With the Creekside Theatre Fest, nature not only provides the backdrop for a series of top-notch, semi-pro, family-friendly shows, but it also has become an integral part of the theater experience, which this year features “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Giver” and “The Frog Prince.”
Located at Heritage Park in Cedar Hills, the festival is actually named after the creek that runs through the park and has been featured in shows past and present.
“We wanted to do something different,” said Creekside Artistic Director Jordan Long in regard to the festival’s founding. “We have this gorgeous, absolutely beautiful space that has a natural proscenium of trees, century-old trees, so we came up with the idea for the Creekside Theatre Fest in 2016.”
Though the festival is now in its third year, the idea really originated as a venture between Highland and Cedar Hills with a goal of presenting a fun, low-budget family musical. The response was great enough that things evolved the next year into a festival sponsored solely by Cedar Hills and geared toward bringing family-friendly entertainment that’s outside the norm for Utah County — something, well, different.
“Utah County gets the same dozen shows done over and over again,” Long said. “There’s ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ‘Shrek,’ — the same ones. … We have three main goals when choosing a season for the Creekside Theatre Fest. There’s always going to be a Shakespeare play, that’s No. 1. No. 2 is we want it to be a selection of shows that are not commonly done in Utah County. And No. 3, we want them to all be family appropriate. So even though you might not bring your kids to see ‘Much Ado,’ you’re not worried about seeing PG-13 material.”
This year’s season highlights Shakespeare’s classic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” as well as the Utah premiere of the full stage production of “The Giver” and a theater for young audiences production of “The Frog Prince” written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter David Mamet.
All of the shows are vetted for compatibility with the venue before selection, and, according to Long, help to create the unique atmosphere Creekside offers.
“The whole beginning of the show is when you walk in the park,” Long said. “All of a sudden you’re immersed in the middle of a big family BBQ and picnic.”
Along those lines, a free BBQ dinner will be provided each evening of the festival at 7 p.m. for all ticket holders, courtesy of Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts, with students and faculty including Dallyn Vail Bayles providing pre-show entertainment. According to Long, actors also will be available to interact with guests, floating down the creek in rafts and racing boats in the water. The experience is priced at just $15 for adults per show or $38 for all three, making it less than the cost of one ticket at other semi-professional venues to enjoy three, as well as dinner each night of the show.
“One of the reasons what we do is so cheap is because we want the community to be able to come and see the shows and get introduced to theater,” Long said. “We also want the community to have something here to be proud of.”
And they certainly do. After losing funding from the PARC (Park, Arts, Recreation and Cultural) Tax last year, Creekside still managed to pull off a successful two-show season with paid, semi-professional casting. And with the support of Cedar Hills Mayor Jenney Rees, the city council, and the return of the voter-approved PARC Tax, the festival is back this year with nearly triple the budget and enough resources to create an incredible community event.
“With that money coming in, we were able to add a third show, and able to bring in a lot of bigger name actors including local film stars and actors from the Utah Shakespeare Festival,” Long said. “With that funding we were able to extend our set budget, build a bigger set and buy a whole new lighting system for the festival. We’re really taking a step toward a professional theater festival.”
Among the talent brought in for this year’s festival is “Much Ado” director Kris Jennings, who received an MFA in Staging Shakespeare at the University of Exetor in the United Kingdom, has helped with the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and is currently a full-time theater professor at Brigham Young University.
“I really love directing Shakespeare,” said Jennings. “I love to delve into the text and let the moments spring from that.”
Beyond just an exquisite text, though, Jennings said Creekside allows the perfect setting for Shakespeare.
“It brings us back to his original environment that his plays would have been performed in,” Jennings said. “Shakespeare was really a great nature lover, he talks about it in a lot of his texts, so to be in this natural venue is really an incredible event.”
A lot of credit also goes to the actors and others brought in for the festival, according to Jennings.
“I hope that the audience is really thrilled with the amount of talent that has come out to the festival,” she said. “They’re a part of creating this art, and they’re doing it because they really love it, love the show, love the people they’re working with. That love should be able to translate to their performance on stage.”
Among the recruited professional talent are Utah Shakespeare Festival favorites Marco Vega, Josh Durfey and Jordyn Aspyn with stage and screen actors Gabe Spencer, Alice Johnson and Shaunna Thompson, who was seen more recently in “The Cokeville Miracle.”
Thompson is tackling the role of Beatrice in “Much Ado,” and is a self-proclaimed lover of all things Shakespeare.
“ ‘Much Ado’ is probably my favorite comedy, but I really love the tragedies,” Thompson said of her favorite Shakespeare works. “I think Shakespeare was really, really good to women. Back then they were not allowed to portray women parts, it was always men. But he really captured the spirit of strong women, and now that women can play their own roles, it just really transcends.”
Adding that power to the venue of the Creekside Theatre Fest is just another bonus, according to Thompson.
“I think doing really, really large-scale productions is really fun, but my personality tends to respond much better to smaller stages – I like smaller, intimate venues, so this is just perfect for me,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, and I actually live maybe a mile and a half away and I didn’t know that the amphitheater was there, with the river running right in front of it. … I think people will really, really love what they see. Sometimes people get put off by ‘community theater.’ These shows have professional actors and actresses and it’s one of those small rare gems people will really enjoy if they take the time.”
That extends not just to the premiere run of “The Giver” and “Much Ado,” but also the young audiences production of “The Frog Prince,” which according to Jeanelle Long, has something for everyone.
“It’s for children, but it’s still something I think adults will appreciate,” she said. “It has those kinds of intellectual parts of it as well.”
Jeanelle Long plays the role of the Milk Maid in the show, and has been performing at the festival since its inception.
“What’s so cool about (the festival) is it brings shows that don’t get produced very often or sometimes that people have never even heard of, but are still family-friendly, and it brings them to Cedar Hills,” Long said. “They are the most beautiful plays I’ve ever performed. … I love to get there early and be there with creek. It’s so beautiful, and families love to come picnic and enjoy the shows.”
Taking things up a notch this year according to Long are the nightly BBQ dinners, and, of course, the casts and crew themselves.
“What I’m most excited about for families to get to see is some of the talent that is in this year’s company,” she said. “I’m only in the one show but I’ve worked with people in others and seen their work. There are so many talented people that I think will be really exciting for Cedar Hills and people around here to get to see. … It’s such a gift to get to see them and the talent that they have.”
According to Jeanelle Long, who has been involved with theater throughout her life, the deal offered by the Creekside Theatre Fest is one to snag.
“It’s unheard of, and it’s three good quality shows with three amazing directors,” she said. Combining that with the food, pre-show entertainment, activities, meet-and-greets and family-friendly nature, and it’s a win all around.
“It’s cool that Creekside brings shows that you don’t get to see a lot, but also that the children can see,” she said. “Theater has so many good things that it teaches people, even just understanding. … The younger kids are going to theater, the better.”