The founding of the ThreePenny Theater Company in Salt Lake City runs through a strong egalitarian streak.
“Anyone can see our show,” said Jonah Ericson, who co-founded the company with Cody O’Hare. “You’ve got a dollar in your pocket, you can see a show. Or, as Cody often says, if you have three cents, you can see a show.”
The name Ericson and Cody O’Hare, two transplants from Kansas, gave their company a homage to German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his 1928 collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera.
Brecht, Ericson said, “was very focused on the concepts of socialist theater. … As [do] You create theater that comments on social issues and ideas and allows people to go home and keep thinking about those ideas?
In the opening monologue of The Threepenny Opera—a musical best known for the opening song “Mack the Knife,” later recorded by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin—Brecht has a character explain the work as “an opera.” for beggars.” The musical got its name, wrote Brecht, “because this opera was created with such glamor that only beggars could dream up, and because it is nevertheless supposed to be so cheap that only beggars would pay for it.”
In its mission statement, the company states a specific, dual purpose: “To engage impoverished, low-income and homeless communities in theatrical arts classes and rehearsals.”
Deconstruct theater lessons
As students at Kansas State University, Ericson and O’Hare found drama studies “dissociative” because they didn’t “get the money” like 95% of the people around them, Ericson said.
Also, they weren’t driven by the same idea as others in theater, “that to really ‘work,’ you have to be in either New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago,” Ericson said.
“Cody and I were interested in theater as a different tool than just making productions and making money,” Ericson said. “Both of us are people who came from a place where theater was that thing that became this tremendous community development aspect of our lives.”
The couple also became interested in civic work, Ericson said, and “began to get involved with plays that can be taken to the homeless, homeless and impoverished populations to contribute to community development.” The idea, he said, is “to use theater to connect people who are islands, you might say.”
Another part of the inspiration was the idea of ”bringing people onto the stage that the audience isn’t used to — whether they’re minorities in the general sense of the world, but the financial minority in particular,” Ericson said, adding that this in the majority of the case is theatrical productions: “Most of the people you see on stage were people who have very rich families.”
Ericson said one of ThreePenny’s principles is, “The more we can deconstruct the concepts of the class, the more solutions will follow.”
No experience needed
Salt Lake City is a good fit for ThreePenny to work for, Ericson said, because there are well-known programs for people affected by homelessness, like The Road Home.
“ThreePenny adds a layer of stability to people’s lives by building a people-to-people community between the larger Salt Lake City space and the smaller homeless community,” Ericson said. “There’s a really great transition going on that I think ThreePenny can really contribute to.”
Stability, Ericson says, comes from following the traditional theatrical production model and teaching people different skills—writing, acting, set design, or directing.
“You don’t have to be a trained actor,” said O’Hare, who oversees ThreePenny’s educational programs. “You can just be anyone, anyone, that [is] Interested.”
In fact, O’Hare said the company seeks to hire performers and workers who don’t have a long summary of past acting roles or backstage jobs. “We’re going to teach you what you need to know if you want to learn carpentry, light rigging or anything — to teach you what you need to know to get those skills,” O’Hare said.
The jobs are paid positions, which many theater groups of this size often can’t, the founders said. The company also works with local homeless groups like Other Side Village.
The jobs aren’t permanent—that’s the theater, after all. Ericson said the group is typically “able to work effectively with eight to 10 people for two to three months. … We are not a broad rehabilitation, but small building blocks that radiate outwards.”
The company’s current production, which runs through Saturday, is “Love and Information,” a play by British playwright Caryl Churchill about how people communicate and connect.
In September, ThreePenny presents Indian Radio Days, a work by Choctaw playwrights LeAnne Howe and Roxy Gordon that explores Native American history. And The Life of Galileo, a Brecht work staging in November, uses the astronomer’s biography to depict the struggle between religion and science.
Ericson and O’Hare recall some “beautiful” moments since starting their company three years ago. For example, at one of the last rehearsals, during the regular check-ins at the end of the day, someone commented on how excited they were to come to rehearsals because it didn’t feel like work.
“That was really satisfying,” O’Hare said, “to know that we’re not just doing this for ourselves or the community at large — it’s something that actually matters to the people in it.”