As we passed through the desert of casinos from Las Vegas airport on Wednesday evening, the greenwood trees of Winedale seemed as though they were in another country. For a short while we were surrounded by the triumph of Mammon over sand. Driving through the actual desert from Las Vegas to Cedar City certainly made it had hard to imagine Shakespeare in performance. Instead, we all stared from our Land Rover, put on a playlist, and let the yawning road do its cleansing. The grey mountains turned into pale browns and pinks with the sunset and as we passed through a ravine with young rocks growing on either side of us we tried to capture something of their wonder through our mobile phone lenses.
Our journey from Austin – flying over the Rockies into Salt Lake City, changing planes and then taking off to Las Vegas – had taken eight hours and transported us through two time zones. We forgot that we had regained one of those hours and arrived into an almost entirely closed Cedar City at ten rather than nine o’clock. Google maps are to navigation what the calculator is to mathematics, and we easily found one of the two places which we discovered was still open. It was there I walked into the first culture shock of the trip when, after nodding at the mannequin Sioux Indian guarding the door with a tomahawk, I asked for a beer and was immediately asked to show my identity card. I know I look older than twenty-one, but my id was still required and I had to express the intention to eat something at the same time. If this intention had changed after the drink had been brought to me, my legal position was not made clear. But the diner supplied the refreshment we sought and more. The back wall was entirely devoted to photographs and posters relating to the Utah Shakespeare Festival: we had arrived.
Now in its 53rd year, the festival continues to grow. The festival sits as a department within Southern Utah University, which owns all of its real estate, but has to be self-funding. There are audiences of around 150,000 each year who account for 70% of the festival’s revenue. There are two performance spaces. The Adams Shakespearean Theatre (named after the founder of the festival, the delightful visionary Fred C. Adams) is a partially covered outdoor venue which evokes something of the Globe Theatre (though its sight lines are superior) and has a capacity of around 900. The Randall L. Jones Theatre is a proscenium arch stage with a capacity of 769. There is an indoor venue for productions should it be too wet or too hot to perform at the Adams Theatre. But the festival is redeveloping. By 2016 there will be built the $40 million dollar Beverly Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts which will comprise a replacement auditorium for the much-loved Adams Theatre and a new 200-seater studio space. Both venues will have enhanced access for audiences and better backstage areas. The site is set to include a Shakespeare garden, a Shakespeare Statue garden, and a sculpture grove.
The festival offers a daily programme of post-performance discussions, ‘Literary Seminars’ (facilitated open discussions with its audiences), talks, ‘Play Orientations’, backstage tours and, most recently ‘Rep Magic’, a simply managed but fascinating event at which audiences can remain in the auditorium and watch the set being struck and changed for the next production. All of these opportunities draw audiences who are endlessly fascinated about theatre-making. My first festival experience was in Randall Theatre where I was able to attend some of the excellent ‘Props Seminar’ with the long-serving Props Director, Ben Hohman.
I learned that the throne which has traditionally been used over the years for the staging of the history plays is based on Edward the Confessor’s still used for coronations in Westminster Abbey. The festival’s throne is also used for Santa Claus. This season, the festival has discovered a new kind of battery-powered, real-effect candle. The unit is the candle itself which means there can be more flexibility about which kinds of base to use. This season’s production of The Comedy of Errors requires the most dressing of the Adams Theatre in twenty-one years. It is set in the gold-rush period of 1849 (when the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was a mere glint in the early settler-trustees’ eyes) and includes a model of a 212-cardboard-sticked porcupine, the sign for the inn that Shakespeare names. There are 37 gunshots in the production, including 7 blank fires and 30 recorded ones. Tumbleweed rolls across the stage at one point (a carefully disguised and handled remote-controlled car) and spittoons are struck with small, electronically operated hammers at the appropriate comic moments. The strikes create small dents in the side of the spittoon which then has to be turned round for the next show and will eventually need to be replaced. The on-stage cattle trough leaked during the rehearsals and was re-lined at least four times with fibre-glass and then Rhino-hide, and still it leaked. The exasperated Ben managed to solve the problem just before the final dress-rehearsal. The audience of around 120 at the Props Seminar grazed spell-bound as these secrets of theatre magic unfolded before them.
We had lunch the festival’s two Co-Artistic Directors, David Ivers and Brian Vaughn, during which I was struck by their willing openness to discuss their work. Both men started at the festival as young actors, moved into directing, and then became Co-Artistic Directors in 2011. The festival has had two Artistic Directors for many years because of the extraordinary way it manages to open all of its six shows within three days. This means that audiences and actors are plunged immediately into the repertory and that the festival is in full-swing from the moment it starts. I find myself full of admiration and not a little envy at this, writing from within a British culture of professional theatre that has, over the last fifteen years, become increasingly accepting of ‘previews’ and the slow opening of one show at a time. I was excited as I made my way over to the Randall Theatre – the pathway up to the main entrance lined with so many American flags – and into Illyria to see David Ivers’s production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will.
It is a play I know and love deeply well. David’s production is by far and away the best I have seen since 2006 (that was Declan Donnellan’s all-male Russian production). Yesterday afternoon, every moment resonated with understanding and affection for the play, from Grant Goodman’s pining Orsino and Roderick Peeple’s bullish Sir Toby Belch to Melinda Pfundstein’s Olivia who managed to make her sparkling mourning-weeds work as flirtatiously as possible. Quinn Mattfeld’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek ignited the stage with an infectious clottishness and clowning, longing for Maria and desperate to impress Olivia. He was complemented by the physically precise Puritanism of David Pichette’s wiry Malvolio, outraged by Sir Toby’s asking for another ‘stoop of wine’ and struggling to smile for apparently the first time in his life after reading the fake love letter from his mistress. The late night drinking scene and the jokes about drunkenness – ‘that quaffing and drinking will undo you’ (act 1, scene 3) – all took on special resonance for our Cedar City audience. At one point Maryann Towne’s Maria was seen putting out the empty wine bottles out for recycling. The on-stage musicians allowed Aaron Galligan-Stierle’s Feste to break effortlessly into the thoughtful song-settings by Paul James Prendergast. And all of this leading up to the truly climactic and wondrously moving reunion of Nell Geisslinger’s Viola and Zack Powell’s Sebastian. The play’s many requirements for fine balances, as well as the risks it requires for its farcical humour and lyrically expressed emotion, were all gathered together and made gloriously present.
Fred Adams founded the festival because he knew deep down that the people of Cedar City and the surrounding area would form audiences around Shakespeare. My first impressions are that the festival is no less than an oasis where millions of people have drunk deeply for more than half a century. And we even managed to discover the unmarked liquor and wine shop – well hidden and on the edge of Cedar City – a different kind of oasis for those in need of off-stage libations.
Fred Adams founded the festival because he knew the people of Cedar City and the surrounding area would form audiences around Shakespeare. My first impressions are that the festival is no less than an oasis where millions of people have drunk deeply for more than half a century. And we even managed to discover the unmarked liquor and wine shop – well hidden and on the edge of Cedar City – a different kind of oasis for those in need of off-stage libations.