Utah Shakespeare Festival season preview | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Utah Shakespeare Festival season preview 

Organization's new leadership mounts an epic season while maintaining a human focus.

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When you've got two new faces in key roles, it would be easy for an artistic organization to get caught up in the logistical details. As Utah Shakespeare Festival welcomed Michael Bahr as Executive Managing Director and John DiAntonio as Artistic Director in September 2023, there was a lot to do, including diving right into finalizing the plan for the 2025 season. But in the midst of all that, there was an understanding that they needed to focus on the human side of their mission.

"[John] comes in in November and says, 'Okay we're going to do a strategic plan—while we were putting everything else together," Bahr recalls. "Who are we, who are we serving, what do we value. ... We all came out as a team."

Over the course of a 45-minute conversation, DiAntonio repeatedly insists that there's nothing "groundbreaking" about the things he wants to keep at the center of Utah Shakespeare Festival. He name-checks the festival's late founder when he notes that he wants to maintain a "deep connection with the audience in that spirit of Fred Adams. ... The people here talk a lot about the 'repertory machine.' If you looked at our calendars, your head would explode. But we have to look for the human in the machine. We want a theater where you know everyone's name, [where] you fall in love with the company members. ... Every day, we're going to intentionally make space to connect. The plays are only part of the puzzle here."

For DiAntonio, one of those ways to connect is not just to oversee the season's productions as an observer, but to place himself in the middle of one. DiAntonio will be playing Petruchio in Utah Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, opposite his wife, Caitlin Wise, as Kate. He notes that the decision was in part a function of the director's vision for casting a real-life couple as Kate and Petruchio, but also part of that same desire to foster connections.

"The biggest pro was expediting the process of having the audience get to know me," DiAntonio says. "The audience just latches on, especially to the actors, in such a beautiful, wonderful way. Number two, my style, for better or worse, [is that] I'm an 'in the trenches' guy. I want to be there with the team as much as I can. Because I'm not a past company member of USF, I knew it would be valuable to experience the intensity of the process from the inside. And boy have I learned it first-hand, the pressures that are on it."

For Bahr, personal relationships are also essential to his management style. A veteran of more than 25 years with Utah Shakespeare Festival, including as Education Director, he briefly departed the organization to become a school principal before returning in his new role. And he believes there's a strong philosophical connection between those roles.

"Essentially, I'm kind of a principal—a facilitator making sure John has the resources to do his art," Bahr says. "Did I know what the job of executive managing director was [before taking it]? I did. It's a principal. And leaning into the personal of it is how you maintain your humanity."

That kind of personal focus is essential, Bahr believes, not just for relationships within the organization, but in terms of understanding what the audience wants. Bahr is honest about the struggles that USF, like so many arts organizations, faced in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, trying to find the sweet spot of programming shows that are artistically excellent and sell tickets, allowing the organization to flourish.

"We had reserves and a relationship with the university that had us in kind of a safer place," Bahr says. "But those reserves disappeared very quickly. And that runway for change is very short. Our audience is an older demographic; we have to make sure we stay relevant to the new audience that's coming up. ... We're doing Henry VIII in 2024. Why are we doing that? Because it's relevant. You've got to thread a needle with that—tell the story in a way that's still accessible, still relevant, and speaks to the audience and the artists."

It's a challenging landscape, both DiAntonio and Bahr acknowledge, but there's a sense that it all comes down to the reasons Shakespearean plays themselves have endured: exploring truths of our shared humanity. And watching those stories in a communal way is part of that same understanding of the importance of connections. "For me," DiAntonio says, "it's connected to Shakespeare: Watching actors portray humans who aren't that different from ourselves—even if they're kings or queens—make mistakes. And then they'll pivot. ... And all that, with some of the greatest poetry ever written.

"At our core, most humans have this need to gather, to be together in a space, and to hear a story. To experience a story live. And that's what theater is built on. No matter how tempting Netflix might be, it doesn't scratch that itch."

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Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Bio:
Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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