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Utah Shakespearean Festival Overcomes 'Shakes-fear'

Toil & Trouble: festival brews a potion for a harsh economy and every crummy English teacher.


  • Melissa Dow
R. Scott Phillips has a vision, an image in his head of hundreds of teenagers filling the Adams Shakespearean Theatre at midnight, their faces aglow with not only the joy of experiencing one of the Bard’s classics performed underneath the stars, but also from the ambient light of their cell phones as they text and tweet their thoughts about the action on stage.

“Hey, a guy just stabbed this dude and there’s blood all over the stage,” Phillips imagines one message might read. “It’s pretty cool, man.”

That vision of the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s executive director is not close to reality yet—the latest shows start at 8 p.m., and cell phones remain strictly verboten—but Phillips knows the key to keeping the Tony-winning, 49-year-old festival alive and thriving is creating new generations of fans.

The plays at Utah Shakespearean Festival 2010

That’s easier said than done, of course, especially in the instant-message, instant-access, instant-gratification world of 2010, a mere 400 years or so since Shakespeare’s heyday.

“Let’s face it, we do plays by a bunch of dead white guys,” Phillips said. “We can continue to spin our wheels the same way we have for the last 49 years—and yes, we’ve been successful—but we have to get ahead of the curve, not just stay out there saying, ‘We’re going to do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.’ The world is changing.”

Much of the appeal of the festival, of course, is that it can feel like the world has not changed. Part of that is Shakespeare’s remarkably pliable catalog of plays, full of themes and characters and plots that resonate today, as they have in every era since Mr. Bill died in 1616. And part of it is the experience fans have when they attend the festival on the Southern Utah University campus, sitting in the open-air replica of Shakespeare’s famed Globe Theatre, watching actors deliver the delicious, centuries-old dialogue in full Elizabethan costumes after a pre-show party with their fellow groundlings at the Greenshow performances filled with music, dance and cuisine such as turkey legs and horehound candy.

Attractive as the festival’s activities might be, the USF has not been immune to the effects of the economy. In the past few years, the festival had to shrink its schedule and its staff, and there have been no pay raises for those who remain—a “real morale buster,” Phillips said. Still, there are signs things are looking up. Ticket sales for this summer are up 12 percent from 2009, and in 2011 the festival plans to reinstate the number of performances to 2008 levels. And the administration continues raising money to replace its 33-year-old outdoor theater as the festival approaches its 50th birthday next year.

“We did a marketing study a few years ago, spent a lot of time and money, and when it was all said and done, they came back and said, ‘The two main problems are in your title: Utah and Shakespeare,’ ” Phillips said with a laugh. “Because people from outside think that in Utah, you have these iron gates that lock behind you when you come into the state. And Shakespeare has what I call ‘Shakes-fear.’ People are just afraid of Shakespeare.”

Even those inside the state sometimes struggle with the notion of traveling to Cedar City for the festival, Phillips said, even though it’s only three hours from Salt Lake City.

“It’s kind of like a forced vacation, because we are far from anywhere,” Phillips noted.