USF: A Tribute

August 15, 2011 | 14 comments
By
USF Founder Fred Adams

USF Founder Fred Adams

Last week I took my family to the Utah Shakespearean Festival for our annual visit with friends. For those who don’t know, the performances and presentation at the festival are first rate (we frequently go to the theater at home in New York City and we have often found the plays at the festival better than those both on and off Broadway). But what is even more impressive to me is that the festival exists because of the vision of a returned missionary fifty years ago.

Our group, formed because four of us served together in the same mission, has been going to the festival for the past 27 years. Before then, I knew little about Cedar City, the Utah Shakespearean Festival or Fred Adams. We all quickly became enamored with the experience, and simply kept coming.

As I understand it, the festival originated with the vision of Fred Adams, who served an LDS mission in Finland in the 1950s. Adams landed a job teaching theater at what was then the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University). There he conceived of a Shakespeare festival and started with student actors in 1961. The Utah Shakespearean Festival is now the oldest, fifth largest and widely considered one of the best festivals in the world.

Where Cedar City might seem an obscure, remote place for such a festival, Adams actually found a location that is attractive to audiences in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles as well as Salt Lake City. As for actors, Adams once pointed out to me that the area was settled by Mormon converts from Wales, theater actors in excess of those that could be used in Salt Lake City. Adams told the Church News in 2003 that “Within a week of their arrival in this valley… they mounted a full production of the ‘Merchant of Venice.’ ” He also told me that as a result, Cedar City had more theatrical performances than Salt Lake.

That claim (which I haven’t verified) may not seem very impressive, unless you know that Salt Lake was one of the most important theater venues in the United States in the later half of the century. It was likely the most important city for theater west of Chicago at that time.

Perhaps the descendants of these theatrical pioneers made up what must have been a predominantly Mormon cast (and audience) when Adams put on the first Shakespearean festival in 1962. It would be nice to think so. But since then the cast has become predominantly non-Mormon and the festival has grown from one play performed over a couple of weeks to six plays performed over 3 months and an additional 3 plays for a couple months during the Fall. Along the way, the Festival constructed a theater patterned after the Globe, where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed and a modern theater designed to accommodate works by modern “Shakespeares.” In 2000, the festival won the Tony Award for best regional theater.

Frequent visitors know that the Festival has still bigger plans for expansion, including a new version of the of the Globe-inspired theater and a multi-block area to house the Festival.

So why am I telling this story? I’m impressed by Fred Adams vision and perseverance. I wish there were more examples like this, of Church members who made a difference. I’m sure there are others, but its far from common.

I also wonder what Adams had to give up. What was the effect on his family, if any? I don’t know Adams personally, and I certainly don’t know what his life has been and is like.

All I know is that I am impressed by the accomplishment.

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14 Responses to USF: A Tribute

  1. glass ceiling on August 15, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I am very impressed with this and am surprised that I have never heard of it.

    Out here in Denver, different stakes uses to put on musicals every summer. But that seem to have ended over 20 years ago…just as the internet was starting to rear its head. (I believe there was a correlation there. )

    The USF just seems like a missionary tool, proof that the Church is culturally cool, and a tourist attraction all in one. I an just wondering why I, a middle-aged Mormon born and raised, having twice lived in Utah, and a long-time fan of The Bard would not have known about this.

    Finally, its things like this that would actually be a defense against the cultural isolation and assassination attemts of The Book of Mormon Musical.

  2. glass ceiling on August 15, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Sorry for the typos. In an Android.

  3. Kent Larsen on August 15, 2011 at 11:24 am

    glass ceiling, the Church was a big support for local theater through the MIA program until about 1970. It published annual books of plays suitable for performance in the ward each year from 1929 through the end of the 1950s, and every few years after that. But when the MIA was changed to the AP/YW, the support for theater went away.

    The death knell for local theater was then the end of road shows, which were essentially killed off by the policy change that prohibited traveling from building to building to perform. And most new buildings don’t even have a stage anymore. Now, those few wards and stakes that do perform theater do so in one building in the stake (one with a stage). Without the institutional support, theater by Mormon units is all but dead.

    I wrote about this a while ago on A Motley VisionMormon Literature’s Once and Future King

    [I should say that I don’t think theater is part of the core mission of the Church–so there isn’t any requirement that the Church support it. But I am sad that it has disappeared.]

