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CEDAR CITY — On the swiftly approaching first day of March, Scott Phillips will step down as executive director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival — exactly 40 years to the day from when he was hired.
The man knows how to make an exit.
He knew how to make an entrance, too.
He was the festival’s first full-time hire when he pulled out the drawers of a school-issue desk in a tiny office in the upstairs of the auditorium theater building on March 1, 1977, and started moving in. People naturally assume that Fred Adams, the man who famously conceived of a summer Shakespearean festival in southern Utah, was its first full-time employee, but in the beginning Adams nurtured his baby along on the side while he kept his full-time job, and salary, as a drama professor at what was then the College of Southern Utah.
It wasn’t until the festival had been in existence 15 years, ensconced comfortably if still a bit precariously on the southern Utah campus, that Adams brought Phillips on board, at age 24, to breathe the breath of marketing life into it.
“Before he hired a full-time anything else he hired a full-time (public relations) person,” recalls Phillips. “I’ll never forget what Fred said to me when I was hired. He said the most important thing is our image and our brand.”
Ever since, through 40 nonstop seasons, the last 10 as executive director, Phillips has shaped, caressed and molded Fred Adams’ brand into the Meryl Streep of community theaters — universally praised, envied, admired, studied and copied. Rare is the week that someone in the industry doesn’t call, write, or visit to see if some of what Cedar City’s got can rub off on them.
Phillips’ advice is to take your time, pay attention to the details and not look for shortcuts or magic recipes.
“There are companies that grew faster and built more facilities, but a lot of them aren’t in business anymore,” he says. “We’ve paid attention to the details and grown by our bootstraps.”
It also hasn’t hurt to have Scott Phillips.
When he began as the first year-round employee in 1977, the festival consisted of three plays presented on one stage during a two-week run, with an operating budget of $329,000. In 2017 the festival consists of nine plays presented on three stages over a five-month run, with a budget of $7 million. All of it overseen by 32 full-time employees.
All this growth has taken place in an essentially rural place that, on paper, has no business hosting a festival of such magnitude.
Phillips’ management style has always been to see the why instead of the why not.
Where others see a small population base, he sees a service-oriented culture “that teaches the value of the arts and giving back from a very, very young age,” thereby providing volunteers at an inordinate rate. Where others see small financial resources to tap, he sees in Utah “one of the most giving states,” whose citizens dispense far more than their fair share in charitable donations. And where others see the long distances theater-goers have to travel for their Shakespeare, he sees “this large, large annual family reunion that we’ve created.”
Phillips also points out, with a droll comedic timing that reflects his days as an actor, the significance of Shakespeare’s plays being a part of the public domain.
“When I think of all the royalties we pay to different companies, I think poor Mr. Shakespeare,” says Phillips. “But we are here because he didn’t think to have royalties.”
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Extolling the virtues of Cedar City and its college has always been easy for Phillips — ever since he fell in love with the place at first sight.
He was in high school when he visited the southern Utah campus during a field trip with the junior class of Nevada’s Lincoln County High School. He walked past the towering pine trees on the quad, breathed in the smell of the new-mown grass and looked up in fascination at the ivy-covered walls of Old Main.
“Gosh, this is an ivy school,” he remembers thinking. And while Dixie College in St. George was the preferred destination for a majority of his fellow college-bound classmates, from that moment on Phillips never considered going anywhere other than Cedar City.
He spent the first 18 years of his life in Caliente, a southeastern Nevada railroad town located precisely halfway between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. That was a big draw when the railroad was king and Caliente grew to 5,000 residents, but by the time Scott, the middle child among seven siblings, was born, the town had less than 1,000 people and was a ways from anywhere.
Scott’s father, Don, would drive to Las Vegas on Monday and work construction all week until he returned with a paycheck on Friday. Scott’s mother, Dorothy, worked as a maid in the town’s hotel.
“We were dirt poor and I had no idea,” says Phillips, who was rich with friends, as evidenced by the fact that at Lincoln County High he was elected president of the freshman class, sophomore class and junior class — and student body president as a senior.
He was active in the school’s drama program, which is why he took that visit to Cedar City, 100 miles due east, as an 11th-grader. As part of the trip, the high school kids watched a play, “Fiddler on the Roof,” that was directed by Fred Adams. “I didn’t know who Fred Adams was at the time,” Phillips muses. “But I was fascinated by it.”
He enrolled in the College of Southern Utah as a freshman in 1971 thanks to an academic scholarship provided by the Lincoln County Telephone Company. He majored in business, but it was the drama classes he took as electives that grabbed his attention. After two years, “I finally had the guts to tell my parents I wanted to change my major. Dad asked if studying drama made me happy. I said yes. He said, 'Then that is what you should do, but do me a favor. Continue to also get your degree in business.' So I graduated in four years with a double major — business administration and theater.”
After leaving the College of Southern Utah, thanks to another scholarship, he enrolled in graduate school at Idaho State. He spent two years in Pocatello getting a master’s degree in theater management, but each summer he returned to Cedar City to intern at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Leaving grad school in 1977, he was a man in demand. The well-established Amarillo Little Theatre in Amarillo, Texas, offered him a position, but so did Adams, deciding it was high time the festival had a fulltime P.R. and marketing person.
What ensued was among the shortest employment interviews in theater history.
Adams: "So do you want the job?"
Four days after he was hired, on March 5, 1977, Phillips accompanied Adams and Gary McIntyre, a Southern Utah theater arts professor, on a trip to New York City to audition actors for that summer’s festival.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” says Phillips. “I was getting paid $9,000 a year. I had a car payment, but that was it. I was like, 'What am I going to do with all this money?'”
Phillips and the festival came of age together. As the brand new marketing director in 1977, he witnessed the debut that summer of the Adams Shakespearean Theatre, a replica of the fabled Globe Theatre in London.
As managing director, he saw the completion of the Randall L. Jones indoor theater in 1988, and in 2000 he took a bow on Broadway with the rest of the cast when the Utah Shakespeare Festival was given its Tony Award, proclaimed Best Regional Theater in America.
After being named executive director in 2007 when Adams stepped down to become emeritus executive director, he saw the Utah Shakespeare Festival celebrate its silver anniversary in 2011.
The crowning touch for his tenure came just last summer at the opening of the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts, the new $39 million home of the festival at Southern Utah University. There isn’t a seat cushion, footlight, fixture or donor brick that doesn’t have Phillips’ fingerprints all over it.
In addition to the elegant Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre — the latest incarnation of the Globe/Adams outdoor arenas — the center brings all festival departments together, including rehearsal space, a costume shop and expansive offices for the administration. Phillips’ soon to be ex-office occupies the southeast corner of the complex, with a commanding view of the red hills east of town. It’s just a couple of blocks, but a far cry, from the tiny office where 40 years ago he began.
His legacy secure, Phillips, at 64, isn’t sure what he’ll do next. He has a number of consulting job offers from theater companies across the country to consider. But he promises he’s going to take “at least six months” to sort out his future.
Will he worry about his baby when he’s gone? Of course he will. Down to the minutest detail.
“Don’t take it for granted because it is a very, very fragile thing,” he cautions anyone who will listen. “It’s been around 55 years, going on 56, but it’s very fragile. It needs to be treated with care.”
Anticipating the imminent exit, stage left, of his longtime keeper of the brand, Adams can only shake his head.
“He’s the guiding light and engine of the Utah Shakespeare Festival,” says Adams, who, at 85, plans to continue indefinitely in his emeritus role. “I really don’t know what we’ll do without him.”