By Amy Brunvand

Boosting the creative impact of Kingsbury Hall.

Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah holds a lot of memories. It’s the first place I ever saw Ballet West, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Repertory Dance Theatre and the Utah Opera; it’s where I got to hear live concerts by favorite bands like Nickel Creek and They Might be Giants. I saw ballerina Margot Fonteyn dance there, and sat through plenty of my own children’s dance recitals; I was there with a standing-room crowd when David “The Archdruid” Brower called on us to drain Lake Powell.

Kingsbury Hall opened in 1932, and it still has the faded elegance of another era with its 1936 Works Project Administration murals by Florence Ware. In 1990, the stage was enlarged to accommodate bigger shows and in 2007 the seating was remodeled so now you can see the stage a lot better. The theater has long been a community asset, but without a resident company,  it has seemed to lack an identity.

Cultural diversity, social justice

I knew something had changed when I got the 2016-2017 UtahPresents season catalog in the mail. The first thing that caught my eye was Elephant & Piggie’s We are in a Play, an all-ages show based on Mo Willem’s delightful books. I made my teen and tween kids go even though they outgrew Elephant & Piggie years ago (although you never really outgrow Elephant &  Piggie).

The whole season is pretty much a wow! Ta-Nehisi Coates! (already sold out) Taylor Mac!  The Nile Project! Black Grace Dance Company!   Someone had clearly selected these performers with unusual attention to cultural diversity and social justice.

It wasn’t just my imagination to think that Kingsbury Hall is on a new track. In 2014, Brooke Horejsi, executive director of UtahPresents, was hired specifically in order to bring new life to the old theater. Horejsi is from Wisconsin by way of Minnesota and she exudes the kind of no-fuss attitude that I associate with my Midwestern relatives, as well as unabashed enthusiasm for the theater. “I’m super, super, super passionate about the role arts play in our shared humanity,” Hoejsi says.

Horejsi started her new job by doing a lot of listening in order to understand what Kingsbury Hall means to the community, and she heard a lot of stories like mine.  “Kingsbury Hall has a connection to all sorts of people in our community,” she says. “But it’s a place, not a program.” She aims to cut through the muddled public perception in order fill an educational niche and create an identity.

The result is UtahPresents, a nonprofit arts organization housed in Kingsbury Hall with a mission to “bring diverse artistic and cultural experiences to campus and the region, exploring and enriching the human experience through the lens of creativity and the arts.”

Nonprofit status means that UtahPresents is not in competition with big shows at the new Eccles Theatre downtown and doesn’t need to sell out every performance to keep afloat, so artistic choices are not compromised by “what will sell.” Since UtahPresents is not a single-genre presenter, they can embrace a broad diversity of voices and focus on bringing in artists who both give to and receive from the community. For instance, the Elephant & Piggie show was performed free to groups of schoolchildren as well as for the paying audience.

What’s coming

Horejsi is particularly excited about Taylor Mac (January 14), a drag performer whose show is called “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music“ (He’s doing the 1946-1976 segment in Salt Lake City). Horejsi saw Mac’s show in New York, which a New York Times reviewer called “one of the great experiences of my life.” Horejsi  says, “He’s using popular music to tell the history of our country, what we were doing as human beings at the time, using humor and song to also remind us of things we might choose to forget—the 1940 and ’50s when white people moved to the suburbs, taking our wealth with us; the music of the civil rights movement, the Stonewall riots—a lot of people don’t even know what that is. You’d need to take a queer history class to know about it.”

Paging through the UtahPresents season catalog, Horejsi  points out performers from China, India, East Africa. She says the New Zealand dance group, Black Grace (performing on March 22) was invited at the suggestion of a local Pacific Islander support organization, another example of how art serves the community.

I ask Horejsi if she’s an artist herself. She looks surprised. “I was an undergraduate in theatre, English and Spanish,” she says. “I was a first generation college student and I didn’t have a good idea of what the path to the arts was. I’m a poster child for why liberal education is important. I found my tribe of people and a passion for creativity.”

However, after graduation, she realized she was not suited to freelancing. “I went back and got a degree in Arts Administration. I am an artist because I curate a season of work, but I don’t create my own artistic product.”

She worries about the reduction of creative pursuits in K-12 settings. She doesn’t think electronic media can match the immediacy and sense of community that comes from being in a shared performance space.

Regarding the diverse fare she has curated for the season at hand, she offers this advice: Be curious. She says, “My favorite saying, Albert Einstein supposedly said it, is  this:‘I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.’”

Amy Brunvand is an academic librarian working in the University of Utah Sustainability Office.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2016.