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Theatre

A community’s theater

The Utah Shakespearean Festival thrives on the people, the otudoor venues and the lasting power of classic drama

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The Taming of the Shrew
Photo: Karl Hugh
Jacob Coakley

We're three hours north and 20 degrees south of Las Vegas when I slip in the river that’s rushing along the side of the road. There’s not a cloud anywhere in the sky, but the water’s deep enough and fast enough to soak my shoe in a flash. I don’t mind—this time of year 20 degrees cooler still means upper 80s in Cedar City, Utah, so the cold water actually feels quite refreshing. But the water doesn’t stop. We walk along side streets in the historic downtown, streets lined with Victorian houses, Tudors and low apartment buildings that have been converted from Southern Utah University campus housing, and the fast water keeps on flowing. It’s like there’s a stream running right through the center of town. I feel like we should call the city—do they know someone’s water sprinkler is broken? Really, really broken?

“It’s actually irrigation,” says Kami Terri, marketing director at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, kindly explaining how water works to me and my wife, two Sin City desert dwellers. “It’s a leftover from the pioneer days. The mountain runoff is dammed just east of the city, and each day it’s sluiced to a different part of town. Residents make their own irrigation systems to feed the water into their gardens.”

It’s working. Hardwood trees shade the streets, grass actually looks healthy here, and gardens are plentiful. We end up sitting outside at the Garden Café, surrounded by trees, feverfew flowers and a chorus of birds. In the distance juniper trees (originally called cedars by the Mormon settlers) populate the sides of mountains. The water might not be the reason for the growth of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, but both stem from that same source of communal spirit. In the more than 40 years that the fest has been putting on plays in this town, it’s gone from a $1,000 budget and cardboard sets to three theaters, six summer shows plus a fall season and a $6.4 million budget. And it was the locals’ unlikely love of Shakespeare that set it all in motion.

Utah Shakespearean Fest

“It’s kind of a fun legend of how Fred Adams started it,” says Terri. Adams was hired as a professor at Southern Utah University (then called Southern Utah College) to teach theater for a year. He had been trained in theater and spent the previous year working on Broadway, so he took it upon himself to show Cedar City some theater. He produced a musical, a straight play and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

“They had not filled the theater for any show,” continues Terri. “And then for Taming of the Shrew they filled it, and they had to extend it an extra weekend because so many people in town wanted to see that show. That’s why he picked Shakespeare when he was thinking of starting a theater festival, because that’s what he knew Cedar City residents were interested in.”

The festival is remounting Taming of the Shrew this year as one of its six summer plays. The other Shakespeare shows include Othello, directed by Associate Artistic Director J.R. Sullivan, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It will be performing Taming of the Shrew indoors at its Randall L. Jones Theatre, and letting a non-Shakespeare production (Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand) take the stage outdoors. The other two non-Shakespeare shows that will take place indoors are the musical Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, and The School for Wives, Molière’s French comedy.

The fest’s traditional outdoor Adams Shakespearean Theatre is a near-exact replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, which makes it a perfect venue for the fest’s dramatic heavyweight, Othello, says Sullivan, the play’s director. The classic story of evil depends on quiet moments and rapid speed exacerbated by the outdoors.

“Essentially, the events of the play happen in one day,” says Sullivan. “They’re happily married in the morning, and Desdemona lies murdered in her wedding bed that night. All in one day. The frightening speed of that progress, that virulent thing that’s poured into Othello’s ear by Iago—it multiplies within his being, poisoning his very soul.”

The theater, Sullivan says, is key when Othello realizes that despite all of Iago’s evil, he remains only a catalyst: It is still Othello himself who has killed his wife. Evil resides within him.

“That involves a silence of realization that can be unsettling,” Sullivan says.

For moments like this, Sullivan likes the grounding effect of the play taking place in an outdoor theater. “The thing about this theater,” he says, “[is] it connects you to nature, which gives it immediate depth and connects you to the eternal.”

