Shakespeare came to Cedar City in 1851, when the valley's first wagon train performed Shakespeare for fellow settlers just weeks after arriving in their new home. In the 163 years since, the Bard's impact across Southern Utah has broadened thanks, in large part, to a young College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University) student who designed a community Shakespeare Festival for his final thesis.
“Shakespeare has been in this city from the very beginning,” explained Utah Shakespeare Festival Founder Fred Adams, who directed that enthusiasm with a vision far beyond any horizon he could have then imagined.
While he had no idea just how far his Shakespearean thesis would take him, let alone the college-now-university at which he was then a student, Adams held nothing back in his final project, and his homework became a life's work that continues to impact students today, 53 years after the Utah Shakespeare Festival's founding.
SUU has more than doubled in size and the Festival has become a world-renown, Tony Award-winning repertoire theatre since Adam's first Shakespearean production in a city that would be little more than a town without SUU's and the Utah Shakespeare Festival's presence. It is with great appreciation for this partnership and an inspired vision of all that is yet to be done, that the two Cedar City powerhouses have recently enhanced their educational collaboration.
“This season students from our University are acting in major roles in the productions and performing in the Greenshow, as well as working backstage in the costume shops and elsewhere, getting everything ready before the productions even begin,” according to the dean of SUU's College of Performing and Visual Arts, Shauna Mendini.
Mendini says the partnership between the Festival and the University has brought a great deal of attention to students in her department. “When anyone in the world of professional theatre sees ‘Utah Shakespeare Festival’ on a student’s resume they immediately know they’re dealing with a certain level of quality because they know that there’s such a high standard here.”
In the 2014 Festival acting company, there are 16 professionals who have either received an education from SUU or are currently students.
Also, new this year is the Shakespeare Fellows program, which places ten SUU students in the company as either behind-the-scenes apprentices or on-stage performers.
“We’re very excited about this program,” says Mendini, “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students to gain valuable hands-on experience working side by side with professionals.”
“This partnership provides essential experience and learning,” according to David Ivers, artistic director for the Festival who has come through the ranks of professional theatre from the ground up. Ivers knows firsthand the value of making connections in this highly competitive industry and says the Festival is excited to reach out to the field's incoming artists at SUU, particularly given the caliber of the University's academic training.
Of the experience gained, Madison Ford, an actor in the Fellows program who was selected to be a performer in the Greenshow, said, "It's been amazing. I'm surrounded by incredibly talented people and am learning so much just by watching them perform.”
Like many students, Ford has been coming to the Festival since she was a little girl.
“I feel so lucky to be a part of the new fellowship program,” she said, “Now I can start to put professional theatre credits on my resume, and hopefully that will lead to my being considered by other professional companies when I go out and start auditioning when I'm done with school.”
Dozens of non-acting students work for the company, as well, and the Festival's influence is part of what defines campus life and culture. As freshman come to campus, they receive a copy of one of Shakespeare’s plays and, in the opening weeks of the school year, view live, complimentary performances of the renown regional theatre's very best.
Beyond simply watching and discussing the productions, Mendini says SUU's College of Performing and Visual Arts offers students many more strategic opportunities for hands-on experience and learning.
“Over the last three years, the University and the Festival’s relationship has become much more intentional. We’ve been working together to provide greater opportunities for students,” says Mendini, “In coming years we will continue to strengthen the wonderful relationship that the University has with the Festival.”
SUU's Festival fellows will stand alongside acclaimed stage actors and directors from across the country in the Utah Shakespeare Festival's 2014 season, which opens at 2 p.m. on Monday, June 30, with a matinee performance of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, followed that evening by an 8:00 performance of the Bard's The Comedy of Errors, in the Adams Memorial Shakespearean Theatre. The Festival's remaining 2014 summer productions include Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night, as well as Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Fall 2014 additions include Marc Camoletti's Boeing, Boeing and Steven Dietz's Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.
Tickets to all performances, as well as a schedule of free Greenshow performances, tours, lectures and more, are available at bard.org.
*Photo Credit: A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival's 2014 production of The Greenshow. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.)