CEDAR CITY — Over the years, the Utah Shakespeare Festival has grown in size and scope. In addition to plays, audience members can take backstage tours, have lunch with actors, watch a greenshow, and see the technical staff change a stage over from one show to another. One of the overlooked parts of the Festival experience are the literary seminars. Hoping to learn more about these free events, we chatted with the woman in charge of these seminars, Nancy Melich.
UTBA: Please introduce yourself and tell me your job title at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and explain your job duties.
Melich: My name is Nancy Melich, and my job title is Literary Seminar Director. That means that I talk a lot. Every morning of the season during the summer, except on Mondays, we have free discussions in an outdoor setting where I like to get a conversation going about the plays being presented at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
UTBA: I like that phrase: “get a conversation going.” As a theatre critic, all I do is talk about a show after it’s over. That’s why I wanted to interview you. So, tell me what the benefit is of talking about a show afterwards and why the Festival provides these literary seminars.
Melich: Let me answer the last part first. There was a man here named Michael Finlayson—that I never had the pleasure of meeting—who started the seminars. He directed here. He was a Scotsman. He was a Shakespeare scholar, and he taught at the University of Texas at Austin. As the story goes, he said, “Live theatre, by its very nature, promotes discussion. There ought to be some sort of environment at this festival where we can talk about the plays to these audiences.” So, Michael Finlayson started these just out behind the Adams Theatre. And I have had people come to our seminars who knew him and went to those. And he really spared no opinions about the productions. He was not a person to promote the plays and say that everything was fantastic. He was a critic, in a sense. And over the years that has evolved into our Seminar Grove where we have bleachers and people have microphones.
UTBA: So, why do we have to talk about the plays when they’re done?
Melich: A lot of people have opinions and like to voice them. From my point of view, though, it’s live theatre. And live theatre creates a community. It’s a community where you’re sitting next to a person who is a total stranger to you, but you’ll have an interaction with them. It’s the same in the Seminar Grove in the mornings. We have people who will never talk to their neighbors at home, but they’ll come because they’re excited about something they have seen on stage and want to talk about that. Live theatre, unlike art forms that are not live, infuses people with the desire to talk.
UTBA: Who is the target audience for these literary seminars?
Melich: It is appropriate for every single person who comes to this festival. We allow patrons who are 6 years old or older, and occasionally we have 6-year-olds in the seminars. Some of the most astute observations have come from children, though they rarely come in the morning to the seminars. But the title, “literary seminar,” sounds like you’re going to hear a professor pontificate about how much he or she knows about Shakespeare. But that isn’t how these are set up. They are set up with knowledgeable people to talk about other knowledgeable people. And they’re free, and they are a lot fun. I never know when I walk out there in the morning what’s going to happen. Everybody is welcome at the literary seminars.
UTBA: Do you have to see the play before you attend the literary seminar, or can they attend the seminar first and see the play later?
Melich: It doesn’t matter. There are no rules about whether you need to see the plays first or not. We have people who like to listen to the discussion first so they are prepared for the plays. But other people like to have an opinion first, but then they attend the seminar and gain insights in the morning and change their minds about what they saw the night before. That’s especially true in preview week and just after opening when the directors are attending. We even have some people now who attend during preview week or the week of the openings so they can hear the directors speak. But if you’re not here, you can go to our website at bard.org, and you can download those literary seminars where the directors have been my guests.
UTBA: You said that you never know what’s going to happen at a literary seminar. How do you prepare for these conversations?
Melich: I am here in residence for four months, so I go to the plays over and over again. Prior to coming to the Festival, though, I was a newspaper reporter for 30 years. I’m pretty good at asking questions and playing dumb that I don’t know the answers to the questions. So, I’ll talk to the people working on the plays. And I’ll read as much as I can about the plays. There are so many books about Shakespeare. I never stop reading, talking to actors, or learning about these plays. The patrons, too, teach me about the shows. It’s similar to how I prepared for plays when I worked as a theatre critic.
