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Utah meet-up group creates a community where theater lovers can connect, support local arts

Salt Lake Tribune logo Salt Lake Tribune 1/12/2020 Larrisa Beth Turner | Special to The Tribune
a person standing in front of a store: (Leah Hogsten  |  The Salt Lake Tribune) Megan Gutierrez fell in love with the theater after her parents took her to "Les Misérables." Since then, she has seen countless shows, collected memorabilia and now leads Utah Theater Lovers and Theater Lovers Travel. © Leah Hogsten (Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Megan Gutierrez fell in love with the theater after her parents took her to "Les Misérables." Since then, she has seen countless shows, collected memorabilia and now leads Utah Theater Lovers and Theater Lovers Travel.

On a night out after seeing plays in London, a group of Utah theater fans opened up to each other about their families’ experiences with suicide.

When they later took in a production of the play “Facing East” at Draper Historic Theatre, a member who was originally from the Midwest said she finally understood Latter-day Saint viewpoints on homosexuality.

And at a dinner last summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, another woman explained what the group had come to mean to her. “I have been in mourning for so long that I forgot what happiness feels like,” she said, “and sitting with you guys here, talking about shows and having a glass of wine, I’m happy.”

For Megan Gutierrez — the founder of Utah Theater Lovers — those memories show the power of theater to connect people and broaden their perspectives. She sees scores of performances a year, but the thoughtful and sometimes intimate conversations afterward with the group “are the moments that I treasure,” said Gutierrez, 41, of Draper.

“Being able to carry on that experience and talk about it, to debrief, to laugh about it, to cry about it, to be critical about it ... that’s a really big thing we that we try to do,” she said.

Gutierrez launched the group after her theater attendance outpaced the interest of her partner. She had been checking the website Meetup, used to organize in-person events, for like-minded theatergoers.

“I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be a group of people out there wanting to go to shows.’ And there never was. And finally I just got frustrated and said, ‘OK, I’m going to create it, start my own,’” she said.

In January 2012, she founded PlayUtah, which she later renamed Utah Theater Lovers. The next month about a dozen of its first members met for a Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) performance of “Red,” followed by a panel discussion and reception.

Now the Theater Lovers brand boasts more than 4,000 members on Meetup, a dual Facebook group with more than 1,300 members, and an international Theater Lovers Travel group. On average, 20 to 30 people regularly attend the group’s choice of shows, the gatherings typically hosted afterward by the theaters or acting companies, and dinners scheduled each month. So far, the group has sponsored more than 150 official events and numerous informal get-togethers.

Along the way, it has fostered support for theater, locally owned eateries and lasting friendships.

“I saw theater on my own for so long,” Gutierrez said. “My goal with this group is creating a place where people feel safe to connect with other people.”

‘That changed my life’

Growing up in Utah, Gutierrez said, she was exposed to church programs, community productions and musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.” Then, when she was 13, her mother took her to see “Les Misérables.”

“That was it — I was done. And that changed my life,” she said. At 19, seeing a production of “Rent” made her yearn to see Broadway and professionally produced work.

In her early 20s, Gutierrez dragged her partner at the time to a lot of shows, but eventually her girlfriend told her that she didn’t want to go anymore. Gutierrez went alone — but also “started searching out for a community” of people who wanted to attend theater with others.

Gutierrez took to Twitter, created a blog and started reviewing shows for such publications as Utah Theater Bloggers, Back Stage Utah and Broadway World. She was seeing one to three shows a week, her passion sustained by complimentary tickets she received as a reviewer. (Her all-time high for a year is 119 shows, in 2011.)

Once Gutierrez started the theater-going group, Kathy Davis was one of its earliest members. Davis fell in love with theater while studying at the University of Utah, where she took a class that allowed her to see and write about shows produced by such theaters as Promised Valley Playhouse and Theater 138, which no longer exist.

Davis needed new theater companions after her daughters married. She met Gutierrez while traveling on the “Bard Bus” to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, a trip then hosted annually by Laura Bedore, who was hosting “Showtunes Saturday Night” on KOSY 106.5.

Davis has been the most active member ever since, attending more than half of all Utah Theater Lovers events — home and away. She enjoys the live aspect of theater — that she never sees the same thing twice.

“It doesn’t feel so rehearsed and prepared. It feels more immediate and intimate,” said Davis, now 62, of Salt Lake City.

She also appreciates the post-performance conversations Gutierrez arranges with cast and/or crew members, which almost all Utah Theater Lovers events include. “It’s nice to hear those different views because people see [plays] differently,” she said.

Gutierrez reaches out to theater officials before a show to ask for such a discussion, or a backstage tour or a dinner with the cast. She assures them the group will come even if the theater cannot offer anything; that stance has helped Utah Theater Lovers build strong relationships with theaters and the group secures most requests.

One of the most memorable conversations for group member Megan Brown was with Harrison Bryan, who played the lead in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Pioneer Theatre Company in 2017.

To portray Christopher, a character on the autism spectrum, “he had to change his physical structure and stuff,” said Brown, 37, of Salt Lake City. “So hearing that talkback with that cast and with him, and hearing how he did the research and really personified the character was really fascinating.”

About half of the members who attend a selected play stick around for dinner, which Gutierrez holds at locally owned restaurants to support small businesses.

