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Opening night can bring heightened emotions and extra anxiety for actors, directors, producers and theatre lovers. But on June 21 in Cedar City, Utah, even the dimming of the lights felt meaningful as the audience settled in for the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s first public performance in nearly two years.
For Brian Vaughn, the Festival’s artistic director, the night was the culmination of over a year’s worth of hard work against “pretty astounding odds.” The 2021 season opened with Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” and as Vaughn watched the tale of loss and reunion he felt an overwhelming mixture of joy, relief and pride.
In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses and tamped down tourism across the nation, the Festival grounds became a ghost town. The theater company was hit hard and — as a result — so was the entire city.
The Tony and Emmy award-winning festival occupies an entire block in downtown Cedar City, replete with three theaters. A 2012 study found that its economic impact on the surrounding area was upwards of $35 million annually, and that number has likely grown over the last decade as Festival revenue increased.
The Utah Shakespeare Festival has infused its mid-size southwestern host town with Elizabethan flair; Shakespeare Lane flanks the performance complex, visitors stay at The Bard’s Inn even when the Festival is dark and Ye Olde Catholic Thrift Shoppe caters to the local bargain hunting population. The organization’s presence is so central to Cedar City’s identity that in the late 1980s, the city adopted the moniker “Festival City USA.”
“Going a full year with no activity on our grounds, having to cancel the season, having to tell hundreds of artists that they’re going to be out of work, knowing what that would do to our local community – it was an incredibly dark period here in Cedar City,” said Vaughn.
This summer, the festival has bounced back from its pandemic hiatus. The grounds are covered in baskets of flowers, brightly colored banners, and most importantly, people.
However, modifications have been made to ensure actor and audience safety. Performers will not be moving through the aisles or interacting with the audience this season, and backstage tours have been canceled.
Though masks are not required in the festival’s outdoor spaces or in its open-air, Globe style Engelstad Theater, they are required in both of its indoor theaters.
The festival’s famous tarts are back too, but the sweet pastries now come prepackaged. Distributing tarts the traditional way, in a wicker basket carried by a theater student doing a heavy cockney accent, was deemed unsanitary by festival leadership.
As of early July, the festival was outperforming its 2018 season ticket sales, and was closing in on 2019 revenue levels.
‘Everything was on the line’
For the Utah Shakespeare Festival leadership team, the decision to reopen was like going all-in on a multi-million-dollar poker game.
The company had to commit to contracts in January—hiring hundreds of actors and technicians, designing promotional materials, putting up billboards – before they knew what pandemic guidelines would look like in late June, when audiences were expected to arrive.
“This entire last year and a half has wreaked havoc on my central nervous system,” admitted Vaughn.
They also had to meet a set of evolving standards set by the Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents theater actors and stage managers.
“Rules were changing all the time,” explained Donn Jersey, the Festival’s development director. “We came up with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of safety documents. We incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional off-budget expenses to accommodate safety protocols that were required to get these union contracts done.”
General manager Kami Paul communicated with Actors’ Equity representatives based in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. “COVID looked very different in different parts of the country,” Paul said. “We were balancing the evolving knowledge of COVID itself with industry standards with personal sensibilities and risk tolerance.”
“Everything was on the line,” Jersey explained.
In addition to vaccinating the staff and conducting COVID tests, the festival was asked to recalibrate their HVAC systems, submit reports on air exchange levels in their facilities, and plan out instances of theatrical close contact far in advance. Scenes involving fighting, yelling, kissing, and eating underwent intense scrutiny (and required more advance planning) to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
If company members were traveling together by car, Actors’ Equity required that the windows stay down and dictated where individuals could sit. “We were looking at detail that was sometimes that minuscule,” said Paul.
Though Actors’ Equity standards were often more stringent than those handed down from the state and local government, Paul emphasized the importance of working with the union. “Actors’ Equity is a critical part of our producing season,” she said. “There’s no way we could do what we do without them.”
‘A leap of faith’
2020 was a record-breaking year for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, despite the cancellation of its full season of performances. Jersey said he was shocked by the number of donations and the amount of community support the Festival received during the pandemic.
“This organization has support like none other I’ve seen in my career,” he said. “We have a very loyal following [and they] made leaps of faith in 2020 with those donations. We felt an obligation to come through for our community.”
For many families, attending the festival has become an intergenerational tradition. Children whose parents were in the original 1962 company still show up, year after year, to eat tarts, peruse the gift shop’s collection of bedazzled masks, and experience world-class performances.
This 60th anniversary season is dedicated to Utah Shakespeare Festival founder, Fred Adams, who served as the Festival’s executive producer for forty-four years and continued as executive producer emeritus until his death in February 2020.
Adams concocted the idea for the Utah Shakespeare Festival with his wife, Barbara, while doing laundry at The Double Fluffy laundromat. It was his first year as a Southern Utah University theater professor. The festival’s first season had a budget of only $1,000; today, that number is in the millions.
Beyond Adams’ impact leading the organization, Jersey points out the founder’s “fabulous” outfits, which often featured matching pants, belt, shoes, and shirt — and his excellent sense of humor. “I miss laughing with him,” Jersey said. “I miss laughing with Fred.”
Executive producer Frank Mack drew strength and inspiration from his predecessor’s example during the challenging pandemic year. “Fred would always say, ‘of course you can.’ That was one of his favorite phrases and it just rings in our ears now. We’re constantly asking each other ‘can we do that?’ And then we just remind ourselves, well, ‘of course we can.’”
Art is healing
The 2021 festival includes five of the nine plays that were originally slated for its 2020 season, along with three newly-selected offerings. The new titles – “Intimate Apparel,” “The Comedy of Terrors,” and the musical “Ragtime” – all reflect the political and personal upheavals of the last year.
“The Comedy of Terrors” — not to be confused with Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” which is also being produced at the Festival this season — is an intimate, two-person show. The format may feel familiar for viewers who spent 2020 holed up with only their pandemic pod.
Both “Intimate Apparel” and “Ragtime,” which premiered in 2003 and 1996 respectively, feel more relevant than ever post-2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement shone a spotlight on systemic racism and the violence and health disparities that people of color continue to face.
As the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Vaughn oversees each season’s programming and said that the Festival aims to select and produce plays that represent “the broad scope of our humanity” by highlighting the voices of women and people of color.
Vaughn is not concerned that the Shakespeare Festival might become too political. In his mind, politics have always been an integral part of the work. “Our touchstone playwright is William Shakespeare, who is one of the most political playwrights out there,” Vaughn said. “He was writing about the monarchy during his time and it’s impossible not to see politics woven into his works.”
For Vaughn, however, politics cut deeper than talking heads and party affiliations. “There is a human element inside these political conversations—what it means to do the right thing, or how an individual addresses ambition, humility, reconciliation, or forgiveness.”
Jersey agrees that live theater speaks to our collective humanity. “There’s nothing like sitting in the theater, breathing together,” he said. “The arts aren’t just going to help [places like Cedar City] heal financially. They’re going to help us heal emotionally.”
During an early performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” Jersey said he found himself struggling to hold back tears.
“I was getting emotional,” he explained. “It was sold out and everyone had a mask on and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
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