Update: On May 12, 2020, the Utah Shakespeare Festival announced that the entire 2020 season was cancelled. Read the entire announcement here.
CEDAR CITY — Brian Vaughn of the Utah Shakespeare Festival looks to the past while planning a scaled down 2020 Season.
As the days and weeks blur by us all in this new reality of homebound life, you like me, may find your mind drifting into hopeful flights of fancy about what you would like to do when this is over. One of my favorite summer traditions is visiting the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. I feel my sweat-pant clad anxiety relax just imagining myself munching on a fresh-baked tart and settling in for a lovely evening of high-quality Shakespeare under the stars. Oh, to laugh along with hundreds of other voices! To be in a crowd, feeling the rhythms of Shakespeare’s words wash over me! “Oh, my soul’s joy!” as Othello says.
But as the world observes Shakespeare’s birthday this week, we can better relate to Friar Lawrence’s outlook on the future. “Uncertain is the course. I like it not.” There are many unanswered questions ahead for all of us. While COVID-19 cases in Utah remain relatively low, the Governor’s Stay Safe, Stay Home order has been extended until at least May 1. It is impossible to say what the pandemic will look like for Utahns two or three months from now.
Theatre companies across the country have now had their doors closed for more than a month. Here in Utah some summer festivals, like Utah Festival Opera and Lyric Repertory Company, have made the difficult decision to cancel their 2020 seasons altogether, our region’s oldest and largest destination theatre company, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is searching for ways to make my personal summer fantasy come true, as safely as possible.
The Festival recently announced that with the guidance and support of state health officials, they will proceed with a slimmed down and modified version of the previously announced 2020 season. Festival leaders, like artistic director Brian Vaughn, are looking into the past in order to face an uncertain future. Last week, Brian and I sat down (via Zoom, of course) to discuss the plan to bring audiences together to enjoy one of Utah’s favorite Summer traditions. (Full disclosure, Brian and I have known each other since 2007 when I worked full-time in the Education department at the Festival.)
Miranda Giles: How are you all doing? How has everyone been dealing with these new conditions?
Brian Vaughn: Thankfully so far everyone on staff is healthy and well. At this point the case count in southern Utah remains pretty low. We are finding ways to work from home as best we can. Like everyone, we miss being together, but are doing our best to stay positive and encouraging each other to stay safer apart.
Giles: And are there plans in the works to ensure that audiences can be kept safe if they come to the Festival this summer?
Vaughn: We are thinking through everything we can. If we can’t do it safely, we won’t do it at all. We want to make it as safe as possible. That will mean things like wiping down the seats between shows, possibly seating people apart from each other, installing hand sanitizer stations. Whatever it takes. We want to follow whatever directives health officials recommend for our audiences, and for the actors as well. We are planning to put all the company members who come to Cedar City in quarantine for fourteen days when they arrive. We will have rehearsals, even teaching choreography, over the computer.
Giles: Wow! I hadn’t considered having to learn choreography and blocking over a computer in isolation. We are breaking some new ground for the rehearsal process here.
Vaughn: This really is a new way of doing things. It’s going to take a lot of new skills and stretching ourselves in new ways.
Giles: Along those lines, it seems like there might be some new opportunities for sharing the shows with audiences who might not be comfortable with traveling because they are at a higher risk of illness. Are you exploring ways they might be able to still enjoy the shows? Many theatres are finding ways to broadcast previous productions for audiences on YouTube and such. I know you are already planning to show a recorded version of the Romeo and Juliet educational tour that was cut short earlier this year.
Vaughn: We know nothing can fully replace the feeling of being in the theatre, but we are exploring all kinds of options now. Recording, or even showing previously recorded shows, like our 50th Anniversary Midsummer Night’s Dream, is challenging. There are technical recording challenges as well as actor and designer contracts to be worked out, but we are looking at all of it. We would love to build up a strong digital platform. The Festival has always aimed to bring Shakespeare to as many people as possible.
Giles: This was already set to be a year with some exciting new programs for the Festival. What does all this upheaval mean for the recently announced RADA partnership?
