Story and photos by KIM DAVISON
Every year, when the leaves begin to crunch, the air starts to feel crisp and the sounds of students reciting Shakespeare fill the hall of every junior and senior high school, it means that it is time for the annual Utah Shakespeare Competition. Young thespians from far and wide make their way south through Utah’s red rock to Cedar City, ready to take the stage. These kids love what they do and cannot wait to share it with the world.
The main element that makes the Shakespeare Competition so special is that it is part of the large and well-known Utah Shakespeare Festival. The competition, held at Southern Utah University, celebrated its 42nd year in 2018. Fox 13 Salt Lake City stated, “The competition is the largest scholastic Shakespeare competition in the country, and this was a record-breaking year with nearly 3,600 students from 123 schools in seven states and the U. S. Virgin Islands.”
The different sections of the competition include large ensemble scenes, duo/trio scenes, minstrels, dance and technical elements, all separated by divisions based on the school size.
Each school puts together an ensemble scene to perform at the competition. This is by far the element that takes the students and their director the most time and preparation. Penelope Caywood, the artistic director of Youth Theatre at the University of Utah, said she thinks that “competition is great motivation” for her students.
Some schools rehearse for a few weeks, others for months. The ensemble scene needs to be perfect and show the theater program and students in the best possible light. Scenes can be chosen and performed from any Shakespeare play, but some have a higher degree of difficulty than others. This can be a large factor in deciding which scenes to take to competition because they need to be challenging and have a competitive edge. This is similar to a gymnast selecting certain elements based on their degree of difficulty.
The Shakespeare performed at the competition is unlike any other Shakespeare you will see. Because the ensemble groups are restricted to 10-minute scenes, they have the ability to take creative liberties with the themes they highlight. There are scenes that use a “Game of Thrones” or “Harry Potter” theme or some that choose to tackle political issues of today using Shakespeare’s words to drive their points home.
The students have a chance to let their individual and small group talents shine in the monologue/duo and trio scene competition. For this event, the students do most of the work on their own time. They rehearse outside of school to hone their craft and give the best performance they can. These competitions have lots of rules and are strictly timed at two or five minutes depending on the event, but are worth it if they want to show off their Shakespeare chops!
All of the musically talented students from schools all over the country come to compete in the Utah Shakespeare Competition’s madrigal and minstrel contest. There are no separate divisions, which makes the events far more competitive. Participants prepare songs from Shakespeare’s time and perform with either vocals, a mix of vocals and instruments, or just instruments.
There is also a dance competition, which is a great place for seasoned dancers to show their technique and for new dancers to learn and improve their dancing abilities. Peyton Lozano, a senior from Skyline High School in Granite School District, has competed for three years. “It’s a big bonding experience,” she said. “We do really cool shows every year. It’s also the one time in the year that we get to dance. It’s not just about performing Shakespeare as it’s traditionally done.”
For students who are interested in theatrical elements other than performing Shakespeare, side competitions are options. Each school brings an improvisational team to Southern Utah University. Improv is difficult but fun when done well. It is the art of making up scenes and dialogue on the spot. It’s usually funny and the kids who compete are talented and quick on their feet.
Another option is the Technical Olympics. Students interested in stage management, costume design, lighting, sound, and hair/makeup get to put their skills to the test. Because each element is timed and the students compete as a team, the Technical Olympics gets extremely competitive and is exhilarating to watch.
This is a competition, after all, so the students get the chance to win awards in any of the categories. A sweepstakes award is given to the group that has the most wins overall. The competition is split up into different divisions based on school size and age. Max Brown, a junior from Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City, talked about his first experience at the Utah Shakespeare Competition. “It was all very fun,” he said. “It was nice to be recognized for all of our hard work! It’s cool to put a lot of effort into something and then have other people who weren’t involved in the process also think that it is good.”
Shakespeare’s writing has the ability to impact people of all ages and backgrounds. His work helps students find ways to talk about and deal with issues that can be otherwise difficult or uncomfortable. Caywood, with the U’s Youth Theatre, said, “We’ve talked about so many current issues through Shakespeare, whether it’s the #MeToo movement, immigration, whether it’s racism, rape and other kinds of abuse. There have been so many things that we have been able to talk about with these high schools students as we are processing and getting ready for the show. I don’t know of another time in the year that we get to address some of those issues and talk about Shakespeare at the same time. He’s so timely.”