Miracle in Padre Canyon

Tuacahn Center for the Arts

Ash Sanders | Photos courtesy of Tuacahn Center for the Arts Apr 30, 2018

When Orval Hafen broke the bank to buy a sunbaked stretch of red rock country near Ivins, Utah, his family was sure he’d gone mad. The area was breathtaking but inhospitable. It had no water, and Hafen had little money and few business prospects. But he had a vision. He’d fallen in love with the place and wanted others to experience the spirit of the canyon. He imagined a sanctuary of sorts, a resort where people could walk among palm trees and pinnacles.

Hafen died before his dream became reality, but it’s a good bet he could never have imagined what happened next. Forty years and a lot of hard work later, his little ranch has blossomed into the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, a 2,000-seat outdoor theater complex producing Broadway-caliber musicals to sold-out (and delighted) audiences. 

Mermaids and Ogres

On the rocky land where Hafen could scarcely find a drop to drink, theatergoers witnessed the Little Mermaid flying in front of a 70-foot water curtain spanning an entire stage, swimming through the air and inviting them to be part of her world. And in a place where green-colored anything was once hard to come by, audiences thronged to see Shrek, everyone’s favorite lime-skinned ogre, a long way from Scotland in his desert musical debut.

The unlikely ascendancy of Tuacahn is chronicled in a documentary titled “Tuacahn: Miracle in Padre Canyon,” produced by Docutah and financed by Tuacahn board member Dave Pugsley and his wife, Nanette. The film digs into the history of the canyon while giving viewers a backstage peek into the making of 2017’s “Shrek, The Musical.” Tuacahn plans to release the documentary to the public in 2018.

This “tale of two productions,” as insiders lovingly refer to the film, covers the best of times and the worst of times in Tuacahn’s history, following a lean crew of dreamers and bookkeepers as they battle with budgets, canyon winds and summer thunderstorms in an effort to bring live theater to Southern Utah. 

A Rough Start

Tuacahn CEO Kevin Smith joined the organization when it was still trying to get its financial footing and discover its unique performance niche, and he can attest that it wasn’t easy.

“The movies say, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Smith says. “And that may work in the movies. But in real life, just because you build it doesn’t mean they’re going to come.” So Smith kept one eye on the ledger and shook up the repertoire, switching from one long-running show to a range of Broadway options. “Our mission is to match the majesty of the canyon in all that we do,” he says, so the center ramped up its efforts, touring the country to bring in the best actors, designers and technicians.

The plan worked. It’s now the largest arts venue in Utah and one of the top 10 regional theaters in the country. Each year, some 300,000 people flock to its shows, concerts and events — more than half from out-of-state — making Tuacahn second only to Zion National Park in its impact on Southern Utah’s economy. “People will see a show on Broadway, and then they’ll come to Tuacahn and say the caliber is just as good as in New York,” Smith proudly says.

Glimpse Behind the Scenes

Putting on a Broadway-caliber production is no small feat, and Tuacahn’s resident whiz kids wanted their documentary to show people exactly what goes into such an undertaking. The result is a behind-the-scenes tour of the center’s 2017 staging of Shrek, from auditions to choreography to costume and makeup. And, because Tuacahn doesn’t do small potatoes, the result is awe-inspiring: warehouses of wigs, pyrotechnic explosions and one truly giant dragon.

In a way, the story of Shrek is a microcosm for the history of Tuacahn as a whole: a lot of passion, an almost impossible vision and incredible results.

“You go through the stress,” Smith admits, “but then you get this standing ovation and it’s all worth it, and so you forget about all the pain and difficulty.”

Decades ago, the dreamers of Tuacahn built a field of dreams. It was barren and rocky and hot, but they persisted. And then everyone came — old people, young people, out-of-towners and long-time locals. Oh, and a donkey, an ogre and a princess.

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