Vaughn: Unfortunately, the partnership will have to be delayed by a year, due to international travel restrictions. But the hope is that next year we will have two actors from London’s Royal Academy with us as part of that exchange. Like with our season, there has already been so much important work put into planning and designing for 2020. We aren’t going to let it go. We will bring it back for next year.
Giles: So next year you will pick up the shows that have been dropped off of this season?
Vaughn: That’s the plan. We aren’t canceling these productions. Our designers have already done so much work to prepare for these plays. We want to honor that.
Giles: So the plan is to have five total shows run in July and August. Outside you’ll have Richard the III, Pericles, and The Comedy of Errors. Meanwhile, The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan will run indoors.
Vaughn: Essentially, we will have two casts. A Shakespeare cast doing three shows in rep outside and a musical cast performing inside. We are also remounting our one-actor play, Every Brilliant Thing, in the Anes Studio Theatre. That show is all about hope and optimism, which we can all use right now. We are also going to use our amazing education tour actors who were sharing Every Brilliant Thing with schools across Utah over the fall and winter as part of that cast. So even if people saw that production here last year, or at their school, they can have the chance to see it with a new actor this summer.
Giles: How did you make the decisions about which shows exactly to run in 2020 and which to delay?
Vaughn: We’ve looked back at schedules from the early years at the Festival to think about “how did they used to do this?” We’ve had a lot of growth over the last 58 years, but this started with three Shakespeare plays on an outdoor platform. This year we will have three Shakespeare plays in our beautiful outdoor Engelstad theater. We can look back at our roots and remember the really practical ways that shows can succeed within a scaled back approach. Shakespeare plays have always been brilliant in part because they are simple to produce. We also look at our mission. Our mission is producing Shakespeare and other classics. Of course, it helps with the budget that Shakespeare and The Pirates of Penzance are all in the public domain.
Giles: That was a stroke of fortune you couldn’t have predicted would matter so much when you selected the season. I imagined there was a nod to honoring Fred Adams, who performed as the Major General last time the Festival did that show, but there again you couldn’t have known Fred would pass this year when the show was chosen.
Vaughn: No. This is one of the amazing things about how this is all coming together. We always want to honor Fred. I think about him every day. We want to make him proud.
Giles: I’m sure he’s smiling down, proud to know that he laid out a solid foundation even for a hard time like this. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is a lot of grief about all these changes. It’s wonderful that the Festival can continue in some capacity, but I think we all feel like we have lost so much to this pandemic.
Vaughn: There really is a lot of grief in our collective letting go of plans, jobs, and of course to lives that have been lost. I had to make some really difficult phone calls to actors as we have made these decisions. They all took it so well. They were so wonderful and understanding. But yes, this crisis is having a huge impact on the lives of people we love. Grief is what we are all experiencing together. That is what the theatre is all about, allowing us to process all the most important human emotions, like grief, together in one space at one time. There is nothing else like it.
Giles: What do you think the lasting impacts of this crisis will be on the theatre community?
Vaughn: Right now there is so much struggle and so many immediate challenges to navigate. There are some silver linings, but so much hardship. The community has hope for what is next. The festival is very lucky to have been around for so long and to have so much support. We’ve had so many people reaching out to share their love and support. This is a community that cares for each other. We can grieve together and we can laugh together.
Giles: Shakespeare is the master of grief and joy in one line.
Vaughn: Now more than ever we need the power of theatre and Shakespeare to be our blueprint. It shows us the things we need now more than ever: empathy, unity, reconciliation, hope. People have been reminded that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while the theatre was closed by the plague. That play is his masterwork in many ways.
Giles: That’s a hopeful thought. Somewhere in quarantine some upstart crow is writing a new masterpiece.
Vaughn: Absolutely. Creativity comes from limitations. And I think there are going to be amazing new stories and art that come from this. These limits can spark a new wave of creativity for this form. Theatre is a way we celebrate what it means to be human. And once we can safely start to emerge from this isolation we are all going to be ready to celebrate. The theatre is a place where we can share the experience of being human, live, in real time. I think we are going to have a renewed sense of the human spirit after we have been forced to be alone for so long. So, come to the Festival and celebrate with us.