It’s no easy job to direct a Tony Award-winning theatre festival, much less with minimal warning … but that’s exactly what Derek Charles Livingston had to do this year at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
On May 25, 2022, it was announced by the Utah Shakespeare Festival that Brian Vaughn was stepping down from his position immediately. From 2011, Vaughn operated as the festival’s co-artistic director, and in 2017, he began to perform the role alone. No direct reason was given for Vaughn’s departure, but it was a choice he made himself.
Upon Vaughn’s departure, a decision had to be made as to who would fill his position while a nationwide search took place to find a replacement. Livingston was chosen to lead in the interim — in addition to his existing roles as the director of new play development and an actor in the season.
“When Brian left, it made sense for either Tanya Searle, who is the festival stage manager/artistic associate, or me to step into that position because our work had been supporting Brian continuously and in everything for the last year,” said Livingston.
Staff supported Livingston in taking the position for the meantime, and he began fulfilling his duties in all three of his roles within the festival in June — right as the 2022 season began.
“I was humbled and a little frightened because it’s such an important responsibility,” said Livingston. “Not that I didn’t think I was up to the task, but I know what a special place this is for our community, for our patrons, for the state of Utah, for the artists who work here, and I am very mindful of caretaking. Stewardship is very important to me.”
In balancing all of his duties, Livingston lost sleep, ate poorly and couldn’t find time to go to the gym. He relied on the festival staff community to see him through.
“I can’t do what I do without the support of staff, and I particularly have to point out the great relationship I have with the artistic associate Tanya Searle, to whom I can turn to, with whom I have conversations about everything,” said Livingston.
USF isn’t Livingston’s first job on the managing side of theatre. He has produced many new plays and has worked as a theatre producer in San Diego, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York.
Livingston did his undergrad at Brown University, where he studied under Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. Vogel encouraged Livingston to try his hand at directing instead of focusing solely on acting.
“If you look at a list of the last 25 years of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, about half of them studied with Paula,” said Livingston. “That’s how good she is.”
After finishing college, Livingston worked as a casting associate for off-Broadway theatre Playwrights Horizons and was there when Stephen Sondheim developed “Assassins” during his tenure, as well as other shows like “Once on This Island.”
“I was a person for the original production to whom they set the lights because I was the only African American on staff who was the same color as the actors,” said Livingston.
Livingston was even seated behind James Lapine, one of the creators of “Falsettos” and “Into the Woods,” at an off-Broadway opening night.
After his work in New York, Livingston took a number of years off before returning to acting. He went to film school at UCLA and followed that step of his education by spending many years working in the theatre industry.
At the Shakespeare Festival, Livingston has yet to make many artistic decisions for the 2022 or 2023 seasons since all of the shows were decided under Vaughn’s direction. Instead, he has focused his attention on deciding the 2024 season.
“Right now, we’re looking at 2024, and I can’t tell you what that’s going to be, but that’s where I’ll have the most influence in terms of what’s going to happen,” said Livingston. “I cannot say even looking at that and spearheading that, that I will be looking to make any sort of radical changes.”
While the search for a new artistic director has not begun, Livingston has not yet decided if he would like to be up for consideration. He has strongly advocated having conversations with stakeholders, longtime patrons and long-term staff members to create a job description.
“If, when I look at the outcome of those conversations and those focus groups, and I’m not the person, it’s going to be very hard,” said Livingston. “But, I also recognize that that is the truth, and that is how things happen in the real world.”
More than anything else, Livingston tries to advocate for people to experience live theatre, particularly at the festival.
“It’s a really great opportunity to see world-class entertainment at an unheard of price in a beautiful setting, and you should take advantage of it,” said Livingston.
Story by Tessa Cheshire
Photos courtesy of The Utah Shakespeare Festival
This article was originally published in December 2022 edition of the University Journal.