Bard act to follow: Shakespeare festivals sweep the globe

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

R. Scott Phillips, Utah Shakespeare Festival executive director

Utah Shakespeare Festival

CEDAR CITY — It’s a recent, crisp summer afternoon, and Scott Phillips is sitting in the shade at the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s open-air Adams Theater.

Constructed in 1977 to embody the 16th century architecture of England’s Tudor stages, the Adams Theater is an all-wood edifice accustomed to staging sound and fury for packed houses of up to 885 people.

Phillips resembles Dr. Phil, only 60 pounds lighter. He is the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s director, a role he assumed after its founder, Fred Adams, retired in 2005. Phillips reminisces about the taproots of his own affinity for Shakespeare — a fruit-bearing tree that started germinating decades ago in this very venue.

“I grew up in a small town in Nevada,” Phillips said. “My family was not particularly wealthy, so we just couldn’t do things like go see Shakespeare. I didn’t even know this place existed yet, but during my junior year some friends of mine brought me to see a play here at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“We were on the very front row — back in those days the Adams Theater wasn’t completely finished, and we were sitting on folding chairs on platforms. The play was ‘Henry IV,’ part one. I didn’t know (the play), but I understood it and I was absolutely able to follow it. I was so struck by it — I just remember that I was so moved by the joy and the energy and the larger-than-life quality that I said, ‘This makes me so happy. This what I have to do.’ ”

The theater sits empty as Phillips speaks, but in a couple hours it will swell to capacity for a performance of the early, violent Shakespeare drama “Titus Andronicus.” In this stillness, Phillips’ reflections soon expand beyond his own reality.

“Shakespeare still resonates with people even though he lived 450 years ago because he wrote about the human condition,” Phillips said. “As much as we have evolved with technology and everything else, the human spirit has not changed.

“We all still have a need for someone to care about; we all have conflict; we all experience jealousy; we all want to be loved; we all aspire to some sort of recognition. And he allows us to see all of that in his characters so that we can say, ‘I see a little bit of myself in that,’ or, ‘I hope I’m not like that — but maybe I am.’ ”

Indeed, an English playwright now dead 397 years exerts arguably more influence on contemporary culture than any non-religious historical figure by speaking to the very human truths that continue to endure eroding influences like the passage of time and evolving technology.

Festival phenomenon

According to the nonprofit educational foundation The Shakespeare Fellowship, 260 Shakespeare festivals take place every year in the United States — including 52 in California alone. Additionally, 70 international festivals dot the globe in locales ranging from Brazil to Turkey and from Belgium to Mexico.

The scope of Shakespeare festivals runs the gamut from small to big. For instance, the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s 75 members run on annual budgets that range from $25,000 to $27.25 million.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the largest in the U.S. In addition to the Utah Shakespeare Festival (winner of the 2000 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater), other prominent stateside festivals are San Diego’s Old Globe, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. International behemoths include the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, and Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Although the festivals in Oregon and San Diego date back to the 1930s, Phillips — a past president of the Shakespeare Theatre Association — believes the vast majority of Shakespeare-related festivals came onto the scene after the 1965 creation of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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