UTBA: What can audience members do to prepare for the literary seminars?
Melich: Come to the Shakespeare Festival and then come with an open heart and an open mind and a willingness to listen to your fellow audience members. We also want people to be aware that they are in a communal environment and they should not filibuster. Sometimes people who hold on to that microphone too long when other people have their own interesting opinions that I want to hear. But I like it when attendees have an awareness of the plays, their surroundings, and the open environment of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
UTBA: It sounds like it’s more about the exchange of ideas, observations, and insights than educating audiences about what they “must” know about a play.
Melich: I think that’s right. It’s an open forum for people to express their opinion. There are people who are very set in their ways about how Hamlet “should” look. And that’s interesting. Others are trying to explore different perspectives that they may not have considered before. But we invite audience members of all ages, and they should know that they won’t get shouted down if they have a different opinion from the director or me. Our best seminars are when there are differences in opinion.
UTBA: This summer at the Festival there are productions of Amadeus, The Taming of the Shrew, Charley’s Aunt, Henry IV Part Two, South Pacific, and King Lear. What is a favorite insight that you have already gained into one of these shows?
Melich: I don’t know if it’s an insight, but I’m actually surprised by how audiences haven’t been talking so much about a single actor as much as they are talking about themes they are deriving from the plays. But I found some very thoughtful comments about the family situations, especially the fathers and sons’ relationships in these plays: Mozart and his father, Hal’s relationship to his father, and even in King Lear we have had several people talk about Gloucester and his two sons that he seems to love equally. Those are insights coming from patrons. I’ve also been surprised by little conversation there has been about the misogynistic attitudes of The Taming of the Shrew. It is front and center, and you can’t get away from it, even though it has a very strong cast and is a very beautiful show. However, if you listen carefully to the words, it is difficult to see this play and not be aware of those issues. I’m surprised that more and more people aren’t talking about that. It’s starting to come now, though. But we did have two women. One was 18 who said, “I hear what you’re all saying, but to me Petruchio brainwashes Kate into submission, and that made me very uncomfortable.” Another was a woman who worked with victims of domestic violence, and she said that domestic violence was inherent in the script, even though this production was designed to make it a love story. So, we shall see what happens as the season goes on.
UTBA: Before you came to the Festival you were at the Salt Lake Tribune. How did you get this position at the Festival?
Melich: Well, I covered the Festival as a reporter and as a critic for 24 years. After I left the Tribune I had this wild idea about improving the quality of theatre criticism in this country. I had taught at the National Critics Institute in Connecticut and regional theatre conferences. I had this idea when I left the Tribune that it might be enjoyable to have a course taught here at the Shakespeare Festival to have a course taught in the summer on theatre criticism writing. I did that for a couple summers, and it actually bombed because the people who came were delightful people who had no interest in being theatre critics as a profession. They just wanted to learn a little more about it. Then one afternoon in Salt Lake City Fred Adams and Scott Phillips were lobbying the legislature and called me up and said, “Can we come by and see you?” and I said sure. So, we were sitting in my kitchen and they said, “We would like to make a proposal to you. The person who had run the literary seminars is leaving, and we would like to offer you the position. You can come for a year or for a lifetime.” And I was absolutely dumbfounded. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that I would ever work for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. First, I hadn’t ever been in a play since high school. Second, when you’re a reporter, you have a distance. I didn’t go to cast parties, and I wasn’t close friends with people I reported on. So, the thought of working at the Utah Shakespeare Festival never occurred to me. So, when they said this, I was stunned. Plus, I had never gone to the literary seminars because I was too influenced by the other audience members when I wrote my reviews. Anyway, I said to them, “How long do I have to consider this offer?” And Fred said, “About five minutes.” So, I said, “I’ll give it a shot. And now I’m in my 12th season.”
UTBA: This has been a great chat. Your time is very valuable, and we are grateful that you gave some of it to UTBA.