    As for the USF being a missionary tool, remember that it is completely independent of the Church. The University in Cedar City is a state institution, and the personnel of the festival are no longer predominantly Mormon and haven’t been for decades. But, like anything that attracts people to an area that is majority Mormon, I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least a few conversions because of it.

  4. glass ceiling on August 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Kent,

    Why all of the phasing out/killing off of performance art in the Church by Church leadership over the last 25 years?

  5. Kent Larsen on August 15, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    I haven’t studied the reasons per se, glass ceiling, but I believe it is mainly due to the Church concentrating on what activities directly impact its mission (i.e., preach the gospel, perfect the saints and redeem the dead — and yes I know a fourth was added, but it isn’t relevant to this question).

    Even before the mission was characterized as it was, the Church decided that local theater wasn’t part of the mission. The death of roadshows may have been more about insurance issues.

    [IMO this is a classic example of how legal distinctions can actually increase overall risk — instead of having a few people traveling from venue to venue, now we have the entire audience traveling, most much farther, to get to the single venue. But, under our legal view, the Church is liable for accidents to the cast, but the audience is liable for their own travel.]

  6. glass ceiling on August 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    That’s the law for you.

    I just miss the musicals in the gym. It was good missionary work and helped the Church feel like a family.

    The Church feels different than it used to..

    More isolating.

  7. glass ceiling on August 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    The road shows were good too, but I have not seen a good one in two decades anyway.

  8. Curtis Pew on August 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Our ward youth put on a play just two weekends ago. I think that’s mostly because a brother in our ward likes directing plays, so every other year or so he gets permission from the ward leaders and puts one on.
    I do miss Roadshows, although it seems like the last few I saw weren’t all that good. I suspect that since it happens so rarely now, no one knows how to write a good Roadshow script any more.

  9. glass ceiling on August 16, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    I think it has a lot to do with the computer.

  10. Kent Larsen on August 17, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Curtis (8), I do think that is what it takes these days — a ward or stake member that drives the activity. The Church program now just doesn’t support theater like it used to.

    I’m not sure, glass ceiling (9), what you mean by “it has a lot to do with the computer.” Are you suggesting that computer use led the Church to raise the insurance issues with Roadshows?

  11. Sam Brunson on August 17, 2011 at 8:59 am

    glass ceiling (9),
    I don’t think the computer does the work you want it to. In my 35 years (well, at least in the last 30 or so that I have a decent memory of), I’ve never seen a roadshow. I’m sure that they’ve happened over the last three decades, but not in the Southern California stake of my youth. And that certainly predates the widespread adoption of teh internets.

    Of course, we did have computers back then, but I’m pretty sure that people didn’t drop roadshows just to be able to play One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird (as cool as that game was when I was 8).

    And actually, Kent, for this reason, I don’t miss roadshows and don’t see them coming back: they were never a part of my Church experience. And I wonder if, more than insurance issues, the problem was that, with the expansion of the Church out of being a predominantly Mormon corridor religion, roadshows just didn’t carry over or didn’t have the critical mass they’d had before.

  12. glass ceiling on August 17, 2011 at 11:55 am

    Sam,

    I think that 25 tears ago, it was easier to find the time (and will) to throw a roadshow. Kids often were basically bored in the summertime and could be easily coaxed into such activity. Now, everyone loses at least some amount of time to some of time to virtual this or internet that.

  13. glass ceiling on August 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Typos abound. Anyway, kids are a bit less active these days, and their consciousness gets more resistant to “gay” things like roadshows. Parents don’t even push for such things. They feel blessed that their kids come to Church at all.

  14. Kent Larsen on August 17, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    glass ceiling (12 & 13), my impression is that the decline and disappearance of roadshows basically predated computers. TV might be a more likely candidate, as the entertainment gained from local theatre was found in broadcast television. BUT, IMO, the real decline came in the early 1970s when theater ceased as a part of the regular Church program. Without the institutional support, very few wards and stakes put on plays anymore.

    FWIW, Sam, I’m not looking for roadshows to return per se. I do think that some kind of periodic local entertainment would be nice — as a good way to bring communities together. Perhaps today it would be stand-up or talent shows, or cell-phone shot films or something.

    I’m NOT necessarily advocating that the Church support these activities specifically, nor am I suggesting that theater should be supported again. But I would like to see, somehow, Mormon theater reach members regionally, regardless of Church support. How that might happen I don’t know.