Shakespeare and the Wild West
By Brooke Vlasich
At first glance, Shakespeare and the early American West probably seem to have little in common. However, having worked in numerous theatres on the west coast, including the Old Globe Theatre, my own personal experience has told me that this is not the case. So, why do I need see the “Willy the Kid” exhibit at Southern Utah University’s Gerald R. Sherratt Library (open now through October) when I already know Shakespeare is prevalent in the West?
As it turns out, this display revealed that the roots Shakespeare has in the West run deep. As I visited the exhibit, which traces Shakespearean beginnings in the West that start as early as 1849, I was fascinated to learn about the ordeals and trials many underwent to make Shakespeare a part of their community.
According to the exhibit, many performers moved from the east coast to the west coast in search of higher wages. During the early 1850s, performers followed the gold rush to San Francisco and endured many difficult passages which included options such as three to seven months on the California Trail or a two- to three-month journey that involved sailing to Nicaragua, crossing the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific on steamboats or pack mules, and continuing up to the west coast by steamer. One famous tragedian, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. encountered one unfortunate incident in which he was robbed in Panama, performed for two weeks at the St. Charles Theatre for extra income, and eventually died while on the Mississippi River. Learning this, I’m taken back to my former work backstage in costumes when I and many other theatre artists traveled miles from job to job and put in grueling and long work hours at unusual times of the day. It seems that no matter the era we all are dedicated and deeply committed to our involvement in the arts.
Another aspect of this exhibit that resonated with me is how much time and money companies spent on advertising and marketing. Each week theatre employees printed playbills and continually distributed them throughout the towns, and some employees would travel ahead of touring companies to hang posters and other advertising materials. Special events had separate invitations printed, and programs were available for every performance. Thinking of the intricate coordinating and planning ahead that must have gone into this process reminds me of my current role in the communications department of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. During the recent Beverley Center for the Arts opening, employees from all departments were arranging interviews, managing tickets for groups and the press, and constantly organizing dates to prepare newsletters, programs for numerous dedications, advertisements, and social media. As it turns out, no matter your place in time, theatre always needs advertising and careful planning to gain support and interest from the local area.
In addition to these pieces of new information, I find there is plenty to uncover at the “Willy the Kid” exhibit. From the first female theatre manager, Sarah Kirby, to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there is something for everyone to discover about Shakespeare in California, Salt Lake City, and beyond. Peering at old promptbooks next to modern day costume sketches and stage management paperwork, it’s clear our passion for Shakespeare has never disappeared. Reading “Ode to Shakespeare” in honor of the opening of a theatre known as the American, it’s evident how much we admire this classic English playwright:
The shrine is yours, where falls the grateful tear—
Your cherished gifts have raised this temple here.
Then join us, while we the offering bring,
A sacred gift to Avon’s heaven-born King;
The God-like Poet, on whose sacred Urn,
Shall Memory here like heavenly incense burn.
These words still hold the same meaning today, and many words just like them were spoken during our own dedication for the new Englestad Shakespeare Theatre last week.
The exhibit runs through the end of October, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Gerald R. Sherratt Library, Special Collections Room.
And, after you have whet your appetite on the exhibit, you may be interested in a lecture series featuring Shakespeare, theatre, and history scholars presenting their thoughts on Shakespeare and theatre in the early American West. The lectures are July 15 and 29 and August 8 and 9.
“Willy the Kid” is free and open at the Gerald R. Sherratt Library on the Southern Utah University from now until October 2016. For more information on the exhibit and the lecture series, contact Special Collections at 435-586-7945 or firstname.lastname@example.org.