Extension cords run across the concrete floor. Folding chairs sit in disarray. Power tools idle for a stage still in construction.
Yet actor David Fetzer, founder of the months-old New Works Theatre Machine, is as happy as a kid in a proverbial candy store.
"It's hard to see, of course, because we've painted everything black," Fetzer said, pointing to the stage inside the west-side Salt Lake City warehouse known as The Utah Pickle Factory, home to his new theater company. "We want to create the illusion of the characters coming out of nowhere."
Fetzer is an actor seasoned by dozens of professional performances beginning when he was 10. Now 28, he's seized by the conviction that the age-old medium of live theater is ripe with undiscovered possibilities. Too much of it, he believes, comes burdened with agendas or outright propaganda.
Far more exciting, Fetzer believes, is a dramatic experience that takes full advantage of everything film, novels and video games are not, and which theater, in fact, is: a shared experience in real time with live actors and a live audience.
"I've always seen theater as something I was glad to have seen or done but that was also something of a chore," Fetzer said. "Lots of theater nowadays forgets that first and foremost you need to be engaging."
So Fetzer embarked on one of the more perilous ventures of the arts world against the backdrop of an even more perilous economy. Taking out a personal loan of $5,500 and persuading a troupe of local acting and theater production talent to volunteer their time, he launched a production company dedicated to spreading the gospel of live theater to the 18-35 age group. Fetzer believes it's a demographic that's underserved and underexposed to a full variety of dramatic experiences.
Director Robin Wilks Dunn believes Fetzer's collaborative spirit will prove an asset to his new theater company. Dunn directs Fetzer in Salt Lake Acting Company's production of "boom," which runs through Sunday, Dec. 5. In the quirky comedy, Fetzer plays a marine biologist out to save humanity from extinction.
"Beyond his incredible acting talent, he's also a dynamite problem-solver," Dunn said. "He doesn't just stand there and say, 'That's not my job.' He gets so involved in his character that you have little accidents along the way. A lot of times we ended up keeping them."
The show "Go to Hell" is the premiere program of Fetzer's New Works Theatre Machine and a world premiere by writer and director Jeremey Catterton. The play promises everything you wouldn't expect from a Pioneer Theatre Company or even Salt Lake Acting Company production.
Loosely based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Catterton's work recasts Eurydice as a contemporary woman punished for her individualistic tendencies and career path. The ferryman to Hades is an alcoholic and a crack addict, with the entire production inspired by the menacing scores of classical composers such as Offenbach. For extra, bracing measure, the production's visual inspiration is borrowed from "Hellraiser" horror films. "Go to Hell" press materials promise theatergoers "an entirely unique, terrifying and utterly different evening of theater."
Catterton, a New York City-based playwright whose unconventional works have been produced in Indonesia and London, said his work is based partly on his impressions of life in Salt Lake City. His characters' struggle against organized religion became a core theme, Catterton said. Rather than write a script and rehearse the performance, he starts with a catalog of scenes or ideas, then develops and rewrites them in rehearsal until the end result comes closest to his vision. He calls it a "post-dramatic" style of theater.
Catterton said Fetzer trusts his creative process to the point of "empowerment," an important bond between producer and director.
"If I say I want blood dripping off the ceiling, he'd definitely consider it before saying no," Catterton said. "A lot of people can work with me, but a lot of them get stressed out. I'm the kind of director who says, 'Let's just do it now and worry about the fire marshal later.' "
Actor Tyson Brett, who plays Orpheus in the production, said "Go to Hell" fits the overworn term "edgy" to a tee and then some.
"Finding the right emotions and character moments for something like this isn't just a matter of pulling things out of your little bag of tricks from acting class," Brett said. "It's not something you can half-step your way through."
Fetzer said he wants nothing less than an inaugural production that will nail audiences to the wall with fear, then swing them back to laughter.
"No matter what is being said, you need to be certain you're presenting it as only theater can," he said. "Otherwise, why are you working in the context of a play?"
Give 'em hell
P The New Works Theatre Machine presents "Go to Hell."
When • Today to Dec. 18; Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.
Where • The Utah Pickle Factory, 741 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City
Info • $10-$30; call 801-916-1308 for more information or visit www.thenewworkstheatremachine.com