‘I felt like life was returning’: After pandemic pause, Utah Shakespeare Festival makes triumphant return

CEDAR CITY — Though there was thunder, rain and lightning, the audience had come to the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Engelstad Theater July 13 to see a show. That show was Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” and the audience, as well as the artists, had waited more than a year for it.

L-R: Utah Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Brian Vaughn and founder Fred C. Adams, Cedar City, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News / Cedar City News

Brian Vaughn, artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, told Cedar City News that “Richard III,” one of Shakespeare’s history plays, was slated for the 2020 season. However, both the play and the season at large were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We held off on making that decision as long as we could,” Vaughn said. “It went down to the wire, but we realized that we couldn’t do it.”

Vaughn, who’s led the company for 11 years, said that the closure was one of the two bleakest moments in the company’s 60-year history. The other came just a few months earlier when the company’s founder, Fred C. Adams, died.

“There’s no blueprint for this kind of thing,” Vaughn said. “I honestly didn’t know what would happen. But it was important to us to return as soon as possible.”

After rain delays, the audience settles in to watch “Richard III” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City, Utah, July 13, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News / Cedar City News

An ambitious goal, to be sure, as Broadway theaters have yet to reopen at full capacity. Likewise, theaters in London are operating at limited capacity. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who composed “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” among many others, had been advocating for theaters to re-open at full capacity as early as June. He was even willing to subject himself to arrest to make it happen.

But Webber had to bow to reality when his new show, “Cinderella,” canceled two performances on Saturday due to COVID-related precautionary measures. The message rings clear: Things are subject to change moment to moment.

The 2020 season’s cancellation would be felt throughout the community, too. The Utah Shakespeare Festival brings roughly $30 million to $50 million into the local economy. Local restaurateur, Botan Berndt, who owns Bunnisa’s Thai Restaurant, said she felt the losses almost immediately.

“Many of my regular customers are festival employees,” Berndt told Cedar City News. “Before the pandemic, they would come three or four times a week. They held meetings here, which brought large groups.”

Berndt said that she’s not good with names, but she knows her customers by what they order. During the pandemic pause, her restaurant survived by continuing to serve food to local customers and any tourists trying to to escape lockdowns in other states.

The Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Since the Utah Shakespeare Festival is back, we are almost too busy,” she said, laughing. “They bring happiness to us.”

Utah Shakespeare Festival Executive Producer Frank Mack, who used to teach graduate courses in arts administration at the University of Connecticut, said the possibility of something like COVID wasn’t something that came up in his classes.

“It never occurred to me to teach my students about what happens to theatre during a pandemic,” Mack told Cedar City News. “I used case studies to get them to imagine how they’d handle various scenarios, but complete closure for a year or more was not one of them.”

Mack laughed at what he called the absurdity of the whole thing. Theaters need people to see shows in order to survive, he said.

“We can’t fulfill our mission without audiences,” he said.

While many theaters were rushing to stream live performances during the early days of the pandemic, the Utah Shakespeare Festival was reluctant to join that increasingly crowded field. Mack and company would have to rely upon the generosity of donors. And the donors came through, communications director Donn Jersey said.

“To give you an idea, individual donors gave us $340,000 in 2017,” Jersey said. “In 2020, they gave over $900,000. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Those donations, in addition to federal CARES Act funds totaling $1 million, as well as state and city funding, kept the festival alive.

File photo of Utah Sen. Evan Vickers at his store, Bulloch’s, in Cedar City March 24, 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News / Cedar City News

State Sen. Evan Vickers, who resides in Cedar City, said he counts himself among those advocating for the festival. Not only does he love the shows, which he and his family have attended since 1980, but he was a friend of Adams.

“Fred donated Italian tile panels for the soda fountain in my store,” Evans said, referring to Bulloch’s Drug on Main Street. “And he offered to train my counter workers to be ‘soda jerks.'”

And that’s exactly what Adams did, Evans said, adding that visitors can still enjoy a “Fred Adams Chocolate Coke.”

Evans said the Utah Shakespeare Festival sets Cedar City apart.

“It improves the quality of life for our residents and visitors.”

Mack said during the 2020 season, when the festival’s campus was empty, it felt wrong.

“It was scary, even,” Mack said. “That’s why, when people returned, I felt like life was returning again. Which is fitting, because it was spring.”

In order to make it happen, the company would have to be fully vaccinated, Mack said. While the Utah Department of Health offered to help them reach that goal, Mack said that the majority of performers and staff were already vaccinated when they arrived. Even then, with COVID-19 numbers surging in Southern Utah, new precautions, including canceled performances, were possible.

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2021 production of “Richard III,” Cedar City, Utah, date unspecified | Photo by Karl Hugh, courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival, for St. George News

Still, the company moved ahead with an eight show season to celebrate their 60th anniversary and to honor Adams.

A year after he postponed the 2020 season, Vaughn found himself sitting at a rehearsal table listening to 30 singers belt out a song. He said he was overwhelmed with emotion.

“After 12 months in isolation, I was met with this wall of sound,” Vaughn said. “It just hit all of us. It was so powerful. … Like a punch to the gut.”

For some, that’s how “Richard III” lands. The play, which is also considered a tragedy, follows a man who’s jockeying for power. He stops at nothing to get it.

“This is a play that will always resonate,” Vaughn said. “It’s often performed during election years because of the political intrigue.”

Though Richard will stop at nothing to become king, Vaughn said Shakespeare imbued the character with much more than reckless ambition.

“He weaves in human consciousness into the play, too,” Vaughn said. “He makes you wonder how we got here, what our responsibility is. Sure, it’s political, but it’s also about the internal human journey.”

“Of course,” Vaughn added, “it doesn’t end well.”

For the sake of everyone involved in the Utah Shakespeare Festival, including the community that is its home, hopefully the same won’t be true for the 2021 season.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival takes place on its campus, located at 195 W. Center St., Cedar City. Tickets are available online.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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