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Most afternoons, a veteran Utah Shakespeare Festival actor ducks out of rehearsals and meetings and costume fittings and sound checks to slip into the new Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre.
Construction workers scurry about working on last-minute details, but here in the Lord's Gallery seats, he sits quietly, drinking in the atmosphere of the outdoor theater. He wants to get acquainted with the space before the summer's audiences arrive.
Some afternoons, he climbs onstage and practices reciting his 12 lines as Verges, an elderly watch commander, in "Much Ado About Nothing." The sound from the stage, he thinks, is more resonant, and thanks to new sound engineering there will be fewer interruptions from traffic noise than in the beloved, retired Adams Theatre across the street.
Sitting in the balcony seats in Utah's newest theater is a full-circle moment for Fred C. Adams, now 85, who co-founded the Cedar City theater company in 1961. He has been dreaming of this arts complex for some two decades and working nearly full time to raise money to build it for 10 years.
"There have been miracles and disappointments all along the way, and the miracles outshone the disappointments," says Adams, USF's executive producer emeritus. "I'm so grateful I get to be here to see it. I'm actually here touching it, feeling it."
Building boom • The new outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre is the centerpiece of Southern Utah University's $39 million Beverley Center for the Arts (named for the late philanthropist Beverley Taylor Sorenson), which also houses USF's new 200-seat Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre and the $8 million Southern Utah Museum of Art.
The arts complex, built around the existing Randall L. Jones Theatre, spreads across two city blocks. Theater company facilities include a new ticket office, administrators' offices, costume and scenic shops and rehearsal halls, as well as company dressing rooms and a multiplicity of patron restrooms.
The company will open the center with preview shows next week and opening performances July 7-9. Three additional plays will open over the rest of its 55th season, which continues through Oct. 22.
The Cedar City complex is the first of three major arts venues scheduled to open in Utah over the next year. Downtown Salt Lake City's $119 million George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater will open in the fall, with Sandy's two-theater, $70 million Hale Centre complex scheduled for completion next fall.
"Salt Lake City and the state of Utah are investing in a cultural infrastructure at a level that is frankly unprecedented in any other city in America," says David Grindle, executive director of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, a national association for backstage professionals that held its annual convention in Salt Lake City in March.
Also new this year is a closer tie between Cedar City and Salt Lake City, with USF shows featuring a handful of Utah-based actors, as well as guest director Karen Azenberg, the artistic director of Pioneer Theatre Company, helming the musical "Mary Poppins." In August, Jerry Rapier, of Salt Lake City's Plan-B Theatre, will direct a staged reading of playwright Debora Threedy's "One Big Union," about the protest songs of executed labor leader Joe Hill.
The crossover is a natural outgrowth of the opportunity to trade talent among the local theater scene, Azenberg says.
The chance to direct "Mary Poppins" was irresistible for her. "It's got all the things that I caution everybody about in big musical land," she says. "You have kids. You have flying. You have tricks. You have dancing. With all of those things, it's not so easy to put together. But it's a giant, big, fun show."
Staging a kingdom • After a week of previews, christening the new Engelstad Theatre will be "Henry V" and its famous "O for a muse of fire" speech, an invitation for the audience's creativity in imagining the scenes to be performed in a theater referred to as a "wooden O." "The brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!" actor Larry Bull will say as the play's Chorus.
Also under Brian Vaughn's direction, Bull intoned that iconic line "O for a muse of fire!" at the conclusion of last year's "Henry IV, Part 2." Afterward, actors and audience members carried electric candles across the street, symbolically drawing the last curtain at the Adams, as a way to season the new theater.
"The way the play mirrors this entire building project actually resonates beyond my belief," says Vaughn about "Henry V." "It's a play about the theater. It's a beautiful play about introspection and about a lone individual basically coming to terms with both himself and leadership. It's about a battle of conscience, about self and God, and how they relate when it comes to circumstances of war and power. And it's also a beautiful love letter to theater and the power of imagination."
In another full-circle moment, Vaughn played the title character in USF's 2009 production, a performance Adams remembers for the goosebumps that were raised on his arms. Now comes Vaughn's directorial vision of the same play. "I have a hunch his 'Henry' is going to create some ghosts of his own," Adams says.
Other shows in the first round of openings are "Much Ado About Nothing," "The Three Musketeers," "The Cocoanuts" and "Mary Poppins." Later in the season, the company will present the politically prescient "Julius Caesar," which opens July 29, and "Murder for Two," a contemporary murder mystery comedy with music about an actor investigating a crime.
And in a Sept. 14-Oct. 22 run, Vaughn will join co-artistic director David Ivers to perform Neil Simon's classic buddy comedy, "The Odd Couple."