Utah Shakespearean Festival

And that’s not by accident. The Adams Shakespearean Theatre is one of the truest representations of an English Tudor theater in the world today. Its outer walls, beige plaster crossed by dark brown timber and peaked tiled roofs are practically an iconic setting for classic theater. The courtyard surrounding the theater is paved with bricks and dotted with mature, shaded trees and plenty of benches. To one side of the theater is a clearing where The Greenshow—a song-and-dance performance—takes place before every show. Inside, the only nod to the present day are the seats, 819 in total, that wrap around the thrust stage. It’s an astonishingly intimate theater.

The fest’s other main theater, the Randall L. Jones, was constructed in 1989 and seats 769. While it’s a modern indoor theater, nods to the festival and surrounding nature are all around. Its lobby is a high glass atrium with palm timber beams between each pane of glass and exposed wood indoors. Outside the theater, life-sized statues of popular Shakespearean characters stand near the window.

Indoors in the Jones’ lobby there’s a statue of Shakespeare sitting on a bench, talking to an empty spot next to him. A popular photo spot, it’s a physical reminder of the fest’s philosophy: They want to make it as easy and non-intimidating as possible for people to engage with Shakespeare and other classic plays. Since Day 1 of the fest, they’ve offered pre-show orientations to any audience member; as a professor, Adams naturally leaned toward explicating the plots, subplots and language of Shakespeare, a practice that continues to this day.

Every morning, in a glade beside the Adams theater, there’s a post-show discussion of the previous night’s work. Actors often put on baseball caps and walk over to hear what people have to say, but they also have to put on thick skins—patrons take the opportunity to heart and aren’t afraid to tell the unvarnished truth.

“You’ll get people who ask, ‘Was that your choice to wear your hair like that?’ They don’t realize what they’re saying can be hurtful,” says actor James Newcomb, who plays Iago in this year’s Othello. “They’ll ask a loaded question that informs you pretty profoundly that what you did was not meeting their expectations.”

Education Director Michael Bar thinks the seminars are the best-kept secret of the festival. “It allows there to be a steam release—some people are very vocal; other times, it’s a love-in.” Either way it’s a good way for everyone involved to find the pulse of the festival. The moderators do a good job of making sure it does not turn into a bash-fest, but the participants tend to keep it in check, too.

Bar tells a story of how when David Ivers was an actor at the festival he was appearing in a production of Peter Pan with a very young, very fresh kid. They both appeared at a morning seminar, and someone asked them both if they found the work rewarding. The younger actor was completely effusive and spoke of the magic that happened each night when he got to make dreams come true. Ivers merely turned on his stool to look at the kid and said, “You’ve got a lot to learn, kid.”

“The marketplace of ideas tends to protect all things,” says Bar. “If there are 30-100 people, there are that many opinions, and if someone is free to express something, then someone else will rally to protection, or voice a different opinion.”

This conscious decision to allow space for the audience to express their opinions and to give them access to the people involved in the productions has resulted in a fierce loyalty to the festival in Cedar City and beyond. Patrons make the trip an annual event, often buying their tickets for the next year while still in the middle of the current year’s festival. Terri and her team encourage this sense of ownership among everyone who is connected to the theater.

“We train all of our front-of-house people to really make friends with the audience,” says Terri. “But it’s really not that hard to train them, either. The people we hire, they want to be hired. They love Cedar City, they love the festival, and so they’re really sincere when they welcome people to the show, and they’re excited about being there themselves. It’s contagious, and people love to be a part of it.”

Executive Director R. Scott Phillips is no stranger to the fun of comedy and the joy of making theater. The first full-time staff member of the fest, Phillips was hired by Adams in 1978 to be marketing director. This position turned into managing director, and Phillips was officially named executive director in 2007.

“It didn’t seem like as much work then as now,” he jokes. “Of course I was a lot younger then.”

