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.”