In 1956, Ted Edwards, then president of the Phoenix Little Theatre Board of Directors, broached the idea of a Shakespearean Festival at the theater. The company had a deep attachment to the Bard. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first play PLT produced, back in the early 1920s when the company was still known as the Phoenix Players.
The idea actually was the fulfillment of the lifelong dream of Dr. Alfred Knight, a rare book collector who had a soft spot in his heart for both the Bard and Phoenix Little Theatre. His good friend, Zoe Johnson, another PLT activist, jumped on the bandwagon.
It was Zoe, who succeeded Ted as president, who produced the first festival in 1957. In 1958, Dr. Knight died from heart problems. His will provided for the festival and the project continued for several years until, like other good ideas, a new generation thought it might be a better idea to let it pass into history.
It wasn’t entirely management’s fault. In its final years, the festival was no longer the draw that it was. Despite a brief revival of interest with the 1963 production of Antony and Cleopatra, the public’s attention turned to things other than Shakespeare. PLT would soon be the place to see fluffy sex farces like Under the Yum Yum tree.
For several years, the theater bestowed the Alfred Knight Award for outstanding achievement in Shakespearean theater. That, too, was allowed to drop by the wayside.
Dr. Knight is still remembered. He gave his collection of more than 1,000 rare books, many of them connected with Shakespeare, to the Phoenix City Library, where it still services scholars and those interested in the greatest English playwright.
After a couple of seasons where PLT’s annual Shakespeare festival had run out of steam, Robert Begam’s production of Antony and Cleopatra put it back on the rails, drawing large and enthusiastic audiences.
Review of Antony & Cleopatra by Helen Backer of the Arizona Republic, April 10, 1963
Heading the lineup of the 1960 festival was the Phoenix Little Theatre production of Henry V. It was directed by Robert Aden, who also starred in the title role.
The second production was the Phoenix College production of Romeo and Juliet. It was directed by John Paul, one of the legendary figures in the community college movement here. His drama classes were renowned and attracted students from all over the country.
The third play come from the University of Arizona. The Tempest was directed by Peter R. Marroney, head of the UofA drama department.
As per tradition, festival performances were preceded by medieval minstrel performances, madrigal singing and dancing on the green. Miriam Root directed the Shakespeare Singers, while Eileen Cosgrove, PLT’s ballet mistress, supervised the dancing.
There were two displays in the theater’s lobby: One featured 18 paintings on Shakespearean themes by John Tarbox, the other a collection of rare volumes from the Alfred Knight Rare Book Collection at Phoenix Public Library.
Eric Karson and Michael Byron, students of Phoenix College’s legendary drama teacher, John Paul, were in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which was part of the Shakespeare Festival’s 1960 lineup. The photograph appeared in the Arizona Republic of March 20, 1960.