[CW Extra] R. Scott Phillips is director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, which just kicked off in Cedar City featuring the Bard’s own plays Twelfth Night, Coriolanus and King Lear, as well as George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker and the world premiere of Lend Me a Tenor: the Musical, based on the play by Ken Ludwig, book and lyrics by Peter Sham and music by Brad Carroll. We caught up with Phillips during preview week and wrote about it in City Weekly’s June 28 5 Spot. Here’s the rest of the what he had to say.
Describe your role as festival director?
I’m the chief cook and bottle washer. We don’t really have an artistic director/managing director, so I do everything from helping with the artistic side to trying to keep the business side going. I also plant the flowers. Whatever it takes. When Fred Adams semi-retired and moved into fund-raising for the center, our board decided they wanted to do an organizational audit. Now they’ve made a recommendation about what we ought to do. They’re going to be announcing a job search here shortly. I’ve been doing this particular job and working with the festival for almost 30 years, so I know where all the skeletons are.
What’s best and worst about your job?
The best: Seeing the creative process and seeing what these directors and scenic artists and designers bring every year. Because you know, you do Hamlet and then you do Hamlet. It’s always exciting to see a different perspective and what they can bring to it to make it work for a contemporary audience. That most challenging part is trying to raise $6 million just to balance the budget. People ask, “When are you going to start the new center, the new theater?” We have raised some money for it. But we have to raise $6.1 million just to break even. And that’s not easy in a little town like Cedar City. We have an endowment, but it is a small endowment, only about $1 million right now. So we have got a lot of work to do in that area.
Are you yourself a frustrated artist?
I started out as an actor, and then I was going to be a director. I was going to go to New York and do it all. I fell into this because I had certain organizational skills. You get to a point where you’re out there trying to strike a deal with the local realtor on this piece of property in an exchange for a charitable remainder trust and you think, “What day in theater history did we talk about this?” It just evolved like so many different jobs.
Do you think it is a dream deferred for you?
I’ve never regretted the decision I’ve made in spending my time here because I believe so much in doing the classics. They’re huge stories with huge consequences. The fear is you can fall flat on your face but, man, when it works, the payoffs are just enormous. I watch it when I see audience members and even kids react in a certain way. So I’ve never regretted the choice.
Why a world premiere of Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical? Isn’t it safer (er, more profitable) to run with the tried and true?
First of all, we thought about shows like Joseph [& the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat] and Les Mis. I can’t say anything too bad about them because we have done Joseph in 1998, and we made a bundle of money. People ask, “Why are you doing musicals? You’re a Shakespeare festival.” Part of the greatest contribution the American theater has made to the theater world is the musical comedy. It is the one thing that is truly American. The last few years, the London stage has taken that over with Andrew Lloyd Webber and all that, but it really began here and is our legacy. It makes sense that we should be doing it even though we are doing Shakespeare. It is our stamp as an American theater company. It just happens to be a brilliant idea, and if it goes anywhere else as a world premiere, if we do well, for the next period of time, we get a piece of the royalties. There could be a payoff for it. Musically, I think it is absolutely spectacular. Ken Ludwig—it’s based on his play Lend Me a Tenor—is very excited about it. He’s heard the music and lyrics and wants to get some of his producer friends involved in it.
How would you characterize the annual miracle that involves opening six plays in six days?
It’s hellacious. As far as I know, no other theater company in America does this, because it’s hell. But we recognized years ago, in order to capture that destination traveler, we needed to make sure we had the whole enchilada. You’re not going to travel 250 or 300 miles to see one play and then go back two weeks later to see the other play. So we said we have to do it all at once. But that means we’ve been in tech for about the past two and a half weeks. Our scenic teams worked all night last night and they’ve been on that schedule for a week and a half. The theater has been in operation 24 hours a day. The actors leave at midnight, the painters come in until 8, then the electricians take over till noon, then the actors come back into it. So it’s been crazy. There’s lots of fast food.
Do you have a personal favorite production this year?
I like to say, well, which one of your children is your favorite? But you know, I have to say that I am inclined toward Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. It’s such a personal favorite of mine because I think Wilder captures a piece of Americana. He does it with farce and with humor in this particular play but there’s great warmth underneath it all. It speaks to a time when things were a little easier, a little more naïve. And that’s not a bad thing necessarily.
What’s the best antidote in Cedar City to ward off depression following a King Lear performance?
Probably at the morning seminar the next morning. I always say a good cup of cappuccino and the opportunity to go back to your motel and talk about it. The nightlife in Cedar City is not the most stimulating as you can well imagine.
Where is Brian Vaughn this season?
Mr. Vaughn is in Milwaukee, Wis. Believe it or not, the poor man wants to have a life. He and his wife got married just about a year ago and he was in a production that went about three weeks into our rehearsal schedule. He didn’t want to miss that particular production, so it didn’t work. I am already in negotiations trying to get him back here for next season. He will be here July 9-11 seeing shows and I’m hoping at that time to say, “Brian, if we offer you this role and this role, will you come?”
Who do you imagine will take Vaughn’s place as festival heartthrob?
You mean, besides me? There's a young boy [Tony Carter], I mean he’s really young, who plays Barnaby Tucker [in The Matchmaker] is a cute sparky kid. I think there are lots of young girls that are going to have their heads turned. Most of the mothers are gonna say, “Oh my God, I’ve got children older than that.” He’s a cute kid and a darn good actor.
Aren’t there some changes with the Green Show?
We lost about half a million dollars last year. Thank God, we had money in the reserves so we were able to cover it, but we had to make pretty serious budget cuts this year. So we don’t have live musicians in our Green Show for the first time in 46 years. The music is recorded. It’s fine, they’ve blended it beautifully, and there are speakers but it is noticeable. I feel very badly about that because the last thing an arts company wants to do is not hire artists. I’m really hopeful that next year, we can bring that back. Time will tell.
What’s up with an Orange County PBS station as a media sponsor?
It’s all about networking in this industry. The fellow that was the general manager of the PBS station in Las Vegas was transferred to Orange County, and he loved the festival. He wanted to find out what they could do. We struck out a deal and they’re going to start bringing busloads up here from Orange County. There’s 36 million people down there; let’s just keep doing it!
Why Shakespeare? Why should people take time away from weeding their gardens to hear words written by an English dude dead for centuries?
Oh, man. Because the stories and the themes and the message that Shakespeare talks about, jealousy, love, honor, compassion, those haven’t changed, not in 465 years. Kids are still screwed up now as they were back then. They’re all still looking for that piece of “Where do I fit in in this cosmic thing called the world?” It still can be relevant, even though we have the “thus” and “thous.” Forget all that crap and just try and follow the major message of the play. That’s why it’s still important. (Jerre Wroble)