Phillips has presided over the incredible growth of the festival, as well as some extremely hard times. In 1981, the iron mines, which had been a prime economic mover in the city, shut down. Faced with a fiscal crisis, the leaders of Cedar City faced some hard decisions about the future of their town. Phillips and the festival’s leadership had been coming off a decade of incredible growth, had been extending and extending sold-out shows, and had feasibility studies showing that more patrons would come and spend more in town if there were more plays to see. The city decided to throw its weight behind the fest, and applied to the state legislature to approve a large grant for the city and fest to build a second indoor space, the Randall L. Jones Theatre, dedicated in 1989.

But even though it was getting big, the festival stayed true to its local roots. Just like during the first season of shows, local companies built the theater. Local craftsmen created the leaded glass for the windows. A local woodcarver cut cherry wood for the construction. A local artisan put a shimmering wave of gold leafing on the balcony front. Some materials came from outside Cedar City, but the commitment to (and from) the community remained, and deepened.

The expansion was a success. The state’s $2.3 million grant returned to the state’s coffers in less than five years thanks to increased tax revenues from the larger audiences. The second space allowed the festival to expand to six plays each summer, and start producing in the fall. The larger budgets enabled them to hire well-known designers and directors, and commit to the level of artistic detail they coveted. All this work was rewarded in 2001 when the American Theatre Wing awarded the festival its Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, an award Phillips is quick to credit his audience for.

“I think critics saw that the audiences were so knowledgeable and appreciative,” he says. Don’t get him wrong—he thinks the consistently high level of work had something to do with it, too, but he remains steadfast in his praise for the audience. “I’m always amazed at how smart our audiences are.”

Indeed the audiences are smart enough to keep bringing their favorites back, year after year. One of this year’s main shows, the heroic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac, is being mounted by a dream team for the fest. Director David Ivers is a longtime audience favorite, and he’ll be directing current stage titan Brian Vaughn in the season’s sole non-Shakespeare play to be presented outside. This has led to some maneuvering with the design and set to make slight changes away from the Elizabethan theater for the set.

“We’re not that far from Shakespeare’s time, but we’re in a different country,” says Ivers. “Our design team has done a really nice job of putting some elegance into the façade and using it as simply a backdrop and springboard for primarily the story, the relationships, the bodies to define the world more than the architecture of the space. It’s minimalist and elegant.”

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano is a tale of selfless, sacrificial love—one of the greatest love stories of all time. The ugly but poetic swordsman who woos a woman for a comrade in arms, and then refuses to confess his love to her because he doesn’t want to destroy the sanctity of her returned love has been remade by Steve Martin (Roxanne) and aped by South Park. It takes a deft but strong hand to present the original in a fresh way. In this quest, Ivers is thankful to be using the translation of Anthony Burgess (yes, the author of A Clockwork Orange).

“I feel like it’s a great deal more muscular [than other translations],” says Ivers. “The Burgess has a great drive and a great meter to it, and sounds a bit more contemporary.

“What you don’t want to do is lose the central brilliance of the story—of the relationships, of seeking the truth,” continues Ivers. “And in many ways I feel like that’s what this play is about. People selflessly and selfishly putting themselves before others, for the good of others. Holding onto secrets for the good of others.”

Many families have turned the fest into one of their traditions, returning year after year to relive the classics and take in the scenery. Phillips and the rest of his staff are dedicated to keeping it going, building upon past success and for future triumphs. Phillips is working tirelessly to build an endowment to keep the festival around forever and allow it to hire the best designers, directors and actors in the industry. Fred Adams is still involved with the festival, raising funds for a new Elizabethan theater that will be part of a new Shakespearean Center for the Performing Arts, solidifying the fest’s commitment to education and the community, a community that has supported and benefited from a Shakespeare festival in what seems the most unlikely of places—until you look at the passion and dedication it seems the residents of Cedar City have always had for Shakespeare.

The irrigation waters had stopped flowing by the time we stopped off at the Garden Cottage Bed and Breakfast for the night—after the backstage tour (open to anyone), after the hike through the breaks—but the flowers were still fragrant, the ivy lush and the roses in bloom. And that’s the genius of a great theater festival. Even after the show’s over, the beauty remains, and thanks to careful tending and the right environment, it will be there a long time for people to enjoy.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival’s summer season runs through August 30. Info at Bard.org

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