Bard act to follow: Shakespeare festivals sweep the globe

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 4:46 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.

Open-air appeal

Adam Daveline recently earned a master’s degree in acting from the University of San Diego. For the second consecutive year, he is playing roles in the San Diego Old Globe’s summertime Shakespeare offerings.

For Daveline, who has also acted at the West Yellowstone Playhouse and in Walt Disney World’s “Finding Nemo: The Musical,” the typically outdoor stagings of Shakespeare festivals account for a unique place in the world of live performance.

“One of the great things about a lot of Shakespeare festivals is the outdoor space,” Daveline said. “Whatever the natural surrounding is gives (the performance) a particular charm.

“With the Globe, it’s in the middle of Balboa Park, and right (behind) the stage is the (San Diego) Zoo. Right now we have a scene in ‘As You Like It’ where they’re entering the Forest of Arden, and we play wolf sounds to make it a little bit scary and frightening. And almost every night, the wolves at the zoo howl back.”

As much as he savors the singular appeal of open-air performance, though, the actor values nothing above the actual text of Shakespeare’s works.

“Shakespeare, borrowing from classic literature, took some of the greatest stories of all time and put them in some of the most beautiful poetry of all time,” Daveline said. “His stories last because they’re so universal. The themes are so universal, so overarching. These same grand themes have been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Beyond the festival

Former Deseret News editor Joe Cannon is an earnest bibliophile. But Cannon’s love for the printed word takes on an even sharper intensity when the topic turns to Shakespeare.

“It is impossible to overstate Shakespeare's greatness — the English language would not be the same without him,” said Cannon, whose passion for all things Shakespeare led him to frame the entire text of “King Lear” on the wall of his home office.

In his capacity as an armchair Shakespeare expert, Cannon enthusiastically endorses the festivals that celebrate the Bard’s works. However, he also cautions that live theater should be more means than end.

“There is a vast difference between carefully reading a play and seeing it performed,” Cannon said. “Both are crucial to understanding Shakespeare, but too often people think they know Shakespeare if they have seen his plays.

“I don't want to minimize seeing the plays. They are deeply enjoyable and many of the ‘lessons’ Shakespeare intends for us to learn can be learned by watching. But the riches of Shakespeare cannot be plumbed without very careful and repeated reading.”

Shakespeare festivals by the numbers

397: years since William Shakespeare's death

260: Shakespeare festivals in U.S.

70: International Shakespeare festivals

$27.25 million: Budget of Shakespeare Theatre Association's largest member

$25,000: Budget of Shakespeare Theatre Association's smallest member

$7.4 million: Present-day budget of Utah Shakespeare Festival

$329,000: Budget of Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1982

Sources: Scott Phillips, Shakespeare Fellowship, Shakespeare Theatre Association

J.G. Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and a member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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