An ‘unrivaled’ community

When Brown, a native of North Carolina, moved to Salt Lake City in 2017, she didn’t realize how big the theater scene was along the Wasatch Front. Joining Utah Theater Lovers, she said, exposed her to the range of companies.

Gutierrez estimates more than 100 Utah theater organizations produce upward of 400 shows a year, far more than the group can attend. Gutierrez and Shannon Herrera, the co-host she brought on a few years ago, update the schedule of performances they’ve selected about twice a year, and try to avoid going to the same theater more than once in a 12-month period.

“Sometimes there’s exceptions to that — if there’s special events or something we want to do,” Gutierrez said, “but ... one of our goals is to highlight different theaters.”

Davis said she’s amazed at the number of arts organizations, noting the Wasatch Front hosts a symphony, opera, major ballet company and two modern dance companies, as well as all the smaller performing groups and theater companies.

“Seven years ago, I could make most of what was going on along the Wasatch Front. Now, I can’t,” said Davis, who holds season tickets to multiple theater companies. “Part of that’s my work schedule … but a lot of it is that there’s just so much going on.”

Gutierrez agrees, and attributes the growth in part to social media, which she says has allowed theaters to cross-promote each other and increase their visibility.

Gutierrez, Davis and Brown gush when they talk about the quality of Utah theater. As some of their favorites, they cite An Other Theater Company, the summer Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, Hale Centre Theatre, Pioneer Theatre, Plan-B Theatre Company, Pygmalion Theatre Company, SLAC, Utah Shakespeare Festival, University of Utah Department of Theatre, Wasatch Theatre Company and Westminster College’s Theatre Arts Department.

“Our theater community is unrivaled. There’s nowhere else that I could see as much theater as I do on the budget that I do. Yes, I could go to New York and see just as much, but it would cost me five times as much,” Gutierrez said. She estimates that she spends $2,000 to $3,000 on her own tickets and her own meals at post-show dinners each year, while noting that most shows cost her less than $30 a ticket.

The market saturation and low price point, however, make it difficult to earn a living as an actor, she said. That’s one of the reasons Utah Theater Lovers strives to support smaller community theaters.

Taylor Jack Nelson and Kacey Spadafora reached out to Gutierrez a few years ago when they launched the Kickstarter to found An Other Theater Company (AOTC) in Provo. A relationship with Utah Theater Lovers developed from there, including adding matinees at the group’s suggestion.

AOTC, a small black box theater inside an old Radio Shack at the Provo Towne Centre Mall, often provides Gutierrez a discount code, which can reduce the price by as much as 30%.

“But I remember one time I looked at how many people in that group actually used the code and it was lower than I thought,” Nelson said. “I think they just recognize that we’re a small theater and are fine paying full price, which was kind of them.”

Gutierrez recently told the group she might no longer ask theaters for discounted tickets. She said she doesn’t want to force theaters, particularly smaller ones, to give them discounts, because “we’re going to go either way.”

Utah Theater Lovers has seen AOTC’s productions of “Next Fall,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Santaland Diaries.” Nelson said he particularly enjoys post-show conversations with the group’s members.

“They aren’t just like, ‘OK, I saw it. That’s it — it’s over.’ They really sit with it,” he said. “... I wish more people would view theater that way.”

A bigger stage

Some theater experiences just can’t be had in Utah — and that’s where Theater Lovers Travel comes in.

Its first major trip took place in June 2016, when Gutierrez, Davis and a few other members traveled with a high school group to New York, where they planned to see the Broadway musical that had just won 11 Tony Awards — “Hamilton.”

Although the day started a bit rough, with Davis worried that her ticket may not be legitimate, it ended on a high note. After the show, Davis, Gutierrez and her daughter went to the stage door, where they snapped photos of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and actor behind “Hamilton.”

The trip, Gutierrez said, was magical. One of her next goals was taking the group to BroadwayCon — and when group member Corina Johnson asked if she needed help arranging the trips, a partnership with All Points Travel was formed. Packages generally include tickets, hotels, meals, talk backs with actors, private tours and swag.

Besides New York, the group has traveled to Idaho Falls, Las Vegas and Boston. In 2019, Gutierrez and the group checked off an item on their bucket list and crossed the pond for a week in London, where they toured Stratford-upon-Avon (William Shakespeare’s hometown), the Globe Theatre and the Rose Playhouse — a “theater lover’s dream.”

After London, about half of the group continued on to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. They hunkered down on the train north, using a catalog as thick as a novel to plan which shows to attend in less than three days.

Give “obsessive theater people” the opportunity to see “10 shows a day, and they will,” Gutierrez said.

This month, Theater Lovers Travel will return to New York, where the group will see “Moulin Rouge” and “Jagged Little Pill” and meet actors from the shows, as well as have the option to attend the 2020 BroadwayCon.

In the nearly eight years since she founded Utah Theater Lovers, Guterriez has collected or created hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of pieces of memorabilia. None holds as much significance, though, as the memories she shares with the many friends she’s made along the way — including tender moments, like sobbing with members after seeing Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

From watching the Salt Lake Valley theater community grow and bumping into familiar faces at shows, to sharing funny theater videos online and and having late-night theater conversations on Facebook, she said, she’s loved “every second of it.”

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