The Utah Shakespeare Festival: The First Two Decades

Despite the summer heat, the audience for the first performance of the newly inaugurated Utah Shakespeare Festival numbered over five hundred. It was July 2, 1962, and everything was ready: every detail had been carefully looked to, every contingency planned for, or so they thought. Two young trumpeters had been recruited to play a fanfare announcing the beginning of the play. As the notes rang through the air, director Fred C. Adams realized that the cast had not rehearsed a way to get from the dressing room to the stage. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a torch from the rack of Hamlet props, lit it, and presented it to the costumed pages, directing them to lead the cast, in full view of the audience, to the stage. This actors processional, from the dressing room doors, across the patio, and to the platforms became a Festival tradition and audience favorite for many years.

The initial two-week Festival season proved very successful, bringing in 3,726 visitors and over $2,000—enough to prove that this could be a profitable venture. Fred began assembling the creative team that would guide the Utah Shakespeare Festival to national prominence. This group would soon include directors Michael Addison and Tom Markus, scenic designer Douglas N. Cook, lighting designer Cameron Harvey, and technical director Gary M. McIntyre, among many others.

 

 

In 1965, Fred made a decision that would forever change the course of the Festival. He had built the organization using local talent, but his creative team, most of them college instructors from outside the area, wanted to give some of their students an opportunity to perform. Fred decided that he would open auditions to students from across the country. They realized that this influx of actors exposed audiences to a host of new talent and increased the notoriety and production ability of the Festival.

Throughout the 1960s, the Festival productions would be carried out on a portable stage that would be built and removed after each summer season—with tremendous effort. However, the enthusiasm of the nightly audiences, sitting on their folding chairs, made the effort worthwhile.

Douglas N. Cook had joined the Festival in 1964. Cook was especially adept at designing scenery for Shakespeare productions. Under his guidance, the props department blossomed, and the sets better reflected the periods that designers were trying to represent. At the conclusion of the 1969 season, Cook applied his talent for design to work up some rough sketches for a new outdoor theatre space to replace the aging stage.

Based upon his research, Cook knew that the new theatre would need to have three essential elements. First, it must have a thrust stage (this meant that the performance space would be surrounded on three sides by seats); second, it must have a gallery or multi-level seating; and, third, it must be open to the air. All of these designs were in every major Elizabethan theatre of Shakespeare’s day and would be necessary for the Festival’s new space. Technical and electrical planning also factored heavily into the design of the Adams Theatre. Technical director Cameron Harvey worked tirelessly to design a state-of-the-art lighting and sound system that would be unnoticeable to the audience but enhance the performance. Everything the Utah Shakespeare Festival had learned about producing the Bard would go into the design of the theatre.

In 1977 the Adams Theatre, named after Thomas and Luella Adams (no relation to Fred) was complete, and despite having to remove the construction scaffolding forty-five minutes before the first performance, the actors and the patrons loved the new stage.

The Festival introduced its first matinee performance and its first musical, by presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in 1977. Drawing from local talent, including a live orchestra and a young R. Scott Phillips as the Lord High Executioner (his only acting role for the Festival), The Mikado proved that the Festival could branch out into dramatic fields other than William Shakespeare.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival entered a new era when in 1981 it introduced its first Equity actors to its audiences. The Actors Equity Association is the professional union for theatre acting and stage management professionals.

The 1970s proved to be an amazing decade of growth for the Festival. A new theatre was added, programs and staff were expanded, and professional actors joined the company. Still, Fred had another idea, what if patrons could see more—works from other important playwrights, the “Shakespeares of other lands.” Of course the Adams Theatre would remain the domain of Shakespearean plays; what was needed was another space, another theatre