Meeting movie stars at a Sundance Q&A. Chatting over coffee while waiting in line for the world premiere of Little Miss Sunshine or Beasts of the Southern Wild. Watching Doug Fabrizio interview Edward Snowden, live from exile in Russia. Chances are if you’ve spent much time in Park City, you’ve made some lasting memories at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.

From TEDx talks to high school plays, the Eccles Center is a nexus for Parkites looking for unusual, informative, and entertaining experiences. The Park City Institute—the nonprofit organization that manages Eccles programming in cooperation with Park City School District—marks the theater’s 20th anniversary in January 2018, a two-decade time span where an exceptional high school auditorium evolved into a beloved venue for song, dance, music, drama, spoken word, and exploring controversial issues. 

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The Eccles Center theater during a 2002 Sundance Film Festival event.

Image: Fred Hayes

By the early 1990s, it had become clear that Park City needed a new, centralized performance venue. The Sundance Film Festival was growing rapidly, prompting speculation that it might leave Park City entirely. The Egyptian Theatre offered historical ambience on Main Street, but with less than 300 seats, it wasn’t equipped for major Sundance premieres. Meanwhile, Park City High School was the last in Utah to be operating without an auditorium. PCHS students struggled to deliver stage performances in the lunchroom, dubbed the “cafetorium” by exasperated parents. The school district and the Sundance Institute each needed solutions, so—similar to the way many issues are addressed in Park City—a resourceful group of locals came up with a novel approach.

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A filmmaker Q&A at the Eccles Center during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

“Several people put their heads together,” explains Ann MacQuoid, real-estate broker and longtime fixture of the Park City nonprofit scene. “We all got together—leaders in the nonprofit community, government, and the school district—to create a space for the school kids of Park City, the festival, and the community.” MacQuoid approached Teri Orr, former editor of the Park Record and an experienced fundraiser, to help lead the effort. The group set their sights on land adjacent to the high school and began making calls. “It was a huge effort,” MacQuoid recalls. “I can’t even imagine how much time we spent, but it was 100 percent volunteer fueled.”

After a couple of years of nonstop hustling, critical commitments finally came in. First, Robert Redford agreed to keep the Sundance Film Festival in Park City if the auditorium was built. Then, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation made a $1 million donation to the cause, essentially green-lighting construction. “We kept Sundance in Park City,” says Orr, who has served as executive director of PCI since 1995. “They were ready to leave. There was no place where they had 1,200 seats to show five shows a day in town before the theater. We are very proud that we’ve been partners with Sundance for so long.”

Since its opening in 1998, the Eccles Center has served its multiple purposes well, providing both an anchor venue for Park City’s famous film festival as well as a forum for students and the community as a whole. Up to 70 percent of PCI programming includes student outreach, and 20 percent of tickets to performances held at the Eccles Center go to underserved populations. “We’ve worked together to create a successful model for a joint-use facility,” Orr says. “The community is better off for having the two organizations in one building, and the students are definitely beneficiaries.”

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A Park City High School percussion concert at the Eccles Center in 2017.

Over the years, PCI has expanded its core Main Stage programming at the Eccles Center, playing with content and formats, from science lectures to contemporary dance performances to podcast stars and rock concerts. “I love introducing people to something that they are willing to take a risk on,” says Orr, “like seeing a performance they never imagined they’d attend. Then, watching them give a standing ovation, applauding, and even crying at the encore.”

Looking to the future, PCI is focused on continuing to engage TEDx and other well-known speakers, connecting Park City with the rest of the globe. Mark Maziarz, professional photographer and PCI board member, says he feels programming is getting stronger with the recent addition of speakers. “One of my favorite shows last year was when I went to see Adam Savage with my 10-year-old daughter, Daisy,” says Maziarz. “We both got excited by Adam’s enthusiasm to question, experiment, and build. It was a learning experience for both of us, but we also got to laugh a bunch.” He points out that the community has responded well to PCI speakers, too, enthusiastically attending events that bring “new perspectives and ideas to our small mountain town.”

Orr and the PCI board are determined to continue evolving the Institute by bringing “firsts” to Park City—performers and people like Edward Snowden, Alan Cumming, Sherman Alexie, Invisible Thread, and Fran Lebowitz. “We’ve stuck our neck out many times, and we’re still here,” says Orr, “and it’s all worth it because when you enter the theater, you leave everything else outside. You are allowing yourself to have a real experience in real time. There’s a certain amount of transcendence that can take place there.

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Trinity Irish Dance Company

The 20th anniversary season, at a glance

  • 12/9 Robert Cray
  • 12/16 MOMIX
  • 12/20 Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
  • 12/27 Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band
  • 12/31 New Year’s Eve Celebration with Rhiannon Giddens
  • 1/6 An Evening with Monica Lewinsky
  • 1/13 20th Anniversary Celebration with Pink Martini
  • 2/1 Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen
  • 2/3 Anne Lamott
  • 2/17 Bob Garfield: Ruggedly Jewish
  • 2/24 Dar Williams
  • 3/3 Mavis Staples
  • 3/10 Trinity Irish Dance Company
  • 3/24 Shane Koyczan
  • 3/31 The Mountaintop   
  • 4/3 Anthony Romero
  • 4/7 OK Go

Visit ecclescenter.org for details and to purchase tickets.

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