“I was awestruck,” wrote Orval Hafen, upon first seeing the area that is now home to the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. He and his wife, Ruth, bought an eighty-acre parcel in the box canyon and built a cabin below the pristine red rocks. Describing the scene at the turn of the 20th century, he stated:
Orval Hafen’s vision came one step closer to reality in 1993 when Doug Stewart, noted playwright and St. George resident, stumbled upon the spot as he was searching for a location for an outdoor amphitheatre in the St. George area. “The stunning beauty and perfect surroundings stopped me in my tracks,” Stewart recalled. “I was brought to tears when I first stood there, and after taking it in for some time – envisioning an amphitheatre and a stage with an awesome backdrop of 1,500 foot red rock cliffs, and hearing the sounds of music echoing from the canyon walls – I literally flew back to town and straight to the county recorder’s office to see who the land belonged to.”
Through Stewart’s efforts, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization was established to raise funds for construction of the Tuacahn Amphitheatre and Center for the Arts on the 80 acre parcel at the base of Padre Canyon. The plan was more than ambitious–a 42,000 square foot facility featuring a 330 seat indoor theater, a dance studio, a black-box theater, a recital hall, a costume shop and scene shop, studios and classrooms, and a gift shop, all of which were built to complement the jewel of Tuacahn - a 1920-seat outdoor amphitheatre, which was designed as the home of the original musical UTAH!. The grounds were landscaped to compliment the magnificence of the surrounding canyon. In the spring of 1995 the 23 million dollar facility was finally completed.
From the outset, Tuacahn pursued a dual mission of providing quality arts education coupled with inspiring entertainment. The Center of the Arts provided instruction in music, dance, and drama, while the musical UTAH! debuted in the summer of 1995, rightly labeled as “America’s Most Spectacular Outdoor Musical,” complete with pyrotechnics, live animals, a massive cast, and a live re-creation of a flash flood, with over 60,000 gallons of water pouring across the stage
UTAH! recounts the story of Jacob Hamblin, who was sent by renowned colonizer and Mormon leader Brigham Young to supervise the early settlements in Southern Utah. Jacob Hamblin made peace with the native Indian population, and to this day, his treaty with the local tribes stands as the single compact between white settlers and Native Americans that has never been broken. His story was reenacted for over 250,000 patrons over the course of three years.
In the summer of 1998 Tuacahn presented a new version of UTAH! with a completely new script and in the fall of that same year Tuacahn produced an entirely new show entitled How the West Was Won featuring the acclaimed American Folk Ballet Company.
In 1999, the Tuacahn Board felt that it needed to shift its strategy and pursue a new direction. “We're proud of what we accomplished with UTAH!,” said Kevin Smith, Tuacahn's Chief Operating Officer, “but after several years of one show, it was clear that people wanted to see something new.”.
Ironically, “something new” came in the form of two musicals that have been performed throughout the state for years. Instead of offering just one production for summer patrons, Tuacahn created their first “Summer Festival of Theatre,” which featured a double bill of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The shows were well received and the amphitheatre found itself in the enviable position of dealing with huge crowds and sold-out houses. Over 100,000 people from every state in the Union and twenty-five countries attended the festival's 70 performances. “I know there were some concerns about doing familiar Broadway shows, because they’ve been performed so often, ” said Kevin Warnick, Tuacahn's Managing Director. “However, we discovered that the Tuacahn Amphitheatre provides a unique setting for these Broadway favorites that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.”
Several more successful seasons of Broadway fare followed, and the audience and critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. The Las Vegas Review praised Tuacahn’s version of Joseph for being “lively” and “engaging.” In 2000 The Salt Lake Tribune wrote of another Tuacahn production: “Tuacahn’s The Music Man revels in its good old-fashioned simplicity and its Americana sound… [and] makes a strong case to spend a breezy summer night in the quaint town of River City.”
Tuacahn’s 1999 production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the 2000 production of Fiddler on the Roof included the flash flood made famous by UTAH!. The Provo Daily Herald gave Tuacahn’s 2001 production of Oklahoma! its highest rating, calling it a “solidly entertaining theater experience… as fresh and fun as it was when it premiered [on Broadway] in 1943.” The Sound of Music presented the same year became Tuacahn’s second best selling show right behind Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Tuacahn also presented indoor productions in its 330 seat Orval and Ruth Hafen Theatre including the very funny Greater Tuna and acclaimed musical revue The Taffetas in 1995, the stirring musical Quilters and nostalgic classic The 1940’s Radio Hour in 1996, the raucous comedy See How they Run in 2000, and the hilarious musical Nunsense in 2001.
In 2002 Tuacahn’s summer amphitheatre productions of Annie Get Your Gun and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcaoat (back by popular demand) broke all previous Tuacahn box office records, and in September of 2002 Tuacahn officially commenced with its inaugural fall season by presenting the original UTAH! which had been on the shelf since 1997. For the first time Tuacahn had combined an original work with Broadway productions.
