Utah's Pioneer Theatre Company turns over artistic directors at a glacial rate, so when Charles Morey stepped down last summer after 28 years, Karen Azenberg, a lifelong New Yorker, saw a rare opportunity. Azenberg had directed and choreographed at theaters around the country, including PTC, and she sees Utah's most professional theater company as a well-kept secret.
"Jobs as an artistic director come up very rarely," Azenberg explained during a break in rehearsals for A Christmas Carol in December. They're especially rare at a company as financially secure, with such an experienced staff, and so solidly supported by the community as PTC. "The resident staff here is on par with anywhere I've worked, including Broadway. It works out to about a dozen regional theaters across the country that can produce on a scale and at the quality of Pioneer." PTC, she says, matches the quality of San Diego's Old Globe, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky.
Every theater has its strengths and weaknesses, she says, but "here they have a really good just about everything."
Still, the decision to migrate from Manhattan to SLC was a tough one for her family of New Yorkers. "We are not a family that moves, and there was a lot of anxiety over it," Azenberg says. "Moving to Utah was a giant leap of faith."
Her husband, Augie Mericola, gave up a job as a stage hand on Wicked to relocate with their son, Alexander, 14, and daughter, Emelia, 11.
Azenberg is the fourth artistic director at PTC in its 50 years and the first-ever woman in the role.
"It's very complicated coming into an artistic leadership position, bringing in new and fresh ideas, while balancing that with a respect for what has been achieved," she says.
Azenberg's first goal is to promote PTC's excellence to the national theater community. "I want Pioneer Theatre to have the national reputation that the Old Globe or the Arena have,'' she says. "We are already there as far as quality productions, but Pioneer is still a little secret that's going to explode once the wider theater community figures out what is in this building. It's crazy."
She hopes exposure will bring directors looking for a solid theater to launch new work. "Whenever actors or directors get offered jobs in productions at Pioneer, they talk to people who have been here,'' explains Azenberg, who is also president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. "The answer they invariably get is: 'You have to go. You will love it.' No one expects to see the size of the house, the size of the stage and that level of work in a theater they've never heard of."
Azenberg has set her goals. "It's going to be about putting the best theater possible out there. It's going to be diverse. Expect the unexpected."