Some of the most creative theatre professionals in the country were in Cedar City recently to do what creative people do: imagine, re-imagine, refine, and create. The annual Utah Shakespeare Festival design meetings were the first chance for the directors, designers, and artisans hired for the 2018 season to meet face-to-face and work through what the season plays will look like this summer and fall.

The director of each play led the discussions with costume, scenery, lighting, and sound designers, as well as year-round Festival staff who will be tasked with taking these designs and ideas and building all the elements that make theatre magical. 

“The purpose of our annual design meetings is to get an overall view of where each of the plays are in relation to their designs,” said Artistic Director Brian Vaughn. “They entail hearing the directors’ thoughts on their shows, viewing preliminary costume sketches, scenic designs, and detailed prop lists and providing each team the opportunity to talk through the play scene-by-scene to establish their various needs and visions.”

For instance, how do you take a play like Shakespeare’s Othello, which in the past has been produced on the Festival’s large outdoor stages, and perform it in the smaller Anes Studio Theatre? “I want it to be about the words and the actors,” said director Kate Buckley. “We will strip it down to the essentials in order for Shakespeare’s words to be powerful for the audience in this intimate space.”

Or, how do you breathe new life into a play like The Merchant of Venice, which has been produced at the Festival several times in the past and thousands of times across the world for four centuries and which contains references to anti-Semitism at best and blatant prejudice and racism at worst? According to director Melinda Pfundstein, the key is to openly discuss the consequences of how we treat each other, especially outsiders or those who are different from ourselves. Her vision of the production focuses on bonds of oath, religion, and love, with the highest bond being the internal compass where the true “quality of mercy” resides.

And there are hundreds of other questions: How do designers create the Mississippi River on the stage of the Randall L. Jones Theatre for Big River? How do they bring all the pageantry, war, and humanity of Henry VI Part One (a rarely produced play) to the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre’s famous “Wooden O?” How do the Festival artists create 1643 Paris on the stage in the fast-moving, fast talking The Liar? (Scenery design Jason Lajka has some interesting, farcical ideas.) Or, how . . . Well, you get the idea.

It was a whirlwind week, with ideas bubbling to the surface and scenery sketches, costume swatches, and clips of music and sound being passed back and forth in an amazing creative brew—tempered only a bit by the realities of budget, space, and time that all artists must deal with. 

“Because we are working on eight productions at once, with multiple designers doubling up on shows, the meetings provided an in-depth look into each play and allowed the director and design teams to connect face-to-face prior to beginning rehearsal in May,” said Vaughn. “In the process, we must make sure each of the shows fall in-line with their proposed budgets. This takes an in-depth examination of overall material and labor costs, and provides a blueprint for building each production efficiently within our means.”

Yet, in the end, the creative passion that makes the Festival a world-class, Tony Award-winning theatre, always rose to the top. “We had a great round of meetings,” said Vaughn. “It’s a terrific group of people with great artistic ideas, and I think audiences are going to be totally engaged with the final product on our stages.”

Tickets are now on sale for the Festival’s fifty-seventh season, which will run from June 28 to October 20. This year’s plays are Henry VI Part One, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, Big River, The Foreigner, The Liar, and Pearl’s in the House. For more information and tickets visit www.bard.org or call 1-800-PLAYTIX.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is part of the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts at Southern Utah University, which also includes the Southern Utah Museum of Art (SUMA).