“UTAH! demonstrated that a new musical can succeed in a new environment,” says Scott Anderson, Tuacahn’s Artistic Director. “When Broadway connects with its audience and produces quality family fare like The Lion King, people are beating down the doors to see it. In The future, Anderson hopes to have new musicals being performed side by side with theatrical classics at Tuacahn. “We want musicals written by individuals with a positive, uplifting world view,” says Anderson.
In 2003 Tuacahn presented The Wizard of Oz and The King and I in the summer, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown in the fall. The Wizard of Oz broke all previous box office records.
In the summer of 2004 Tuacahn produced two classics which take place in the streets of Manhattan, namely, West Side Story and Guys and Dolls. Tuacahn constructed a fifty-seven foot single-unit steel set to recreate the New York City streetscape for the productions, and then manipulated the set to present Singin in the Rain in the fall of 2004.
2005 marks Tuacahn’s ten-year anniversary in which Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are the productions chosen to celebrate this milestone. “Ticket sales for these shows are well ahead of any season we’ve ever done and we expect that trend to continue, as we commemorate ten years of Broadway In the Desert,” says Kevin Warnick, Tuacahn’s Managing Director.
Initially, the Tuacahn Amphitheatre was almost exclusively a summer theatre enterprise. That changed forever in 2000, when Tuacahn presented its first Christmas Festival of Lights. In 2001 the Festival of Lights expanded to include a Live Nativity, presented throughout the Christmas season in the Tuacahn Amphitheatre. With professional sets, costumes, lights, and music, and with the help of an all-volunteer cast, Tuacahn recreates the sacred events of the traditional Christmas story. Mary rides in to Bethlehem on the back of a live donkey, and the Wise Men with real live camels bring gifts as they journey to find the Baby Jesus. The result is a unique presentation that touches those who see the production and all those who participate as well.
“It’s a profoundly moving experience,” said Shelyce Maxwell, who played the Virgin Mary one night in 2001, “I was seven months pregnant with my own child, and reenacting Mary’s journey made the Christmas story intensely personal for me.” The Live Nativity is free to the public attracting thousands of visitors seeking to be reminded of the true meaning Christmas.
Over the years, visitors have also enjoyed the many concerts presented in the Tuacahn Amphitheatre and indoor Hafen Theatre including such noted performers and groups as The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Vienna Boys Choir, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Abramyan String Quartet, Victor Borge, The Utah Symphony, The Kingston Trio, Merle Haggard, Michael Martin Murphy, Kenny Rogers, The Osmond Brother, Diamond Rio and many others. The concerts have helped compliment the summer/fall theatre season and with the Festival of Lights have contributed to Tuacahn’s success in becoming a year round destination for quality entertainment
However, Tuacahn is not only known for its commitment to uplifting entertainment, it is also known for its devotion to quality education. In August of 1999 Tuacahn began operation of the Tuacahn High School, under the direction of School Administrator Dr. John P. Broberg. The Tuacahn High School known today as the Tuacahn High School for Performing Arts and Technology, is the first public charter high school in the state of Utah. The school combines a rigorous college preparatory curriculum with an emphasis in music, drama, dance and computer technology.
For two years running, the Tuacahn High School took first place in the SUU Utah Shakespearean Festival Shakespeare Competition, and has been the recipient of several music, drama and speech and debate awards received through statewide competitions. More than eighty percent of Tuacahn graduates go on to college and several Tuacahn students have received scholarships to prominent universities. “We’re defining the charter school movement in the state of Utah,” said Broberg, “and we’re redefining the role of public schools in arts education.”
The school also has a tight-knit relationship with the Amphitheatre productions. “Our students have been given unprecedented opportunities to rub shoulders with the working theatre professionals who staff the Tuacahn Amphitheatre. No other public school provides this level of exposure to a professional theatrical operation.”
Tuacahn High School reached full enrollment for the first time in 2001. Calling the enrollment numbers a “credit to the power of school choice,” Fred Lampropoulos, Tuacahn's Chairman of the Board, praised Dr. Broberg’s efforts: “Students choose to come here, and if we don't do our job well, they can choose to leave; the fact that we've reached full capacity so early in our history is a credit to how well Dr. Broberg and the Tuacahn faculty have served the educational needs of the students.”
“Tuacahn’s future is firmly planted in a quest for excellence in education and in the kind of quality entertainment that the whole family can enjoy,” says Hyrum W. Smith, Tuacahn’s Chief Executive Officer. Furthermore, thanks to the leadership of Hyrum Smith and Fred Lampropoulos, Tuacahn also has a renewed commitment to maintaining and improving the facilities while providing quality productions and exceptional customer service.
The Broadway in the Desert™ summer theatre season has expanded into the fall, the annual Festival of Lights featuring the Live Nativity is now a community tradition that runs four nights a week from the day after Thanksgiving to December 23rd, and Tuacahn has recently added spring and fall concerts to its performing arts offerings.
The Tuacahn High School continues to grow in size and capacity and has recently added a new computer lab and learning center known as the Ivins Smart Site at Tuacahn. This Smart Site not only benefit the students in the school, but also the community at large.
Established to awaken the nobility of the human soul and transmit light and hope to people everywhere through the arts and education, the Tuacahn Center for the Arts has the great fortune of having accomplished much over the last several years with so much more to achieve.