Breaking all the rules of traditional theater, Oregon’s Ashland-based Shakespeare Festival (OSF) features diversity and variety in the selection of plays and in staging, casting, sets and costumes.
One of the most esteemed regional companies in the nation, OSF hires top actors from New York and major U.S. theaters to appear in prestige plays from March though October each year in their three top-of-the-art show places. Committed to nontraditional endeavors in all its pursuits, it is an innovative and artistic experiment in the dramatic arts. Its OSF Diversity Values Statement promises, “We believe the inclusion of diverse people, ideas, cultures and traditions enrich both our insights into the work we present onstage and our relationships with each other,” That’s why Shakespeare’s characters may be wearing modern “hip” clothing; a medieval duke delivers his Bard lines with a heavy New York accent; Afro-Americans are marriage partners or suitors of Caucasians during the depression in Our Town, a play about an America Midwestern community, and this classic play is presented in the open air replica of the Globe Theatre; fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream are a bunch of males acrobating around the stage in tutus; and The Clay Cart is an English translation of a 2,000 year-old drama from India. And these are only the observations of a recent brief summer visit by my wife, Diane, and I to this annual celebration of 11 theatrical presentations rotating in repertory.
With roots tracing back to the Chautauqua movement in 1893, which brought lectures, entertainment, and cultural events into rural areas of the growing United States in the late 19th century, Ashland erected its first theater in 1905 with an eventual seating capacity of 1,500. Families traveled from all over Oregon and Northern California to attend performances during the 10-day season.
In the early ‘20s, national interest in cultural endeavors faded even in Ashland. The current Oregon Shakespearean Festival was reborn on July 2, 1935, with productions of The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. To cover anticipated losses, daytime boxing matches were held onstage. General reserved admissions were $1.00, regular admission $.50, with $.25 for children. As they say in theatre, “They cracked the nut.” The OSF exceeded its expenses.
The theater continued producing two of William Shakespeare’s works per year until 1941 when the company closed during WWII. It began operation again in 1947 with a new, larger Elizabethan Stage and continued modestly through 1953 when William Patton was hired as General Manager. Patton eventually became the Executive Director of The Festival, a position he would retain for 47 years. During this period, the OSF experienced continuous growth, adding two new theaters and offering non-Shakespeare works. Annual attendance eventually topped 150,000, and, in 1983, the Festival won the Tony Award for “outstanding achievement in regional theatre,” as well as the National Governors’ Association Award for “distinguished service to the arts,” the first ever such award to a performing arts organization.
In 1987, the OSF board of directors also established a new Performing Arts Center in Portland. Through the ‘90s, the Festival flourished in finances, attendance, reputation, and quality. By 2000, the Festival had set a new record in achieving 95% of its theatres’ capaciti es. In ensuing years, the New Theatre was completed; Time Magazine named the OSF one of America’s five best regional theatres.
Under a special arrangement with Actor’s Equity, the performers’ professional union, OSF employs 450 actors and stage managers, trains highly qualified interns in minor roles and learning opportunities, and retains a volunteer staff of nearly 600. This year, 2008, an eight month season of 11 plays – four Shakespearean and seven by classical and contemporary playwrights – rotate every three to five days in repertory in three theatres: the beautiful Tudor-style, outdoor Elizabethan Stage (seating 1,190); the Angus Bower Theatre (601 seats), which doesn’t have a bad seat in the house; and the intimate New Theatre (seats 270 to 360) can be configured into round, end, or proscenium staging. A professional actor may have a large, juicy role in one production and play a servant in another. Matinees occur daily and the houses are dark on Mondays.
The 2008 season includes four Bard plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a fantasy about mixed up lovers, meddlesome fairies, tradesmen with theatrical aspirations including dance, casting, costume and character liberties that would spin its author in his grave. Othello revives a classic tragedy in which the evil Iago exercises his vengeful hate for the hero that leads Othello’s and Desdemona’s perfect union to catastrophe; The Comedy of Errors, has been transformed from its normal medieval location to a rough hewn, lawless American western town and becomes an hilarious, music-infested mayhem with two sets of separated-at-birth twins vying for love and order; and the rarely-offered Coriolanus exposes a tragedy about a hero bred for the battlefield failing in the politics of the Roman Senate. The seven non-Shakespeare productions include: the Pulitzer-Prize winner Fences, dealing with a working-class African-American King Lear in the decade before the Civil Rights Movement; The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, a comedy providing Ibsen’s great classic with a liberated woman; Arthur Miller’s tragedy,” A View From the Bridge, “… that probes love and loyalty against the background of American liberation;” a modern play about a female Marine returning from Iraq escaping from reality to nowhere to normality, welcome home, jenny sutter; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, a surrealistic comedy about different tastes in life; The Clay Cart, filled with music, dance, color, action, and romance revolving around a jewelry theft which transcends centuries; and Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s landmark favorite about ordinary life becoming extraordinary.
Theater critics have always had mostly favorable things to say about performances in their reviews, so patrons can count on the highest professionalism. Quotes from an Ashland blog include such comments as “I died and went to theatre heaven,” “This organization has transformed a sleepy college town into THE PLACE to see Shakespeare in the West,” I’ve been going here since I was wee, and it’s still great,” and “…the best theater in the country.”
There are many offstage Ashland diversions available: the free “Green Show” offering musical and dance programs, comedians, puppets, jugglers, improv and OSF actors displaying their own offstage talents; backstage tours; noon concerts and lectures, play readings; and special classes and workshops.
High schools and colleges throughout the country send drama field study groups to this festival, and Elderhostel has had senior educational programs in Ashland for years.
The town itself retains architectural evidence of its delightful history, a major Oregon university, alluring shops with ample items to delight children and adults alike, and comprehensive bookstores. Nearby are golf courses and hiking trails, river rafting and fishing and wine tasting opportunities. Even a stroll around the lovely Lithia Park, with its meandering stream, natural flora, and tranquility is a unique experience. Additionally, there are plenty of good places to dine and comfortable lodging accommodations, including B&Bs and user-friendly motels.
The festival’s 2009 season will include Shakespeare’s Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well, Henry VIII, and Much Ado About Nothing. The other choices are Death and the King’s Horseman, transporting you to Africa in the 1940s; Equivocation, a political thriller with ties to both Macbeth and Henry VIII; the powerful classical drama, Paradise Lost; the comedy, Dead Man’s Cell Phone; Servant of Two Masters, which takes one back to 18th century Italy; the always fabulous Don Quixote; and the ever popular The Music Man. If you like theater, Oregon’s “Broadway of the West” should rank on the top of your “future vacations” list. Tickets are available through www.osfashland.org. b