About Face: Plan-B’s Challenge to Conventional Theatre

Over the years, Plan-B Theatre Company has become synonymous with alternative theatre in Salt Lake. Recently their highly-politicized, intimate productions have garnered a loyal following among a younger generation of theatergoers looking for an antidote to the lavish yet frequently stale mainstream productions that tend to draw in larger (and more conservative) audiences, though it has been a long road for the company to get to this point.

Plan-B was started in 1991 by Cheryl Cluff and Tobin Atkinson, and was incorporated as a non-profit in 1995. Starting a small theatre company in Salt Lake was not their first dream: “Plan A was to move to New York and get famous. Plan B was this.” Due to severe budget constraints, their early work consisted of Atkinson’s original plays and re-interpretations of classic works, such as MacBeth re-imagined as a radio play and puppet shows, all fueled by Atkinson’s interest in form and style.

Jerry Rapier became involved with the company in 2000 when he was hired to direct a production of Molly Sweeny. During this time, Tobin Atkinson left the company and Jerry was hired to fill his shoes as producing director. It was during this season that Plan-B produced The Laramie Project, a show that, according to Rapier, “changed our company completely … Artistically, I don’t have the skill that Tobin has … so I had to find a way to morph in order to survive.” Rapier and Cluff decided to produce work that was more political and socially conscious, focusing particularly on gay issues and developing original work by local playwrights.

Maintaining a small, politically motivated theatre company in a place like Salt Lake is a risky proposition, but Plan-B seems to have tapped into a definite need. They have the youngest average audience of a theatre company in Salt Lake, something Rapier sees as a consequence of an ever-growing local arts community. “People from other urban centers move here because it’s more affordable, and they expect the same kind of cultural offerings they left behind; these are the people that are supporting small theatres.” Furthermore, Rapier thinks the stereotype of the Utah audience outlined above is “bullshit. I think people are much more interested in being provoked and challenged than being condescended to.”

So far, he seems to be right. Plan-B’s plays have been extraordinarily successful, culminating in last year’s Facing East, about LDS parents grieving over the suicide of their gay son. The play was a smash hit, appealing not only to Plan-B regulars but also folks who normally don’t patronize alternative theatre. “For us, a diverse audience is bringing in Mormon grandmothers … the makeup of our audience during the run of that show was completely different that what [we were used to].” Facing East was so successful that it went on tour, making Plan-B the first local theatre company ever to transfer a show to New York. However, the success of Facing East has not made Rapier re-think Plan-B’s approach. “People expect that every show is going to have some additional life now … but what matters most [to us] is how it works here.”

Plan-B continues to mine Utah culture and history for inspiration. Their 2007 season opener, Mary Dickson’s Exposed, dealt with the touchy and timely topic of nuclear testing and the plight of ‘downwinders,’ people exposed to fallout of above-ground tests. The play takes the form of a docudrama, a style that, in addition to the polarizing topic of this play in particular, tends to divide audiences. Rapier insists that this form was important for the material as “the government has done such a great job of devaluing the personal story of downwinders … [Exposed] was a conscious choice to play to the choir, to validate these people’s points of view.” Exposed seems to have hit a nerve; the show sold faster than any other in the company’s history. Plan-B is also working on a play about Topaz, the Japanese-American internment camp outside of Delta, Utah during World War II. For Rapier, “it’s of personal interest for me maybe more so than any other play we’ve ever created because I’m first generation Japanese-American, and if that camp were still open I’d be in it.” However, in spite of the didactic tone and unambiguous political messages of these works, Rapier says “I never care if people agree with the point of view we’re presenting, our hope really is to get people to talk about it.”

Indeed, all Rapier can hope for is that people will continue to care about the conversation, and hopes to remain a relevant force in Utah theatre as long as possible. “There is something vital about what we’re doing and we’ll be here as long as that’s true. I don’t think any company is intended to exist in perpetuity. Everything has a life cycle and we’re in the good side of it right now.” If their current wave of success is any indication, Plan-B has a ways to go before their cycle is complete.

For more info on Plan B’s current productions including Gutenberg! The Musical! Check out www.planbtheatre.org.