Outraged, twisted with emotion and bleary-eyed from an hour of trying not to cry, followed by an hour of weeping openly: This was my state of being when I left the Rose Wagner Theatre after a reading of The Normal Heart, written by Larry Kramer. The play chronicles one man’s struggle with the AIDS epidemic among gay communities in the early 80s. It was my first experience with Plan-B Theatre Company’s unique brand of socially conscious theatre, and it will not be my last. Now, I am an escapist at heart, and damn proud of it. However, driving home from the theatre, as the tear-filled silence in the car gave way to serious conversation about what we had just seen, my girlfriend and I came to the tacit understanding that sometimes, hard is good. A little courage as an audience member can bring you places where the truth is not covered in icing. These are places where issues relevant to you and your community are examined openly and unflinchingly — where the zygote of social change is growing and spreading right there in the room with you.
Plan-B Theatre Company is one of those places, and this city is lucky to be its home. 2011 marks Plan-B’s twentieth year of socially conscious theatre, and this season’s plays can be experienced beginning in October through November of this year, and continuing in February through May of next year, at the beautiful Rose Wagner Theatre downtown. Two decades of producing intimate, progressive theatre is hardly an accomplishment to be taken lightly, and at times Plan-B has had to fight tooth and nail. As Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s Producing Director, relates, the troupe hasn’t always had a reliable roof over their heads. “Between 1991 and 2001 we performed in 11 different venues, from the New Hope Center in Rose Park to Aardvarks Cabaret, this funky old Victorian home which is now the Wendy’s on 400 South 200 West. [We’ve used] classrooms at the U . . . Bibliothèque, which was an architecture bookstore, the basement of the Salt Lake Acting Company, the attic at The Art Barn.” Rapier says, “We were kind of a gypsy company . . . we’ve been around.” All that changed in 2007, when Plan-B became the resident theatre company of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts – giving them the exposure they deserve and a permanent home at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center downtown.
Funding, too, is always a challenge. “Sometimes we just cannot get our foot in the door.” Rapier says, “We’re very small and very intimate, and we don’t have a content barrier for our work, [and that’s] a little bit too controversial for certain funders.” But it’s true that a labor of love needs no other motive, and for Rapier (in his eleventh year with the company) and Plan-B founder Cheryl Cluff, their mission: “To develop and produce unique and socially conscious theatre,” has been and will continue to be all the stimulus they need. “We intentionally want to keep it small so that our choices are based on the art.” Rapier says, “Sometimes funding drives choices, and we don’t ever want to do that.” The life of a small theatre troupe is never without struggle, but these days Plan-B is in a very good place. “Every few days I’m asked about growth, but we’re exactly what we want to be.” Rapier says, “If we were to maintain what we are for the rest of our existence . . . that would be ideal.”
2004’s Slam Festival added another vital goal to Plan-B’s mission. The event, now dubbed And The Banned Slammed On, was more of a success than they could have imagined, spawning two full-length plays for the following season, and readjusting the company’s goals for the future. “That first Slam is what helped us realize the power of the local talent pool as far as playwriting goes and . . . it helped us realize the silly fear people have of new work is simply that: it’s an unfounded fear.” Rapier says, “No matter what play you’re producing, it’s new to someone and you have to introduce it to people. It wasn’t enough to say ‘Wow, there’s a lot of talent here,’ we had to do more than that . . . it was time to get back to developing new work.” And that’s exactly what they did. From Amerika by Aden Ross, which went on to Toronto’s Fringe Festival, to Facing East by Carol Lynn Pearson, which went on to play off-Broadway in New York and tour San Francisco, Plan-B’s original productions are locally and nationally recognized and lauded. 59 of the 80 productions in Plan-B’s history have been original plays. “The original work that we’ve developed in the last five years has been incredibly rewarding.” Rapier says, “It’s beyond the work itself. I feel like we’re helping develop a community of artists that was underserved.”
Fostering community growth, among artists and the audience, has always been a corollary of Plan-B’s issue-oriented theatre. Tobin Atkinson, co-founder of Plan-B and current head of Meat & Potato Theatre, puts it best: “Plan B is incredibly good at creating partnerships with other arts organizations. Jerry [Rapier] is willing to put anything on the table and see what happens: the Youth Theatre, the Sampler between five theatre companies, the Playwrights’ and Directors’ Labs with Meat & Potato, to name a few. These relationships create a collaborative atmosphere in an otherwise dog-eat-dog business. One of the greatest lasting effects of Plan-B is on the artistic community.” Add that they have raised funds for 33 local non-profit organizations since 2000 and you begin to get a picture of the stalwart and vital component of Utah’s arts and cultural communities that Plan-B has become.
But as I found out during the reading of The Normal Heart that I attended, Plan-B is invested above all else in burgeoning emotion and opinion in its viewers. As resident playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett says, “Every community is complex. Salt Lake has Young Earthers and atheists and Mexican immigrants and transvestites . . . the ideal, positive measure of our progress should be concerned with how well we can engage whatever section of our community we’re trying to in the moment.” Every staff member I spoke with had a moving example of a time when Plan-B engaged a community, by way of a relevant issue, and set the stage for social change. Secretary of Plan-B’s board of trustees, Kay Shean, relates her memorable impressions from the production of Facing East: “When you have an audience made up of Mormons, gays, conservatives, liberals and people from the entire political and social spectrum, and there isn’t a dry eye in the room, a bridge has been built.” Shean says, “Plan-B builds these kinds of bridges with every production. It is an amazing gift to the entire community.”
Actor and member of the Plan-B/Meat & Potato Director’s Lab, Mark Fossen, considers EXPOSED by Mary Dickson (07/08 season) to be one of Plan-B’s defining moments. “Without a doubt, EXPOSED was a true community event that was as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in theatre. As the play ended we read a list of names: a list of those lost to the nuclear testing of the 50s. That list of names came from our audience. We had a big paper . . . [where audience members] could leave the names of loved ones who were Downwinders, and each night we got a new printout with names added to the list. It was a powerful testimony that each and every life our government took mattered.”
Any given Plan-B performance stands both as a night of quality entertainment and a catalyst for the process of learning something new. It’s tough stuff, I’m not going to lie: the passion and emotion coming off the Rose Wagner stage is enough to buckle your knees. You are no longer watching a play so much as you are gaining a wholly new perspective. “There are many wonderful things about the culture that is Utah.” says Rapier, “Unfortunately one component of the culture is fear of questioning: [it’s] the feeling that your opinion, if not in line with the majority, may not have any meaning. And so it feels . . . urgent to in some way create a platform to help people find their own voices.” You could ask yourself: How much do you know about the effects of nuclear testing in our state? What about the culture of reticence that leaves silent, burning doubt in the minds of so many Latter-day Saints? Do you care what happened to the thousands of Japanese Americans interned in Camp Topaz, in central Utah? How fares the LGBT movement in our neck of the woods? Everyone who reads this article knows a handful of people affected by one or more of these issues. To gain some initial understanding of these complex topics you don’t have to go pouring through weighty tomes or dive face-first into local politics. You can start by simply attending a play, where you will be shown, rather than told, the extant turmoil of our community’s toughest issues. As Plan-B’s Production Stage Manager Jennifer Freed says, “Any time we can get people talking about issues in the community, no matter what their side or views may be . . . that is how change is created.”
For descriptions of, and tickets to, Plan-B’s 2010/2011 season, log on to planbtheatrecompany.org