CEDAR CITY — The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s annual competition might be the biggest theatre event in Utah you’ve never heard about.

Exterior of the Adams Shakespearean Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

For the last 36 years, teachers and students across Utah have looked to the first weekend of October with excitement and a hint of dread. Today about 3,000 students from over 100 public schools and performance groups from seven states converged on Cedar City for a manic weekend of performance, camaraderie, and the chance to carry home an enormous trophy.

For the last five competitions, I was working full time at the Festival, and had an insider’s view. I can tell you, from an administrative stand point alone, this is a massive undertaking. Specialized software has been designed to coordinate each of the thousands of student’s judging schedules. Professional actors and dancers are transported from across the country to work as adjudicators. School personnel book local hotels a year in advance. There are certificates to be ordered, pencils to be sharpened, and thousands of names to be processed. The entire theatre department of Southern Utah University is called into service, and locals know to keep clear of The Pizza Factory.

This year, for the first time, I’m on the front line of the competition as judge and workshop leader. Last night I sat in the Randall theatre and watched the Festival’s production of Hamlet with 700 enthusiastic students. They listened. They reacted. They were laughing at jokes before the actors could finish them because they know the text. These kids love Shakespeare.

This morning, as I wandered the SUU campus, I watched shocked college students weave their ways through packed hallways and crowded lawns of sixth through twelfth grade students, many in full costume and makeup. They recite their lines one last time. Groups hug. There are screams of celebration and tears of regret, dancing, some blood (fake I hope), teenage sweat, and lots and lots of laughter.

A school group performs a scene from Much Ado About Nothing at the Shakespeare Competition at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, October 5, 2012.

And it’s not even 11 AM. As I type Tuachan High school is performing Macbeth on the famous Adams stage.  From now until about 9 PM on Saturday, when the last trophy is given out, nobody’s going to have much time to relax. Between seven different events in music, dance, and acting, Tech Olympics, workshops, performances by the Festival and SUU, the prop sale, and the student dance, even the most dedicated students are going to have trouble fitting everything in.

I chat for a moment with Jeff Robins, a first year theatre teacher at Desert Hills Middle School in St. George, Utah.  “We are trying to get our Julius Caesar scene to six minutes.” His 12- to 14-year-old students are rehearsing on the Greenshow stage as he scribbles acting notes on the back of a schedule. “We need to run this a few more times.” They’ll be performing at 2:40 today.

Robins tells me a familiar story. He competed at the competition when he was a student at ­­­­­­­­­­­­Parowan High School. He attended Southern Utah University and worked at the Festival part time while earning his teaching degree. This is his first year bringing his own team.

“I want my students to feel as though they have created something grand that they can remember for years to come.”

It’s no surprise that the competition is now bringing in several generations of Utah’s theatre students and teachers. Some of this year’s judges were also one-time competitors. Even Michal Bahr, Festival Education Director, loves to tell the story of how back in the ’80s as a Richfield High School student he was “the world’s smallest Petruchio.” He spent the ’90s coaching Bear River High School students at the competition, capturing many trophies. His deep love for what the competition can do in the life of a student enticed to leave the classroom and work full time at the Festival when Fred Adams came calling. He wants to ensure that this competition will continue for many years to come.

Coaches, competitors and judges recognize the importance of what this weekend can mean in a student’s development.  Judge Jared Larkin knows the competition was instrumental to his life. As southern Utah native, performing on the Adams stage as a high school student was a dream come true. Later as a coach for The Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, and now a competition judge, he recognizes the power of this weekend.

“[Students] feel validated as artists. At times they are pigeon-holed in their school and not everyone is embracing of what they do. But here they are surrounded by others who share a passion for their art form. It’s a celebration of talent. A celebration of what the other person does. Schools are supportive of their fellow competitors. It’s a magical place.”

Busy judges at the 2012 Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare Competition.

Seeing the work of other students can be very eye opening. “It definitely broadened my view of what is possible. It’s a lot more mature than you might expect from high school theatre.” Says Ryan, a second year competitor from Alta High School in Sandy, Utah. “I was really surprised and honored I was able to compete.”

Ryan, like many students, went through a rigorous audition and rehearsal process just to be able be a part of Alta’s Shakespeare Team. The students tell me of their excitement, the energy they feel, and their nerves. They also tell me that their favorite subjects in school are math, science, English, and theatre.

“We aren’t training actors here.” Says Alyn Bone, third year judge and fifteen year coach from Clearfield High School, “We are training future doctors and lawyers. We don’t train them to be doctors, but we are teaching them to be better doctors. They learn what dedication is, what humanity is. Some of the greatest stories are told by Shakespeare, and [students] become more human as they become those stories. We are not giving life, but we are giving them what makes life worthy of living.”

It’s time for me to scramble off to my first workshop. My own nerves are acting up as I think about the power of what I know this art can convey. It’s a beautiful thing. A daunting task. I hope it never stops.

Update: UTBA has posted a list of winners from this year’s Shakespeare Competition!

For more information about the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare Competition visit bard.org/competition.