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History of the Utah Shakespeare Festival

By Landon Walters, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Jun 24th, 2011 @ 5:40pm



CEDAR CITY — As the Utah Shakespeare Festival is set to begin its 50th Anniversary season, it is important to reflect on how the festival as grown into one of the oldest and largest Shakespearean festivals in North America.

When the festival was established in 1961, no one could have imagined how much it would grow over the ensuing years, becoming a constant fixture during the southern Utah summers.

After facing opposition by the Cedar City Council and Chamber of Commerce, founder Fred Adams admitted that the reactions was predictible.

"It went over like a pregnant pole vaulter," he said. "They thought it was a really dumb idea."

Eventually, Adams convinced the Lion's Club to underwrite the initial investment for $1,000, and was able convinced the community that it would be able to turn a profit in a short time. College students and residents of the surrounding communities volunteered as actors, producers and even built their own stages and props during that first year to help stretch the money as far as they possibly could.

The first season in 1962, a two-week run that included the popular Shakespearean plays "The Taming of the Shrew," "Hamlet," and "The Merchant of Venice," drew just over 3,000 spectators. Between ticket sales and concessions, the festival yielded a $2,000 profit that was immediately used to plan a second season for the following year.

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For the second season, and for several more after that, the festival continued to be relatively small while simultaneously attracting larger audiences. The festival also continued to produce plays specifically written by Shakespeare rather than branching out, which guaranteed regular visitors because they knew that they wouldn’t be seeing the same productions every year. In 1964, the festival first produced "Macbeth." "Romeo and Juliet" first appeared on stage at the festival in 1968 and is scheduled to make its seventh appearance this season.

For the first 15 years of the festival's existence, the concentration was always on Shakespearean plays only, and each season only included three separate shows. That all changed in 1977 when a fourth show was added.

What may have even been more impressive than the addition of a fourth show was the fact that a play written by someone other than Shakespeare was picked for that season. "The Mikado," which is a comic opera written by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert rounded out that season. The venture was short-lived, however, when the festival went back to the original concentration and produced works by Shakespeare only from 1979-89.

The year 1989 marked another change at the festival when the schedule expanded from three productions to six. At the same time, the festival opened the new indoor Randall L. Jones Theater with the plan to offer “classics of world drama spanning three centuries of playwrights.”

The three additional plays fell into this category, while the other three productions were written by Shakespeare as a way to keep the festival in touch with its extremely popular roots.

Plans are already in place to expand the festival again in the coming years. Included in these plans are a third theater, Renaissance study center, gallery, condominiums, and other retail shops, which will become the Utah Shakespeare Festival Centre for the Performing Arts.

Over the years, many actors have taken part in the festival, which contributed to the growth and popularity of the festival. Some of these actors have gone on to become very famous in their careers.

Benjamin Bratt, most famous for his role on Law & Order, began his acting career at the Festival instead of completing his master’s program.

Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame played the Dauphin in a 1983 production of "Henry V." Some of the more famous faces seen during the festival's history include: Harold Gould (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Ty Burrell (Modern Family), while many others have been seen on stage in Cedar City.

The festival has even earned many national accolades for theater over the years, including a Tony award for America’s Outstanding Regional Theater in 2000.

In 2001, the National Governors’ Association awarded the festival it Distinguished Service in the Arts for Artistic Production award and most recently, the American Bus Association listed the festival as one of the “Top 100 Events in North America for 2011.”

Over 130,000 ticket-holders experienced the festival in 2010 and as the excitement builds for yet another season, the future of the festival continues to look bright because of the astonishing growth and vision that the festival has experienced in the past 50 years.

From the festival’s humble beginnings of volunteer workers to its current year-round operation, which includes 30 full-time employees and a much larger budget number than that first year, many faithful fans hope the Utah Shakespeare Festival will be around for years to come so that more audiences can enjoy the works of Shakespeare and other masterful playwrights as part of family vacations and traditions every summer.

"The next generation of theater-goers at the festival will be the receipients of great productions resulting from the foresight of Fred (Adams), as well as our past and present artistic leadership," said Executive Director R. Scott Phillips.

Landon Walters is a history and political science major currently studying at Salt Lake Community College and is an avid sports fan. He can be reached at mavericksoccer_22@hotmail.com.

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