"I think the season has great resonance for what's going on with us as far as an institution," Vaughn says. "All the plays are about overcoming adversity, a little bit, and conquering lofty goals. All of them have this great sense of people coming together to rise above their set of circumstances."
Settling in • This month, the company worked to find new footings as actors moved into dedicated rehearsal spaces after bouncing around during construction between classrooms, empty storefronts and even a former liquor store.
As performances begin, everything about the new theater, designed to maintain the intimacy of the Adams' space, will have new resonance for the company's longtime players, most of whom had memorized the number of steps across the stage.
Among other things, audience members will now have the opportunity to visit bathrooms in the same building, which should shorten intermission lines. Theatergoers will also need to be aware of a new weather policy, as the company no longer has an alternate stage, like the old Auditorium Theatre, to move performances because of rain and other stormy conditions. (See box.)
Overall, new, world-class facilities are expected to drive USF's continuing evolution from a professional summer theater into a year-round regional theater company. In addition, having an art museum as an anchor on the complex underscores the company's commitment to creating a festival experience, from orientations and literary seminars to backstage tours and a free Greenshow. "Shakespeare will always be our cornerstone," says R. Scott Phillips, USF executive director. "But we're looking at programming to think about how we capture that traveling destination theatergoer and what do they want to experience?"
Or as Adams explains it: "We're the puppy that chased the truck and caught it. Now what do you do with it?"
A new wooden O • Like the 1970s-era Adams Theatre (named not for Fred Adams, but for philanthropist Obert C. Tanner's in-laws), the Engelstad's design was inspired by London's Globe Theatre, built alongside the River Thames by Shakespeare's company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men. The theater incorporates new technology, including a trough in front of the stage for fog and lighting effects, a slip-stage track on the stage to easily move scenery and actors, and multiple opportunities for stage openings. "We can trap the stage at almost any location we want," Phillips says.
Modern interpretations of Tudor chevrons are incorporated across the campus. "We spent an exorbitant amount of time developing the site, the landscaping, lighting and paving," says architect Kevin Blalock, of Salt Lake City's Blalock and Partners, who worked with Los Angeles-based architects Brooks + Scarpa to design the project, built by Salt Lake City's Big D Construction. "The site becomes the thread that stitches the four different components together."
One design challenge was to maintain the proportions of the stage and the intimacy of the house while slightly increasing the number of seats, from 888 in the Adams to 913 in the Engelstad. The rake, the angle of the theater's seats, was steepened to improve sight lines. A combination of absorptive and reflective materials were selected to create a lively "bounce" of sound from the stage while blocking outside noise, Blalock says.
Cedar trim was used in the theater, selected for its acoustic qualities and visual warmth, as well as to serve as a design nod to the Adams Theatre. Vertical wooden trim, designed to serve as a sort of visual curtain, lines the Studio Theatre as well as the wing of administrative offices, the architect says.
"We think there will be a lot of people this first year who will say, 'It's not like the old space,' " Phillips says. "But we hope they'll walk away and say: 'But wasn't it great?' "
O for a muse of fire!
The Utah Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 55th season with the opening of the Beverley Center for the Arts, which includes a new two-block plaza, anchored by the Southern Utah Museum of Art, and two new theaters, the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre and the 200-seat Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre.
'Much Ado About Nothing' • June 27-Sept. 8
'Henry V' • June 28-Sept. 10
'The Three Musketeers' • June 29-Sept. 9
Randall L. Jones Theatre
'The Cocoanuts' • July 1-Oct. 15
'Mary Poppins' • July 2-Sept. 2
'The Odd Couple' • Sept. 14-Oct. 22
Anes Studio Theatre
'Julius Caesar' • July 29-Oct. 22
'Murder for Two' • Aug. 4-Oct. 22
Tickets • $20-$73, with $4 additional fees for Randall Theatre shows; at 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849), 435-586-7878 or bard.org/tickets
New weather policy • "Outdoor theater sometimes requires a poncho or light jacket, so come prepared. Performances will continue during inclement weather, possibly after short delays. We will make every effort to complete the performance, even if it is raining. Umbrellas are not allowed, but rain ponchos are appropriate. If a performance is canceled before intermission, a credit will be issued to all guests in attendance at that performance. The festival will not issue credits if the show is canceled after intermission."
Parking • Free parking on the northwest corner of 300 West and Center Street (north of Center Street/University Boulevard); no permit needed
Also • Greenshow, a half-hour show, plays north of the Engelstad Theatre, at 7:10 p.m.; free
Child care • $20 per show; reservations needed, at 800-PLAYTIX
July 7-9 • Southern Utah University and Utah Shakespeare Festival invite the public to The Beverley Opening Celebration, with music, performances, tours and artist demonstrations. Ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. Thursday, July 7.