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One way to think of the Adams Shakespearean Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival is as a beautiful old baseball park. Charm? Loaded with it. Character? Off the charts. History? It was dedicated when disco ruled the charts. It’s even loaded with ghosts: Banquo, Hamlet’s father, pretty much anybody Richard III ever knocked off. After all, they are doing Shakespeare every night.
Its design duplicates the experience of being at the Globe in the 16th century. Every one of the 819 seats is close enough to the stage that you’ll never miss an actor raising a dramatic eyebrow. The acoustics are so good that a stage whisper can actually be a whisper. Topping it all off, just like at a baseball park, you’re sitting outside on a beautiful summer evening and, when you’re not watching the action, you can look up at the stars overhead.
“I love being able to be outside when you’re talking to the stars,” says Betsey Mugavero—a cast member this year in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Peter & the Starcatcher—on performing at Adams. “To be able to look up and see them is so special. It’s not like looking up and seeing rafters. It’s great because you can see the people and see if they’re enjoying it. You get to talk right to the audience.”
However, there can be limitations to a place built in the 1970s. Need to use the restroom? Go over to the building next door, walk down some stairs and be prepared to wait in line a while. The behind-the-scenes technical people are trying to do cutting-edge lighting and sound in a place built before there were computers. Even a place loaded with memories can lose some of its luster if it’s not updated.
Historic Yankee Stadium in New York City was torn down and a new one was built next door that kept many of the historic touches—and even threw more history in—while making the entire experience much more fan-friendly. The end result is a place where fans of the Bronx Bombers can still be just as passionate about their team, while enjoying the game in much more comfortable surroundings.
The Utah Shakespearean Festival will try to pull off a similar feat when it breaks ground in 2014 for a new outdoor venue scheduled to be ready to go for the 2016 season. The new theater will be outdoors, have 885 seats, be up-to-date technologically and, just like a modern-day baseball field, have a retractable roof in case it rains.
But will there still be room for the ghosts, not to mention the night sky and the actors’ expressions?
“The most important thing on the artistic side is to not compromise the audience experience with the stars in the sky and the relationship with the actors,” says the festival’s artistic director, David Ivers. “But we also want to have more creature comforts for our audience, and lighting and sound capabilities that pull us into a competitive place for our designers.”
The new theater will move off of the Southern Utah University campus and across the street to sit on the same block as the Randall Jones Theatre, an indoor space where non-Shakespeare plays are performed during the festival. The new theater will be just one part of the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts, which will also include an art gallery and a 200-seat studio theater.
The festival’s executive director, R. Scott Phillips, says, “We’ll be able to do a lot more with [the new theater] and put a lot more technology into the building, but what we’re really trying very hard to do is to not lose that ambience—that same actor-audience relationship where you’re very close in the surroundings because of how it’s designed. We want you to still be able to see the subtleties of what the actor is trying to do with their face. We want you to still be able to hear a stage whisper.”
Jeb Burris—performing this year in King John, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest—says keeping that same intimate feel is important to him as an actor. “It feels like there’s just 50 people sitting around you,” he says. “It keeps you on your toes because there’s always somebody at some angle that can see you directly.”
Ivers hopes that in at least one physical sense, part of the Adams Theatre will live on. “There’s a wall in the back upstairs,” he says. “It’s plywood and probably has 30 years of actors’ writing on it, signing their name and what part they played what year, writing little messages, things like that. I’m hoping we’ll pull it out and put it in a light box at the new place.”
By the time 2016 rolls around, the Adams Theatre will have hosted plays in five different decades, and go down in history as a trendsetter of sorts. In 1981, the British Broadcasting Company filmed a series of Shakespeare plays there because, according to Phillips, “At the time, it was the closest thing they could find in the world to what Shakespeare’s plays would have originally been performed in.” The Royal Shakespeare Company would go on to build its own replica Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1986.
“It’s pretty amazing when you think about any theater surviving that long, especially in a rural setting in a town of 30,000,” Phillips says.