Cedar City’s SimonFest shifts gears after losing patronage of playwright Neil Simon

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) A banner for the Neil Simon Theatre Festival hangs on a building in Cedar City, Utah. The festival has changed its name to SimonFest Theatre Company, after demands from attorneys for the late playwright Neil Simon's estate.

First, Cedar City’s Neil Simon Theatre Festival lost its namesake. Then it lost its name.

“We’ve kind of rebranded ourselves,” said Richard Bugg, founder and executive producer of what’s now the SimonFest Theatre Company, running July 11 to Aug. 3 at Cedar City’s Heritage Theater. “It’s rather frustrating. I’ve put in a lot of work to promote the work of Mr. Simon, and it’s tossed away.”

The change was forced upon Bugg by attorneys representing the estate of Simon, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning comic playwright who died last August.

“I always had a cordial relationship with Mr. Simon,” Bugg said. “But with his passing, that ended.”

(Associated Press file photo) Playwright Neil Simon, seen here in 1994, died Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018, at the age of 91. He was famous for such Broadway hits as "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park" and his "Brighton Beach" trilogy, among others.

First, Bugg said, the estate wanted the festival to stop using Simon’s name. Then, in April, the estate withdrew the festival’s rights to produce Simon’s plays — a repertoire that includes such titles as “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to contact representatives of Simon’s estate were unsuccessful.

“I’m not in love with” the new name, Bugg said, but “we didn’t want to confuse people by completely changing our name overnight.” The new logo features a medieval hat and a feather, evoking the “Simple Simon” nursery rhyme.

What drew the attorneys’ attention to Bugg’s festival was an article by Howard Sherman, posted Jan. 29 on his blog, Arts Integrity, that criticized the Simon festival for charging a $150 entry fee in its annual new play contest. Sherman called the fee “exorbitant,” and cited the “best practices” of the Dramatists Guild, which say contests like this should have no entry fee. (When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Dramatists Guild directed The Tribune to the guild’s guidelines, posted online.)

“I found [Sherman’s] argument rather narrow-minded,” Bugg said. “He has kind of a socialist attitude, that free enterprise shouldn’t be part of the arts.”

Bugg defended the fee charged for the festival’s new play contest, saying it helps defray the cost to have an academic, Douglas Hill, read each entry and write a four- or five-page critique of each. “We want to make sure they got good feedback, to make them a better playwright,” Bugg said.

Also, Bugg said, the winning play each year gets a staged reading during SimonFest, and the playwright gets his or her play produced at the festival the following year. This year, last year’s winning play, Shelley Chester’s comedy “I Left My Dignity in My Other Purse,” will premiere on opening night of the festival’s 17th season, Thursday, July 11, at Cedar City’s Heritage Theater.

The other plays SimonFest is performing this season are the musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” and Paul Rudnick’s satire “I Hate Hamlet” — “a tongue-in-cheek choice,” Bugg said, considering the troupe’s larger neighbor, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, is producing “Hamlet” as one of its plays this summer.

Bugg said he doesn’t see SimonFest as a competitor to the Shakespeare festival. “Theater begets theater,” he said. “We actually complement what they do. It makes Cedar City more of a theater mecca, so people can come here and have lots of choices.”


SimonFest goes on

SimonFest Theatre Company, formerly the Neil Simon Theatre Festival, performs three comic plays — Shelley Chester’s “I Left My Dignity in My Other Purse,” Paul Rudnick’s “I Hate Hamlet” and the musical “Little Shop of Horrors” — for Cedar City audiences.

Where • Heritage Theater, 105 N. 100 East, Cedar City.

When • July 11 through Aug. 3.

Tickets • Available at SimonFest.org.