For years, the Salt Lake Acting Company has used its productions to address social justice through its casting and the plays it selects. But SLAC Executive Artisitic Director Cynthia Flemming said their choices have taken on a greater urgency at a time when the country is deeply divided. KUER’s Daysha Eaton spoke with Fleming about how they select the productions they bring to town.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daysha Eaton: How do you select the productions that come to Salt Lake City?
Cynthia Fleming: Before the Trump administration, the criteria was simple: the best plays period — to find the best new work to bring to Utah, that these plays would not be seen if it weren't for SLAC. Since the Trump Administration, the temperature of our lives has risen and we’re all on shaky ground. We’re constantly hearing negative stuff, if you turn on the TV at all. So, I realized that our audience can’t take some of the hard truths that some of our contemporary plays present. It was really important, especially these last two years, to bring plays that bring awareness and entertain, but are also smart and perhaps issue oriented.
DE: So, you're very sensitive to the fact that the country is very divided right now, that people are grappling with a lot of social change that's taking place. Speaking of which, you have this play called, “The Cake” which is playing right now. Tell me about this play.
CF: “The Cake” is written by Becca Brunstetter, who is a writer for the TV series “This is Us”. You start to read a play very open. When I heard that it's about a baker not baking a cake for a lesbian couple, I was like, OK — and I kind of put some assumptions into what I was going to read. But as I started to read, it just opened everything up. It blew away all those assumptions.
What Becca has the ability to do is to show the many, many layers of us as human beings, no matter what side you are on. It's not black and white, and life is not black and white. It shows the gray.
The way the play starts says everything. And, I think Becca is brilliant in how she brought recipes — how to make a cake, the directions you must follow to bake a cake — and put it next to the directions you may follow in religion for a good life. A beautiful delicious cake, a beautiful delicious life. And this says everything, and this is how Della, our character, lived her life until Jen came back into her life and asked her to make her cake. It’s, ‘See, what you have to do is really, truly follow the directions’. I just think that’s just beautiful. And she is talking about making a cake, but I really feel that is the recipe for her living her life.
DE: SLAC is deeply committed to addressing issues of equity and social justice through theater, tell me about that.
CF: Well it started in 2014 when we were producing the play, “Tribes”, about a deaf child being raised in a hearing family, and they were raising him to not have a “handicap” and to live how they do. We reached out to the deaf community when we are having auditions and nobody showed up. And so, we hired a hearing actor that's very, very talented to play the role of Billy.
Well, I wanted to get some support from the deaf community to help this actor and when they read the play they said, ‘No, we can't help you because a deaf actor should be playing this role.’ And, I heard that. There were two weeks before rehearsal start so I put some feelers out and I hired an actor that had done the role before. And, what I love about working in the theater and working in a place that does new contemporary work is I'm always learning and growing. So, what I learned from that experience — the theater field was teaching us and opening us up to who has the right to tell the story, who has the right to write the story?
DE: It seem like you’re selecting plays that help us try to understand some of these issues.
CF: Right after the election a “Ghostlight Project” was born. The ‘ghost light’ in the theater is a light that you keep on on the stage when everything else is dark, you know, maybe to keep the ghosts away or to represent safety. And we had one day where we all lit our ghost light and proclaimed that we will be a safe place for all.
Bekah Brunstetter's play is about a conservative baker who has to decide if she can bake a cake for her friend's lesbian daughter. Really, it's about whether we can find a way to talk to each other. Thursday, we're talking about the latest play from Salt Lake Acting Company.