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.