to dismiss it, it's very important -- it is not helping pay the mortgage and there is no real end in sight yet.

2. PTC has some exciting initiatives to provide work for your artists. Can you tell us about them and where the ideas came from?

Despite my answer to your previous question, the resilience and adaptive nature of theatre artists is extraordinary. So being able to put my resident staff back to work was something to which I have given top priority. It seemed obvious to try to sell masks made by our costume shop staff, and they have embraced this temporary assignment and expanded the effort to include one-of-a-kind masks made from some costumes--THE LAST SHIP and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF masks have been particularly successful.

The scene shop projects were less obvious on the surface but have been exciting since they have been a terrific collaboration between Reed Rossbach our Production Manager, Laura Walters (Properties Artisan) and John Mack (Technical Director). We started thinking we would sell off some props and smaller scenic pieces that we had in storage but felt like we wouldn't use again, and that grew into a conversation about materials we had that we could sell, or even better, repurpose. Suddenly we were making reusable shopping bags out of old scenic drops, and wine racks out of barrel staves, and tabletop games out of leftover lumber! Each week someone comes to me with new ideas, which has expanded our offerings and demonstrated how these artists will find a way to be creative no matter the circumstance.

4. You announced very early on in the quarantine that theatre wouldn't be returning to PTC until a shortened season in 2021. What factors led to this decision, which now seems remarkably prescient?

I'm not totally sure how to answer that--it seemed very clear to me that given the way the virus is transmitted doing theatre would be extremely difficult until there was a vaccine. I know the audiences here would be open to all kinds of theatrical offerings in the interim but doing the full productions that PTC is known for cannot be accomplished with the kind of social distancing restrictions that will be required by Actors' Equity during this pandemic, so postponing our opening until 2021 seemed the most sensible approach to take.

5. In addition to rescheduling the postponed productions of SOMETHING ROTTEN! and ASS, you added LEGALLY BLONDE to the season. What about that particular show makes it the right fit?

I really felt that we were looking at one of the more serious and dire periods of world history, and I thought about other periods of time when the world was facing monumental challenges and how did the entertainment field respond? Escapism--theatre has historically helped people escape their troubles, their pain, their struggles and I wanted to be able to offer that to our audiences as soon as we were back on the stage.

6. With COVID-19 nothing is ever for sure, but are you still working toward a hopeful February opening for the season, or do you foresee the possibility of further delays?

We are exceedingly optimistic for and working towards a February re-opening. We are putting all the pieces in place for that to happen, and happen safely for performers, staff, and audiences. But if you have a lead on anyone who can see into the future, please send them our way. That would be a very handy skill these days!

7. How else can patrons support PTC at this time? What is your message for them?

First and foremost, buy our masks and products! It's a win-win for the community! Instead of sending your hard-earned money to Amazon, or out of state, keep it here in Utah, and at the same time, keep local staff fully employed, off of unemployment, keep them in their homes and in many cases, in our community. Do your holiday shopping with us--show your loved ones how much you care by giving them a collection of masks so that they can stay safe. In addition, we will be introducing more items in the coming weeks that will make great holiday gifts. I just saw a wonderful sample of a wind chime designed by John Mack, our Technical Director. I have heard tell of some new bag designs (our Boho Bag sold out!), some Christmas stockings, monogrammed masks, and more...keep an eye on our website; you never know what will turn up! We have so many wonderful gift ideas, in a range of prices and all with a GREAT story--these are the kinds of things that people treasure because they are infused with thoughtfulness and meaning.

Also, if you work for a large company or organization, consider placing a large volume mask order. We will help you pick out a fabric that is meaningful to you (for example, instead of using their logo, Cowboy Partners found a cute print with cowboy boots that happened to be in their corporate color); we will make a 100+ custom masks, in different sizes, for your organization. Keep your money in Utah, supporting the same population that will also patronize you and contribute to our community's economic well-being.

8. Is there anything else you'd like to say?

I hope we will be able to do some performance programming before the end of the calendar year--there are options on the table, and like everything we are doing right now, it is subject to change at the drop of a hat depending on the COVID situation. Some of it takes funding to accomplish, because I struggle to ask performers to donate any more of their time while they are facing such extreme economic challenges right now. Some of it requires that we all wear our masks and be considerate of social distancing and best practices so the case load in this state gets under control.

I am so proud of the people that I work with here at Pioneer Theatre Company. I know that we all want to be making theatre, but we have adopted a sort of unspoken mission to survive and succeed in these unusual times so we can get back to doing what we love. They inspire me every day to be more creative in how we approach our new (albeit, temporary) business model and beat this and come out the other side victorious.

You may purchase artisan masks at https://pioneertheatre.org/masks-to-order/ and Second Act items at https://pioneertheatre.org/second-act/. To buy tickets and for more information, visit www.pioneertheatre.org.

Photo Credit: Pioneer Theatre Company's Second Act



Related Articles View More Salt Lake City Stories   Shows

From This Author Tyler Hinton