Good theater is part of good life
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CEDAR CITY, Utah Maybe times have changed, but uplifting theater is needed as much today as during the pioneer era, believes Fred C. Adams.
"An important way to combat [this slide in moral standards] is with something palatable enough to attract the attention of the youth and teach them the lessons of life. That's good theater," said Brother Adams, a member of the Cedar 16th Ward, Cedar City Utah West, Stake and executive director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, the oldest festival of the 120 in North America.
"In almost every community in Deseret," he said, drawing on Utah history, "one of the first things pioneers built was an opera house. Farmers in their diaries tell of returning home after a day in the fields to gather their families and go to the opera house to see a play.
"After the play, there would be an afterpiece, or a one-act play. Then they'd clear the stage and the band would come on. The chairs would be set back and they'd dance until dawn. Then they returned to work their farms. That's the kind of stamina our forefathers had. They reveled and cherished their theater and music.
"Today we see the bad influences of theater," he continued. "We see what the media are doing the horror that can come into a living room by simply pressing a button. Our children are exposed to it. We have become so hardened we don't notice the subject matter or the language any more.
"Members need exemplary theater where they can take their children and teach some of the great values of life."
He founded the festival 41 years ago as a young man beginning his teaching career at what is now Southern Utah University.
"We were trying to build a theater department and an audience," he said. That year he produced a Broadway musical, a family drama and, because he didn't need to pay royalties, he produced a Shakespearean comedy, "Taming of the Shrew."
"I couldn't give tickets away to the musical, and nobody came to the drama, but we had to extend 'Taming of the Shrew' an extra week to accommodate the crowd," he said. "This is a community that has cut its teeth on Shakespeare for well more than 150 years," continued the year 2000 recipient of the coveted Tony Award.
The earliest settlers sent by Brigham Young to the Cedar Valley in the mid-1800s to establish the iron mission were miners and a hefty band of actors who had been attracted to the Church through the building of the Great Salt Lake Playhouse, said Brother Adams.
President Young had more actors than he needed in Salt Lake City, "so he funneled some of them down here. Within a week of their arrival in this valley an absolutely desolate spot, while living out of wagons they mounted a full production of the 'Merchant of Venice.' "
While New York City was settled by criminals, he once told an audience in New York, communities in Utah were settled by people from cultured areas of the world, like the great cities of Europe.
Joseph Smith started theater in the Church, Brother Adams said. "Not many people know that. He not only sanctioned the Nauvoo Dramatic Association, but called certain people to perform, including Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and other early leaders."
The success of Brother Adams's approach can be measured in the audiences that fill the theater nearly 90 percent of the time. It is now the fifth largest festival in the country. "Growth has been slow," he said. "We never meant to be an overnight success.
"We try, wherever possible, to maintain the standards our audiences expect. Not just production standards. I'm talking about moral values standards. We know our audiences, which are largely members of the Church. We don't shock or offend, and we build trust with them.
"The purpose of theater is never to offend, but to expose," he said. "If I can expose a villain, and he doesn't get away with it, then I've taught a great lesson. If I do a play with a villain and he gets away, I've sent all the wrong messages, not only to my audience, but to future audiences, the young people."
Now with wavy white hair, Brother Adams exerts the same effervescence into each new season as he did the first. Excitement for him is to hear the pounding and cutting of lumber for a set, while musicians practice their trombones under a shady pine tree, as actors rehearse on an open air stage.
"I've never had an unhappy day," he said. "I've had sadnesses, like the loss of parents and traumatic times, but never an unhappy day."