Utah Shakespeare Festival honors founder in 60th anniversary

The Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre is modeled after the Globe Theatre in London and hosts the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s main shows. The festival is celebrating its 60th anniversary and season while honoring its founder. (Cassidy Wixom)

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is celebrating its 60th anniversary and season while honoring its founder.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1961 and presented its first season in 1962. It has expanded and evolved over the years to what it now is today, a classical theater company that produces quality Shakespearean and other theatrical productions in Cedar City, Utah.

The festival runs from June to October and includes eight plays and musicals that vary from year to year performed on three stages: the Randall L. Jones Theatre, the Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre and the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre which is modeled after the Globe Theatre in London. Those three stages are located at Southern Utah University’s Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts.

The festival performs several Shakespeare plays and includes a few contemporary shows and musicals offering a wide array of styles and genres. The shows this year are “Pericles,” “Richard III,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Ragtime,” “Cymbeline,” “Intimate Apparel” and “The Comedy of Terrors.” Each night there is also “The Greenshow,” which is a free, half hour-long show of singing and dancing that occurs on the grass an hour before the evening shows start. It acts as a warm-up to get people excited for the performances that night.

Executive producer Frank Mack said this year’s festival feels completely different in a lot of ways.

Utah Shakespeare Festival Founder Fred C. Adams died in February 2020 and because of the pandemic, the 2020 season was cancelled. Mack said the company missed putting on a season last year and are happy they had the opportunity to return to the stage this year.

This year the festival dedicated its season to Adams, celebrating his amazing life and legacy as a great innovator, Mack said. “We seek every opportunity to recognize that if we hadn’t had a first year, we wouldn’t have had a 60th. And all of them are because of Fred.”

The company has a statue of Adams in the theatres’ courtyard, announces a tribute to him before each show and has banners and posters of him set up around the theaters. On Aug. 8, the festival hosted “The North Star,” a celebration of Adams’ life where friends, colleagues and family came together to recognize and honor him in the Randall theater.

COVID-19, weather and other challenges

Mack said there were several challenges getting this season running amid the pandemic. The festival got a contract with Actors’ Equity Association and had to pass a series of safety and health requirements to get approval for the shows. To ensure safety for the actors and audience, the performance company is fully vaccinated and gets tested for COVID-19 every week. Masks are required in the indoor theaters, but not the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare theater.

Mack said the company had to move fast once actors were granted approval to perform on April 23. They started rehearsals May 10 and opened for the season in late June.

Before the season started, the company was worried no one would come, Mack said. They tracked their advance sales before the season started, and Mack said amazingly the sales are on a similar level to the 2019 season, with this season being just slightly lower. “We have had far greater response than we expected we might.”

The recent rain and flooding in Cedar City has luckily only affected two performances of the season so far, artistic director Brian Vaughn said. Cedar City in August typically experiences afternoon thunderstorms that usually clear up by the evening shows’ start time. But this year Vaughn said there have been more storms starting in July.

Because many of the plays are performed in the outdoor theater and the elements are part of the experience, shows are only cancelled if it is a downpour and the performance cannot continue, Vaughn said. One outdoor show was cancelled because of the rain and one indoor show experienced a power outage from lightning.

The festival also dealt with complications from current wildfires. Smoke from wildfires made the air quality in Cedar City so unhealthy that “The Greenshow” and “The Comedy of Errors” on Aug. 7 were cancelled.

A cultural icon, “destination” theater

The Utah Shakespeare Festival has become a cultural icon of Utah over the years. “Sixty years is pretty telling,” Vaughn said. “I think it is indicative of just how much of an impact this work has had on Utah and this region.”

Vaughn said he hopes all who come can expand their thinking and reflect on the great complexities of humanity. This season’s repertoire has a theme of reconciliation and being reunited, and Vaughn said he hopes people enjoy the shows and walk away with something new.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is also a “destination” theater found right off the freeway and sandwiched between three national parks. Vaughn said the festival is a great place that offers experience for people to come to the play, stroll down Main Street, visit Cedar Breaks National Monument and more. He said there is great harmony in Cedar City as a destination theater and vacation spot for people coming to this region of the country.

“So while you can enjoy this amazing landscape, you can also see some really terrific theater,” Vaughn said.

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