- Karl Hugh
In 2017 America, it feels like nothing should be able to surprise us anymore. Yet it was still somehow particularly bizarre when a New York City production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar—with the Roman emperor dressed as Donald Trump—became the latest flashpoint for political tensions at the outset of the current presidency. Yes, it was 2017, and we were all getting worked into a lather over a Shakespeare play.
Brian Vaughn, artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, thinks about the controversy somewhat differently. "Actually, no, it's not shocking to me," Vaughn says in a phone interview about the Julius Caesar kerfuffle. "As far as the relevance of Shakespeare, I don't find it surprising at all, because his plays are always relevant."
Dealing with the potential for controversy is an inevitable part of leading an arts organization, and Vaughn understands that reality. While most of Utah Shakespeare's productions retain a period context from the plays' 17th-century origins, others have ventured into a more modern framework—including their 2016 production of Julius Caesar that placed the story in an Italy hinting at connections to fascism and Mussolini. Vaughn recalls no extreme response to such productions along the lines of what occurred in New York, but will still occasionally find that audiences struggle with unique interpretations of these centuries-old texts.
"We did The Comedy of Errors one year set in the 1800s Gold Rush," Vaughn recalls. "And there was a little bit of internal controversy over taking that out of an Elizabethan setting. Some traditionalists just couldn't go there, but other patrons said it really worked. And that's just the beauty of what art is. I like milk chocolate, you like dark chocolate. Sometimes it just comes down to that."
As Vaughn describes the festival planning process, it's also not one designed for an of-the-moment topical approach to any given show. The schedule for a season is set about a year out, at which point the company hires the director, designers and other key behind-the-scenes personnel and begins a series of design meetings. "A director might say, 'OK, let's set it in the 1920s, and accentuate the romanticism,'" Vaughn says, referring to this season's Jazz Age-set version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Sometimes it works, and sometimes things might not line up. That's the job over six to nine months. Then there's more dialogue about the inner workings of the play, the performance interpretations, so that it falls in line with the design."
That long-range planning can lead to some wonderful opportunities for the individual plays in a Utah Shakespeare Festival season to exist not merely as stand-alone productions, but as part of an overall framework in which the plays interconnect on some level. Such an opportunity presented itself when the festival got the rights to Shakespeare in Love, the stage adaptation of the 1998 Oscar-winning film. While the play had been performed in London and elsewhere on a traditional proscenium stage, it had never been produced in a space like Utah Shakespeare's Elizabethan-style outdoor theater.
"Then we said, 'This play is about the writing of Romeo and Juliet,'" Vaughn says. "'Could we produce these plays side-by-side, and the conversation might exist in the audience, that they can see a sort of origin version, then the next night actually see Romeo and Juliet?'
"We had just done Romeo and Juliet in 2011, so we wondered, is it too soon to come back to that play? But this was a unique opportunity, so let's put them together. Then it becomes a conversation of how these plays exist together, and that folds over into love, and strong female lead characters."
While production decisions of that kind aren't ones that actively court controversy, that doesn't mean Utah Shakespeare won't make choices that risk alienating certain kinds of viewers. This season will feature a world premiere play by Neil LaBute, How to Fight Loneliness, and those familiar with the playwright know that his work often addresses dark themes—"not the traditional summer fare," as Vaughn describes it. Yet, the artistic director feels that the play is powerful and relevant enough that it's important to include it alongside plays that appeal to a more traditional Shakespeare-loving crowd.
Most important of all though, according to Vaughn, is the idea that the festival is an opportunity for education. Performances have traditionally ended with post-show discussions led by a literary seminar director, allowing the audience into the history of the plays as well as the specific artistic choices made by the creative. In light of the controversy over the recent Julius Caesar staging, such discussions might be just as important as the shows themselves.
"What is shocking to me [about the controversy] is the misinterpretation of the play," Vaughn says. "Julius Caesar is by no means a pro-assassination play. It's about people making a decision, and the tragic repercussions. It throws their world into chaos.
The post-show conversations, he adds, "are what we should be doing: Having a conversation. I think it's important, rather than just going to a play and then forgetting about it."