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Major Shakespeare festivals have shut down amid COVID-19. But the Utah Shakespeare Festival is moving forward

To open or close the curtains during a pandemic, that is the question

A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 production of “As You Like It.”
A scene from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2017 production of “As You Like It.”
Karl Hugh

CEDAR CITY — To open or close the curtains during a pandemic, that is the question.

A few months after losing founder Fred Adams, the Utah Shakespeare Festival is facing another challenging circumstance as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread.

Major Shakespeare festivals around the world have shut down amid the pandemic. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival — one of the nation’s largest and most prominent theater festivals — laid off 80% of its staff on March 27 and has shut down until September. The California Shakespeare Theater canceled its 2020 season, and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival has postponed its season until summer 2021.

But the Utah Shakespeare Festival will be open for business this summer. The festival in Cedar City announced Monday that its curtains will rise July 9. Previously, the Tony Award-winning festival had canceled its first week in June and was planning on launching the season on June 10.

“When somebody asked him some impossible question, Fred would always say the same thing. He would say, ‘Of course you can.’ He had this sort of spirit that was present in our thinking,” Frank Mack, the festival’s executive producer, told the Deseret News. “We certainly asked ourselves, ‘What would Fred do?’ and we think this is what he would do.”

This season, the festival will move forward largely as it had originally planned by starting later, producing fewer shows and altering show designs. Instead of nine shows, the 2020 season will include five shows: “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Richard III,” “Pericles,” “The Comedy of Errors” and a remounting of “Every Brilliant Thing” — an interactive play about suicide prevention that the festival performed last year and took to every public school in Utah. All five shows will run through Sept. 5.

Cut out of this season is “Cymbeline,” “Desperate Measures,” One Man, Two Guvnors,” “Into the Breeches!” and “Shakespeare’s Worst!” This change affects about one-third of the company’s actors, Mack told the Deseret News. The productions that have been canceled may possibly show up in the 2021 season — the festival’s 60th anniversary.

“I’m just grateful we’re hiring actors at all,” Mack said.

The actors this season will arrive in Cedar City on June 15 and then go into self-quarantine for two weeks. During that time, they will rehearse via teleconference.

After the two weeks is up, actors for the festival’s opening production, “The Pirates of Penzance,” will have just a week and a half of in-person rehearsals before the curtain rises. But because the festival has simplified its production process this season — meaning limiting its sets, props, lights and costumes — the reduced in-person rehearsal time shouldn’t be as problematic, Mack said.

Period costumes won’t be used, but each of the five productions will have a “distinctive look,” Mack said. For “Richard III,” which starts July 20, that look could very well be boots, jeans and T-shirts.

Whether the actors will practice social distancing on stage depends on what the health department recommends at the time, Mack said. The festival is continuing to monitor the COVID-19 situation — the decision to move forward with an altered season was made under consultation with state officials, local health experts and Southern Utah University administration.

“We were thinking about canceling, but what we ultimately decided was, even though it’s risky for us to do this because we may end up canceling the season anyway, we decided it’s worth that risk,” Mack said. “If it’s not safe for the actors to be performing the way they normally would, then we might have to either adjust that or, if it’s not OK to do these plays, we’ll cancel the season.”

Throughout the summer, several hand sanitizing stations will be available at the festival. There will also be “increased cleaning and disinfecting procedures” and “strategic audience seating,” according to a news release.

As part of those precautions, the festival is only selling 50% of the seats in its theaters.

“We do expect that we’ll see a drop in attendance this summer. It’s sort of obvious that we wouldn’t expect a normal audience when we’re doing a reduced season and given everything that’s going on right now,” Mack said. “But we still can do this season even with a smaller audience.”

Last month, the festival announced a five-year partnership with London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) — a prestigious school that has produced actors like Anthony Hopkins, Alan Rickman, Cynthia Erivo and Kenneth Branagh. As part of the partnership, the academy was going to visit Cedar City and put on a production for a week. One RADA graduate was also going to act in one of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s productions.

Those plans have now been halted after travel bans from Europe have been enforced.

“We just had to give up on that this year,” said Mack, adding that the festival will bring at least 2 RADA grads to Cedar City next summer.

Mack’s fingers are crossed that the festival will be able to move forward with these altered plans. He reiterated that if conditions are not satisfactory by July, the season will be canceled and all tickets refunded.

“There’s no risk for anybody’s health because if it’s not safe to do the shows, we will cancel them,” he said. “But there is some risk for us as theater producers to get a company here and get ready to do the shows. If we can’t perform them, we will have lost a lot.

“But we want to do everything we can to try to be open,” he continued. “We’re definitely exposing ourselves to some financial risk by doing this, but we just reasoned that it’s worth it.”