The outdoor theater gates stood open. Barefoot girls in peasant costume moved through the crowds singing chants to sell oranges, tarts, and candies. On one patch of grass, children and adults were entranced by the puppet antics of Punch and Judy. On the other side of the theater, dancers tested their agility by dancing a jig among raw eggs. As the twilight faded, the announcement was made that the plays were about to begin.
It was the annual Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah, and many of the young people involved in the concessions, in the music, and in the puppet performances are members of the Church. Most of the positions at the Utah Shakespearean Festival are voluntary, and LDS youth in the southern Utah area participate in the festival and learn to love the works of Shakespeare each summer.
The plays are performed in an outdoor theater built to resemble the original Globe Theatre. Three plays, usually two comedies and one tragedy, are performed each summer season in nightly rotation. The stage design is kept quite simple, but the costumes are elaborate and elegant. The actors are paid professionals, but the performers in the green show (the festivities before the actual plays begin) are local residents.
Before the plays begin, the audience wanders through the area enjoying the costume displays, the dancers, the musicians, and the puppet shows.
Girls selling refreshments sing the types of songs used by street vendors in Elizabethan England. The Punch and Judy Show has been well researched and uses some of the oldest known puppet skits and characters. The musicians play fifteenth century music on wooden recorders.
Melea Hinton, 18, from Hurricane, Utah, is one of the girls selling pastries. “I saw the plays one year and that’s when I knew I wanted to be involved. I used to be afraid to speak in public, but now I sing.”
The young people have also gained an appreciation for the writing of Shakespeare, and they have become avid fans. Kelly Jensen, 15, has an answer for friends who say they don’t care for the great writer’s work. “I can’t understand when people say they don’t like Shakespeare. It must be that they haven’t seen the plays. His comedies are pretty funny even for having been written 400 years ago.”
Todd Petersen, 18, of Cedar City, Utah, is the voice of Punch in the puppet show. He and his partner, Tracy Jones, 17, of Simi Valley, California, enjoy their part in entertaining the crowds at the festival. Todd said, “I like the atmosphere here. It’s always peaceful, not much like the Twentieth Century.” Tracy said, “I like how the children react. They get so involved in the puppets.” Todd had some advice about the plays. “I really enjoy Shakespeare. Once you catch onto the language, it’s easy to understand. The comedies are the easiest to follow.”
A group of girls from the Cedar City Utah West Stake have formed a sextet. They play recorder music preceding and following the puppet shows. Their talent has carried over into other activities, and they are often asked to provide special musical numbers for their wards at Christmas and other special occasions.
For the young people of Cedar City, Utah, a Shakespearean play is more than a mid summer night’s dream; it is a chance to develop talents, learn about great literature, and have fun.