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Utah Shakespeare Festival visits Montezuma-Cortez High School on a mission to perform in rural areas

Chris Clements
Actors Darin Frank Earl II and Rachel Jones perform "Othello" at Montezuma-Cortez High School.

Last month, the Utah Shakespeare Festival visited Montezuma-Cortez High School in Cortez to both perform and lead workshops for students.

Darin Frank Earl II is an actor in the festival. He’s performing as Othello in the play by Shakespeare.

“And, till she comes, as truly as to heaven I do confess the vices of my blood,” said Earl. “Her father loved me; oft invited me; / Still questioned me the story of my life, / From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes, / That I have passed.”

The festival, which is part of Southern Utah University and is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, began its “Othello” tour in late January.

Its actors visit high schools across Utah and Colorado to show students the value in studying and performing Shakespearean texts.

The visit to Montezuma-Cortez began with a series of acting workshops with theater students on subjects like improvisation and fight choreography.

Here’s one on how to perform Shakespeare’s plays themselves.

“This is our friend Desdemona,” said Rachel Jones, another actor. “This is Othello. They are fighting because Othello thinks that Desdemona is sleeping around with his lieutenant. Desdemona is confused because, um, that didn't happen at all. So everyone here is confused. It's a classic miscommunication play. Let’s see what happens.”

Jones, who plays Desdemona, says it’s critical for rural communities like Cortez to have the same access to fine arts as big cities like Denver and Phoenix.

“Us coming into schools talking about why Shakespeare is important, why it's still performed, having that talkback with the kids, that is valuable education,” she said. “And we believe that – at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, we believe that each kid no matter where they are, deserves the same good education, as the well-served communities do or the cities do.”

Earl, who plays Othello, says he feels that there’s a special significance to performing this particular play for audiences in isolated communities.

“I absolutely see the merit in talking about the ‘othering’ in ‘Othello,’ and how, like, groups of people can sometimes ostracize somebody for our appearance, or their deeds or their behavior or their upbringing,” he said.

“I was really glad I got to take the Shakespearean text workshop, because I honestly don't know very much about Shakespeare,” said Mason White, a sophomore theater student at Montezuma-Cortez. “And I felt like as soon as I did do the workshop, it made a lot more sense in my head.”

She and Abby Coffey, another sophomore, agree that there aren’t enough opportunities for those who live in Cortez to experience performances like “Othello.”

“I think that it is important for people to be able to see things like this because it gives people more of an idea about different cultures and what life was like back when Shakespeare was around,” Coffey said.

Chris Clements
The Utah Shakespeare Festival wraps up its performance of "Othello" and ends with a Q&A with the audience.

After the performance, the actors come back out on stage to talk and laugh with the audience.

One student in the front row raises her hand and asks Shay Jowers, an actor who’s a member of the LGBTQ+ community, how they deal with being a queer actor.

“It can be hard at times,” Jowers said. “But something I like to remind myself, day in and day out, whenever it gets hard, is that there is a place for us in theater. We are telling the stories of people, and there are people like us that exist. And their stories need to be told. So there’s a place for us in theater. There’s a place for us in the world. I am not the only queer person in theater, I am not the only queer person in this cast. But there – we’re here. There’s a place for us.”

Chris Clements is KSJD's news reporter. He previously covered literary arts as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily in Chautauqua, New York, and recently graduated with a degree in English from Arizona State University. He’s passionate about all things related to journalism, music and film, especially author David Foster Wallace, jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.