We’ve just arrived in Ashland, Orgeon, so here’s a little history of the place from an American novelist who is currently resident in England….
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is located in the town of Ashland, Oregon, not far north of the California border. The Festival began as a Fourth of July celebration in 1935, but the theatre itself dates back to 1893. A circular performance area was constructed in Ashland as part of the Chautauqua movement, a summer series of performers and lecturers who travelled through the rural United States. By the 1920’s Chautauqua had declined, but the outer walls of the Ashland structure remained.
Angus Bowmer, a young professor at the local teacher’s college (now Southern Oregon College), observed that the walls resembled those he’d seen in sketches of Elizabethan playing spaces. He obtained permission from the city of Ashland to stage Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice as a “festival” to be performed by members of the college over July 3, 4, and 5 of 1935.
The Ashland city council agreed, with expenses not to exceed $400. A Depression works project, the State Emergency Relief Administration, supplied the construction crew. This is my favorite part of the story. In order to guarantee a return on their investment, the council insisted that a boxing match be held the afternoon of the shows. Bowmer agreed: after all, bear baiting had been held in or near Bankside theatres in Shakespeare’s day.
The outcome? The play festival was a huge success and made enough money to offset the losses of the boxing matches!
So was born the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in what was once a gold-rush town set in a pretty valley adjacent to the Rogue River and the Oregon Coastal Range. Until World War II broke out, it was an annual Fourth of July event. It was suspended when Angus Bowmer enlisted in the U.S. Army. On his return, the city asked him to resume the Shakespeare Festival. In 1947 he became the first producing director, a paid position, and the OSF has been thriving ever since.
The outdoor Elizabethan theatre was redesigned in the 1950’s in a Tudor style roughly resembling the Globe. In 1970, the 600-seat indoor Bowmer theatre was built. A rehearsal space, formerly the Ashland Chevrolet car dealership, became the intimate Black Swan theatre in 1977. Seating only 130 people and hampered by a massive concrete support pillar which had to be included in set designs, a new small theatre was needed. Construction of the Thomas Theatre was completed in 2002 and seats around 200, depending on how the seating is configured.
Although the summer season at the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre runs only from early June to early October, the two indoor venues make a 10-month schedule possible, February through November, which is rare for festival theatres. The season usually includes 11 plays, at least 6 of them by Shakespeare. As it is based on the repertory system, even actors with major roles usually perform in one or two other plays. Classics and contemporary plays round out the schedule, and occasionally a new play premiers at the Festival. The NY Tony winner for best play of 21014, All the Way by Robert Schenkkan, premiered at Ashland, as did Bill Cain’s award-winning Equivocation.
Many school groups and audiences such as myself attend the Festival every year as a delightful theatrical holiday. Walk up through Lithia Park in the morning, attend plays in the afternoon and evening. There are Green shows before the summer evening performances as well as lectures and talks indoors and out, and the backstage tour is always a treat.
Jinny Webber www.jinnywebber.comis the author of The Shakespeare Actor Trilogy, volumes 1 and 2 now out: The Secret Player (2012) and Dark Venus (2014) See www.shakespeareantrilogy.com
She has been writing part of the trilogy as a writer in residence of The Hosking Houses Trust in Clifford Chambers, near Stratford-upon-Avon.