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Utah Shakespeare Festival closing its curtains for the first time since 1962

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Festivalgoers at the Greenshow at the 2017 Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Festivalgoers at the Greenshow at the 2017 Utah Shakespeare Festival. The festival announced Tuesday it is closing its curtains for the first time amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Cristy Meiners, Deseret News

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is closing its curtains for the first time, the company announced Tuesday.

The Tony Award-winning festival has continued every year since 1962, when founder Fred Adams, who died in February, had a budget of $1,000 and directed all three plays for the festival’s first season. 

Adams transformed the festival into a renowned event that 100,000 people from all over attend. But now, the coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented time for the festival, and arts organizations throughout the world. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” Frank Mack, the festival’s executive producer, told the Deseret News. “We have families that have been coming every summer for 30, 40, 50 years plus, and this will be the first time they can’t come. And believe me, that is a grave source of loss to us.” 

Last month, the Cedar City-based festival announced it would still be moving forward amid the pandemic. The organization planned to produce a reduced season — from July 9 to Sept. 5 — and implement safety measures like wearing masks, as well as providing temperature checking and hand sanitizing stations. 

The company’s actors had also planned to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Cedar City, and only 50% of the theaters’ seats would be sold. 

“We were able to continue with all that,” Mack said. “But we did get word from the Actors’ Equity Association that we were not going to be issued any contracts at this time.”

The Actors’ Equity Association has recently hired Dr. David Michaels — who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during Barack Obama’s presidency — to develop safety guidelines for live theater performances nationally. The union will not extend contracts until safety protocols are written and implemented, according to a news release. 

“It’s going to take time to develop proper safety protocols for live theater, and until we have those protocols in place, it’s just not safe for you to work,” the union said in a letter sent out to its membership on May 12.

“I don’t know when they will be ready,” Mack said. “If we wanted to wait longer, then we possibly could (move forward). But we’re about a month from the first rehearsal right now. We just couldn’t wait. We have to do so much work to be prepared for the first rehearsal.” 

Rehearsals were set to begin June 15. The Utah Shakespeare Festival reached out to the Actors’ Equity Association last week about the availability of contracts.

“I understand why they’re taking this approach and I support it,” Mack said. “They’ve got to look after the safety of their union members, and so do we. … Our need to know now and their need to spend more time working out their safety guidelines meant that the timing just wasn’t in the cards for us this season.” 

In a previous interview with the Deseret News, Mack said moving forward with the 2020 season was a financial risk worth taking. But even then, he knew in the back of his mind that canceling was still a possibility.

“We were pretty determined. We really weren’t going to give up until we absolutely had to,” he said. “But nothing’s for certain — that’s just been part of the whole experience these days. Everything is a maybe. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way things are.” 

The festival now has its eyes on the 2021 season, which marks its 60th anniversary. Mack said the company plans to bring the 2020 season as originally envisioned to life next year. 

The Festival will contact all ticket holders for the 2020 season and will provide full refunds, according to a news release. Patrons can also choose to roll their ticket purchases into the 2021 season, or donate the value of their tickets. 

“We have got tremendous support from Southern Utah University, and we have an extremely strong base of supporters and donors, and our patrons,” Mack said. “And so while this is nothing like the season we would otherwise have financially, I think the festival will remain financially strong. … It is going to be an amazing feeling when we finally open up the season in 2021.”