CEDAR CITY — On the evening of March 5, the Utah Shakespeare Festival hosted its second annual Make a Scene fundraising event at Harmon Hall in West Valley City. This unique event brings the movers and shakers of Utah’s cultural, business, and political worlds together to perform a staged reading of the Bard’s own words. It was great fun to watch Utah Governor Gary Herbert being live-coached in the role of Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing by Festival Artistic Director Brian Vaughn. The governor seemed to have a ball while singing, reciting poetry and begging a kiss from his lady love, Beatrice, played by his equally game wife, Jeanette. This was not only adorable, but a testament to the humanizing power of the arts. Seeing KUER’s Doug Fabrizio’s swaggering Dogberry giving nonsensical orders to a gaggle of Utah legislators all doing their best to execute their lightly rehearsed blocking brought on reflections about the lasting legacy of Festival founder Fred Adams who passed away in February.
In the weeks since Adams’s passing, much has been said memorializing his legacy and accomplishments. He was not only the founder of a Tony award winning regional theatre, an economic hero to Cedar City, a devoted family man, but also the man who arguably did more than any other in the state’s history to perpetuate a culture of cherishing and supporting the arts.
I had the fortune of working with Fred during my time as the Festival’s Education Coordinator in the late 2000s. I arrived in Cedar City probably still smelling of my polyester college graduation robe, heady with the excitement of having landed a full-time theatre gig. My third day in town I was ushered into the annual company welcome meeting. As the slight and silver-haired Fred took the stage, I was inclined to be skeptical of the legend. But soon the power of Fred’s infectious energy and charisma washed over me. Even then, in his late seventies, Fred worked an audience like few I’ve ever witnessed. Over the next few years I would watch Fred give this same welcome speech to the arriving ensemble of costumers, electricians, stagehands, and actors. It was such a performance that all us full-timers, from the accountants to the facilities team, would march over to the theatre to hear the spiel year after year. Fred would warmly welcome these metropolitan visitors, newly arrived from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, to his beloved hometown. He would share an abbreviated history and his vision of what the Festival could be with their help. Finally, he would provide a few words of warning about the elevation, the need to apply lotion to areas on your body you never imagined could dry out, and a ranked litany of the curse words to be avoided while within earshot of the locals. He was uniformly delightful.
If you ever attended the Festival’s Greenshow on one of those dreamy summer evenings in Cedar City, you perhaps shook Fred’s bejeweled hand and were greeted as a long-awaited guest by the icon who embodied the expression “if you build it, they will come.” Fred knew how to cast a spell, and year by year he wove it for business owners, media outlets, and the state legislature to secure the funding and reputation needed to sustain his dream. All of us are richer for it. Utah enjoys an exuberant performing arts culture. We boast one of the nation’s fifteen full-time symphonies, a ballet, and number of highly reputed theaters, and a flourishing array of small and growing arts companies. Of course, all this cannot be laid at Fred’s feet. As he, a faithful Latter-day Saint, was fond of pointing out Utah has placed special value on performing arts all the way back to Brigham Young who was a great believer in the “civilizing” power of theatre. But if nothing else, Fred was a diligent guardian of the spirit of the arts. For more than 60 years, his endless promotion and encouragement kept that flame alive and he kindled it in the hearts of every Utahn who performed at the annual High School Shakespeare Competition, witnessed the Costume Cavalcade, or voted for the Zoo Arts and Parks (ZAP) Tax.
As the evening wore on, actors Brian Vaughn and Kym Mellen bantered with the audience and their amateur castmates, skillfully guiding the action on stage. In the ancient tradition of springtime carnival, Utah’s powerful elite allowed themselves to be foolish, while the humble performers teased and directed their words and action. Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox and his delightful wife Abby hammed it up as the young lovers, Claudio and Hero while a framed portrait of Fred grinned down on them. For one Thursday night, in the midst of a busy and controversial legislative session, there were no arguments along party divides, no high stakes self-aggrandizement. On this night a story celebrating the triumph of truth over slander, and the power of love to overwhelm witty debate reminded everyone in the room, politicians and patrons alike, that we are all humans trying our best and failing regularly. Actors and politicians live in keener awareness than most that “all the world’s a stage.” And in a state where the division between liberal and conservative values could threaten to politicize support for the arts, a night like Make a Scene proves how healthy it can be for the two professions to square off and be reminded that indeed, “man is a giddy thing.” So, as the night culminated in a toast to the legacy of Fred Adams, elbow to elbow, artists and patrons, republicans and democrats, apple cider and champagne drinkers alike lifted their glasses together to the future of the arts in the state where Fred left his indelible shine.