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The Utah Fest Shakespearience : Theater: Festival has grown from a tiny community venture into a professional company. 'People would come to see the spectacular rock formations and squeeze us in. Now . . . it's often the other way around.'

August 20, 1993|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CEDAR CITY, Utah — The Utah Shakespearean Festival here is thriving as never before in its 32-year history, fueled to a large degree by Southern California talent. "We're a sort of Southland mafia," said Los Angeles actor Robert Machray, referring to several of the other top actors at the festival from L.A., as well as a contingent of UC Irvine thespians from Orange County.

When many theater companies around the country are dying or struggling to survive, this festival is not just luring summer playgoers by the tens of thousands to a mile-high, former iron-mining town where the desert meets the mountains, but is taking aim at a year-round season with plans for an $18-million expansion.

"We've definitely become a destination," said UC Irvine drama professor Cameron Harvey, 45, a producing director of the festival since 1987 who goes back with the company more than two decades in key capacities from lighting designer to theater architect.

Under Harvey's co-leadership (he is one of four top executives, including the founder Fred C. Adams), the festival has grown from a tiny community venture with a budget of less than $2,000 and 3,276 patrons in its first year into a professional company with a $2.7 million budget and projected attendance this summer of 128,000.

"Tourism sustained us in our early years because we're near Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon," Harvey said recently, acknowledging the unusual location of a flourishing classical theater in southern Utah some 170 miles north of Las Vegas.

"People would come to see the spectacular rock formations and squeeze us in. Now that we've built a following, it's often the other way around. They come for us and squeeze in the canyons." Harvey said.

Machray, 47, was hired for the first time last summer to do Falstaff in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." He is artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Classical Theatre Lab and was nominated in 1990 for a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for "The Boys Next Door" at the Pasadena Playhouse.

"I started scouting this festival a few years ago," he said. "Theater seems to be disappearing everywhere. But this is one of the few places where it's growing. I think this is the great unknown festival."

Other Los Angeles actors who help form the backbone of the Utah troupe's professional contingent of 10 Equity guest stars include Michelle Farr (a founding member of the Interact Theatre Co.), Jack Wetherall (last seen as Jack Tanner in "Man and Superman" at A Noise Within) and Harley Venton (whose recent television credits include the NBC pilot "Laurel Canyon").

The Utah company--which has 41 actors and more than 250 summer staffers--produces Shakespeare under the stars in a picturesque 821-seat Tudor imitation of the legendary Globe Theatre, where the Bard had his plays staged in London four centuries ago. Classic works by other writers are mounted indoors at an opulent 767-seat contemporary theater. Its glass lobby, when lit up at night, resembles what Adams likes to call "a golden lantern on a hill."

This summer's Shakespeare presentations are "Timon of Athens," never produced during the Bard's lifetime and a first for the festival, directed by UC Irvine drama professor Robert Cohen; "Richard II" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The other productions are Moliere's "Tartuffe," Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and "The Royal Family," a zany piece of lesser-known Broadway fluff from 1920s by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber.

All six plays appear in repertory during 10 weeks from late June through early September. Two different productions are offered every day except Sunday, making it possible for theater devotees like Gerry Devito, a college teacher from Oakland, to see the entire season in three consecutive days.

"I'm so impressed with this place (that) it's my second time here," he said on a recent morning at a free literary seminar, one of many daily events to enhance what festival officials call "the Utah Shakespearience."

(Among these are costume exhibits, backstage tours, falconry demonstrations and a six-course dinner dubbed "The Royal Feaste"--it is served minus utensils, Elizabethan-style, so you must eat with your fingers, while costumed actors impersonate the royal court.)

Devito, a self-described "play hog," recounted that he had never heard of the Utah festival until last year during a teacher's reunion in Las Vegas.

"I kind of laughed," he recalled. "I only went because they'd already purchased the tickets. I was expecting awful things. I was shocked at how good it was."

Devito, 52, said that two weeks before coming to Cedar City this summer he had attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, the largest Shakespeare festival in the country and (with the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego) the oldest.

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