The Utah Shakespeare Festival was founded in 1961 and presented its first season in 1962. It was started in response to two influences: summer tourists desiring more evening activities after visiting the area’s six national parks, and a young actor’s desire to produce great theatre. Festival Founder Fred C. Adams, having just come to Cedar City after trying out the New York theatre scene for a few years, was new to the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University) in 1959. However, seeing 150,000 annual summer tourists to the area, he knew he had a great potential audience for a theatre festival. Excited by the idea, he packed up his notes and ideas and visited Ashland, Oregon, the site of the granddaddy of all Shakespeare festivals, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. While there, he closely observed operations and was befriended by Angus Bowmer, the OSF founder, whom Adams interviewed extensively. On the long ride back to Cedar City, the Utah Shakespeare Festival was born.
Shakespeare was a natural choice for Cedar City. Historically, the people of southern Utah have a love for drama and especially the works of Shakespeare. Adams proceeded with his new company and presented The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice that first season (1962). A small company of college students and townspeople produced the plays on an outdoor platform backed by a partial replica of an Elizabethan stagehouse. Between rehearsals, volunteer actors wielded hammers and scissors, building their own stage, props and costumes.
The initial two-week season attracted an excited 3,276 spectators, yielded a much needed $2,000 on which to build a second season, and demonstrated the cooperative relationship between college and community which still flourishes today. This partnership is one of the reasons for the Festival’s consistent growth. In 2003, nearly 150,000 ticket-holders viewed 246 performances in three theatres during the sixteen-week season. The Festival is now a year-round operation with a full-time staff of twenty-six and a budget of over $5 million dollars, as well as an ongoing educational outreach program, including workshops and a touring version of one of Shakespeare’s popular plays.
The Festival’s well-known outdoor theatre materialized in stages. The Adams Memorial Shakespearean Theatre, located on the campus of Southern Utah University and one of the most authentic Elizabethan theatres in the world, began as a stagehouse; but in five years’ time was gradually surrounded by its permanent orchestra and gallery seating. The Adams Theatre was dedicated in 1977.
The theatre so closely resembles Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London that in 1981 the British Broadcasting Company chose it as the location for some of its filming of its Shakespeare series. The Adams Theatre features three plays each season (usually Shakespearean), mounted by professional directors, designers, and actors from around the world, along with graduate students from top professional graduate schools.
The indoor, modern Randall L. Jones Theatre opened its first season June 23, 1989, offering classics of world drama. Its repertoire has spanned more than three centuries of playwrights and has included the classics of France, England, Norway, and the United States.
In 1992 the Festival started the groundwork (and has built on it for every year since) for what will eventually become the program of its third theatre. Staged readings of the New American Playwrights Project are presented to Festival patrons who desire an opportunity to view the current work of some of today’s best playwrights. The program will eventually evolve into fully-mounted, modern plays, by “the Shakespeares of tomorrow,” presented in a small, state-of-the-art flexible theatre that will be part of the Centre for the Performing Arts.
Within a decade, additional buildings near the Randall Theatre, including two more theatres; a Renaissance study center; and restaurants, pubs, and other retail shops will complete the Utah Shakespeare Festival Centre for the Performing Arts. The land for the center, which spans one and one-half city blocks, is nearly completely purchased and construction is ready to begin. A full model display of the center was unveiled during the 1995 season and will continue to be on display in the theatre lobbies until the project is completed.
In 2005, Fred C. Adams was named founder and executive producer emeritus and moved his full-time efforts to fulfilling this dream of the Utah Shakespeare Festival Centre for the Performing Arts, adding the title of executive director of the Festival Centre Project.
As part of its commitment to great theatre, the Festival fosters activities that bring Shakespeare and other great playwrights to new audiences. Through theatre, and the activities surrounding it, entire eras come to life and enrich people of all ages and from all walks of life.
The Utah Shakespeare Festival remains a total “experience” for its patrons, many of whom have been coming to every season for over forty years and now bring their children and grandchildren to the Festival. This feeling of partnership with the audience (which extends so far that the Festival even offers child care during the plays) is a trademark, inspiring patrons to speak of it as “their Festival.” Striving to satisfy our modern audience’s desires, the Festival works hard to remain accessible and to keep alive that bright and shining view first envisioned by Fred C. Adams over five decades ago.