CEDAR CITY — As is typical of any theatre company, some of the most visible people involved with the Utah Shakespeare Festival are the actors. The 73 members of the 2011 Festival acting company portray kings, queens, fairies, laborers, townsfolk, and a variety of other characters in the Festival’s productions. Almost all the actors play roles in multiple plays in a remarkable demonstration of their professionalism and versatility. UTBA recently sat down with three members of the Utah Shakespeare Festival acting company to talk about their Utah experience, their roles, and some of the challenges that come with performing in plays that have simultaneous runs.
One thing that all three actors agreed on was that the Utah Shakespeare Festival (USF) was an artistically attractive job. Betsy Mugavero, who plays Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Poppy Norton-Taylor in Noises Off!, said, “The people you work with here are really talented. I know that when I come to Cedar City that I’m going to have a rich experience as an actor and that I’ll grow.”
Ben Jacoby, who plays the lead role of Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and Lord Hastings in Richard III stated, “The Festival gives you a chance to work on the classics, which is something I’m trying to steer myself towards. I came into acting mostly as a singer first. The Utah Shakespeare Festival gives me the chance to work in straight theatre, as opposed to musical theatre.”
Similarly, Matt Mueller, a Denver-based Equity actor who appears in all three 2011 Shakespeare shows—most notably as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet—said, “What makes the Festival attractive to me as an artist is the commitment, talent, and genuineness of the people. It’s a great place to work because people are pulling towards the same goal.”
This isn’t to say that the USF experience is easy. Performing in two or three different plays—including Shakespeare’s work—is a challenge. “The reperatory schedule can be difficult. I’m used to a summer stock setup where you rehearse one play, put it up, rehearse another, and put it up. Reperatory is a rigorous schedule,” Jacoby explained. “Part of the challenge of the reperatory system is that you might rehearse a show one day and not see it for several days, depending on what you rehearse later. If we block a scene, we might not visit it again for a month, or at least several weeks.”
Mueller, in his second season at the Festival, also called the reperatory schedule, “Very intense.” He expounded, saying, “It’s not that you don’t get enough rehearsal time, it’s that you jump from one show to another. You’ll be working a show for a day, and then you’ll have two days away from it as you work on others. The usual continuity you have with a show just doesn’t exist with this scheduling setup. But it’s very exciting.”
Thankfully, the administration at USF has had 50 seasons to make the scheduling process go smoothly. “It’s very well planned,” Mueller said. “I can’t imagine how they figure out the schedule. They have a matrix to keep track of everybody and it’s mind boggling to me. They even have secondary rehearsals. If you’re not called for one of the shows you’re in, they’ll call you in for another.”
Mugavero, who is in her third season at USF, explained a different type of challenge that arises from rehearsing multiple productions. “For me as an actor, if things are going well for Midsummer and it’s not going as well in the other show, then I get frustrated because I have a handle on one of my roles, but not the other. It’s awesome to work in rep, but you have to split your focus. You have to wait for one character or another to catch up with your mind and your soul.”
Artistically, the centerpiece of USF is the main playwright, William Shakespeare. When asked about the challenges of working with Shakespeare’s text compared to Tennessee Williams’s script of The Glass Menagerie, Jacoby replied, “I thought they would be way more different than they turned out to be. Tennessee Williams’s dialogue is so rich and so filled with a poetic strain to it. It’s actually a challenge to convince the audience that I’m thinking of these lines off the top of my head. So, it’s really the same challenge I have when working with Shakespeare’s words.”
Mueller said that the staff of USF helped him craft a performance in his roles in the three Shakespeare plays he is cast in. “Here at the Festival we have the voice and speech staff and the dramaturg. We can have these great discussions asking what the best thing to play is and how to make the story as clear as possible. People expect Shakespeare to be dense and hard to understand, but with the imagery it’s brilliantly accessible.”
Referring to her previous Shakespeare work in productions like the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Romeo and Juliet, Mugavero explained, “With Shakespeare, you want to get the classical text understandable. That’s always a challenge—but I love it. I love the language. Because I’ve been doing Shakespeare for a while, though, it’s a lot easier for me to approach the text.”
However, working with British farce Noises Off!, Mugavero has a different obstacle. “With Noises Off! the problem isn’t the text, it’s the timing. If I get behind, it will mess up someone else’s joke. I want to keep up the energy. Also, there’s so much going on that it’s a challenge to make sure the audience’s attention is focused where it’s supposed to be.”
With none of the three actors being based in Utah, UTBA was curious to learn how they perceived Utah audiences. Mueller was very complimentary, saying, “The audience at the Utah Shakespeare Festival is very intelligent. They know what they’re coming to see. When they meet in the talkback sessions the next morning, they have educated opinions and they want to be here. As an actor, I couldn’t wish for a better audience.”
Jacoby praised Utah audiences stating, “The audience is remarkably receptive and supportive. Every preview has been met with rousing applause. It also seems to be an audience that gets it—especially the heightened text of Shakespeare. With other audiences, you can tell that the script is going over their head. Richard III is an incredibly complicated plot with incredibly complicated references, and they’re still getting it, which is great.”
Mugavero said, “They’re the best audiences I’ve ever had. They’re so willing and excited to watch the plays. They love the stories. They keep coming back year after year and they still enjoy seeing Midsummer for the eighth time.”
Jacoby said that the quality of Utah audiences influenced his performance as an actor. “It’s not any different from giving a speech in public. If the audience responds positively, you keep going. When an audience gets it, the actors keep making their points and they keep producing moments that work. This is especially true in The Glass Menagerie where I speak directly to the audience in the course of the play. During rehearsals it’s been a missing pieces of the puzzle. But when we started to have an audience, it was like a missing character had been added to the play. It’s encouraging and it’s nice to know that they’re there.”
Mueller talked about a similar connection between actor and audience. “It’s always great when there’s an attentive energy in the space coming from the audience. It fuels the action on stage. An audience is a huge part of how the evening feels. Rehearsing without an audience makes me feel like something’s missing. With a responsive audience like we have here, it’s terrific and it makes the play terrific.”
Of the three actors UTBA interviewed, though, perhaps Mugavero’s role in Noises Off! makes her performance the one most impacted by the quality of the Utah audiences. “In rehearsals for Noises Off!” she explained, “it was just the actors, the director, and the stage manager. Working out the jokes, they were funny the first time and then nobody laughed for a couple weeks. We didn’t really know that the play was going to be funny. We had instincts that it was, but we weren’t sure. But when we had the first preview, the audience was laughing and we thought, ‘They love it. We’re funny.’ When you get that feedback from the audience you want to give them more and to keep them laughing. The audience makes our work come alive.”
Although these actors have different roles and different skills that they bring to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, it is abundantly clear that they are devoted to their craft and the roles they play. All three arrived in Cedar City already having all their lines memorized and prepared for six weeks of rehearsal. Seeing them—along with the other 70 actors in the 2011 USF company—morph into vastly different characters in different plays (sometimes on the same day!) is an amazing experience for audience members and a testament to the actors’ skills. Surely, the high-quality performances that audiences see at the USF are one of reasons for the Festival’s 50 years of success.
Update: We also invite you to watch UTBA’s a video interview of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s executive director, R. Scott Phillips.
For more information about the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the productions that these actors appear in, please visit www.bard.org.