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'What's in a name?': Utah Shakespeare Festival's offerings go far beyond its namesake's plays

Published: Sunday, June 1 2014 10:04 a.m. MDT

“There’s something that happens when you have a positive Shakespeare theater experience,” said Michael Bahr, education director for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. “It was never meant to be read in a book; it was meant to see live and onstage.”

The organization runs several education programs to create these positive experiences. A group of actors tours schools in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Idaho every January through April to perform abbreviated versions of a Shakespeare play. The play selected for 2014 was “The Taming of the Shrew,” and it was performed approximately 50 times.

Adams said that every four years, every school district in Utah is “able to have a fully mounted, fully realized Shakespeare production for their students.”

The festival also offers teacher training and an annual high school competition that provides students with the opportunity to perform and learn about Shakespeare plays through workshops and seminars.

The hope is that students will see the plays’ applications in their own lives.

“I find them eternally illuminating about the human condition,” Vaughn said. “At any point in anyone’s life, they will continue to resonate in new ways.”

Different lessons can be learned from different works, Adams said.

Through stories such as “Macbeth,” one can learn that “the end does not justify the means;” “Richard III” teaches the potential of power to corrupt; and “Romeo and Juliet” demonstrates how “hate, envy and covetousness can destroy young people’s lives,” Adams said.

“(Even) though (Shakespeare's) language seems for the first 4-5 minutes a bit strange, your ear attunes to it and you start to see yourself in it,” he said.

Preparing a season

Preparations for each year of the Utah Shakespeare Festival begin long before the actors take to the stage for the first performance.

The work starts with selecting which plays will be performed; Ivers and Vaughn do this a year in advance.

“We just announced our 2015 season, so even though we’re about to open 2014, we’re already working on 2015,” Phillips said.

The programming is built first around which Shakespeare plays will be part of the season.

“The formula, which frankly we kind of inherited and works, is we usually start looking at a history, a tragedy and a comedy,” Ivers said.

In addition to the Shakespeare plays from which the festival derives its name, the organization also hosts musicals and plays by other playwrights each season.

“We don’t just do Shakespeare,” Adams said. “We really are a library here of variety, of variation. The foundation is Shakespeare. We always do three, sometimes four, of Shakespeare’s plays, but we always have other plays as well.”

Ivers and Vaughn also begin assembling the cast of approximately 60 actors several months in advance. They travel to places such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

“They have to look for actors who are versatile, who can sing, who can speak Shakespearean verse, who can dance, who can do comedy, who can do tragedies, because out of that 60 actors … (there are) hundreds of characters in the six different shows that they have to fill, and it’s like this big matrix Tetris game that they have to play and figure out,” said Nikki Allen Koontz, media and public relations manager for the festival.

More than plays

Although the Utah Shakespeare Festival is well-known for its annual productions, it also offers many other elements and activities geared toward cultivating understanding for the Shakespearean culture.

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