Utah Shakespeare Festival's golden years: The intimacy of turning 50
Cedar City • No one can say Utah Shakespeare Festival head Scott Phillips is too proud to pick up a stack of wind-blown napkins.
The gusty rain that descended last week on a gala outdoors party outdoors following the festival's opening of "Noises Off!" took Phillips by surprise. Ditto for the rain on the Tuesday evening performance of "Richard III."
But a theater festival doesn't survive to its 50th year without a few snags. Phillips, a 34-year administrative veteran of the festival, now in his fifth year as executive director, knows that better than most.
"It's usually 100 degrees outside this time of year, but so what?" he said, napkins in hand. Mere weather, then, isn't even a bump in the road.
This year's festival has seen ticket sales to date at 7 percent above last year's figures, Phillips said. Anniversary years tend to draw better than average revenues for most arts organizations.
When you turn 50, however, you roll out the grand touches. One of 228 rare First Folios from 1623, considered the earliest and most complete collection of Shakespeare's works, sits on display at Southern Utah University's Gerald R. Sheratt Library. The festival secured it from The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which owns 82 First Folios in its collection.
The festival also organized a reunion late last month of more than 20 volunteers from the festival's founding 1962 year, who gathered in a photograph with this year's 350-member festival staff.
In retrospect, Phillips said, even this year's programming of three Shakespeare plays alongside the festival's three contemporary offerings reflect the troupe's 50-year legacy.
The magic of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," plus the struggle of unbridled optimism against cautious minds in "The Music Man," together complement a festival few thought would endure when it was founded in 1962. Cedar City then was thought of as a cow town, not a summer destination for classic theater.
The romance of "Romeo and Juliet" and farce of "Noises Off!" speak directly to the nature of theater itself. And for those who remember the lean years along with the fat, few works speak to struggle, bare-knuckled politics and gloom like the combination of "The Glass Menagerie" and "Richard III."
For years, the festival worked to secure funding from Cedar City through a Recreation, Arts and Parks tax, which awarded one-tenth of 1 percent to arts and parks organizations, similar to Salt Lake County's ZAP tax.
When that tax passed the middle of last decade, the vote was of symbolic as well as economic importance, demonstrating that the taxpaying residents of Cedar City had grown to love the festival as much as the festival loved its southern Utah home.
For some theatergoers, both new and longtime, that home matters as much as the quality of the festival itself.
Pam and Pat Donohue, a retired school teacher and U.S. Navy officer from San Diego, said they could attend Shakespeare plays in San Diego's Old Globe theatre, their hometown. Yet the intimate, small-town feel of Cedar City, coupled with SUU's even more intimate Globe-style Adams Shakespearean Theatre, sold them. So did the recommendation of a Las Vegas couple, friends of the Donohues who have attended the festival for 22 years.
"You don't feel this close to the stage back home," Pam Donohue said. "And the city itself reminds me of summers I used to spend in my grandmother's small Missouri town. We have tickets for next year's season already, and we'll be back later this summer to take our granddaughter to 'Music Man.' "
Husband Pat Donohue concurs, saying the small-scale theaters bring out the nuances of each performance in a personal way that, for all their technical prowess and special effects, films cannot touch.
"That wouldn't have worked on film at all," he said, after the July 6 opening performance of "Noises Off!" "When the actor looks out at the audience from a stage, that's an entirely different experience than what you get in a movie theater. In that case it's just the image of an actor staring outward toward the audience as if it were just some sort of wall."
Utah Shakespeare Festival
P The Utah Shakespeare Festival presents its 50th-anniversary summer season of plays June 23 through Sept. 3 on the Southern Utah University campus in Cedar City.
Shakespeare classics • In the outdoor Adams Theatre: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Fred C. Adams; "Richard III," directed by Kathleen F. Conlin; and "Romeo and Juliet," directed by David Ivers.
Contemporary plays • In the indoor Randall L. Jones Theatre: Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," directed by Jeremy Mann; Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," directed by J.R. Sullivan; and Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," directed by Jeff Steitzer. "Noises Off" will extend through the fall season, concluding Oct. 29.
Tickets • $22-$71; at 800-PLAYTIX or http://www.bard.org.
Also • The festival offers ticketed backstage tours and free daily literary and production seminars, play orientations and greenshows. The Grind Coffee House, 19 N. Main St. in Cedar City, also hosts live cabaret shows featuring festival actors and crew Thursdays, 11 p.m. beginning July 14.