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Come for the Play

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Lightning rips across the blackness of the night, and a windy deluge is unleashed. Ancient King Lear, betrayed by his own misplaced love, stalks through the deep forest ranting at the skies:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world…

In a conventional indoor theater, the scene described above can seem removed or unreal. But I’m in Ashland, attending a performance of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). The outdoor, Elizabethan-style theater (designed after the fashion of Shakespeare’s Globe) is wide-open to the elements, allowing Mother Nature to play a part in the performances. She makes the scripted setting come alive. Tonight the lightning bolts electrically-generated onstage are no match for the crackling flashes of the late summer storm. Theater may be created through the mundane process of training, preparation, and impeccable execution, but sometimes, it is pure magic. Synchronistic magic is happening now.

This is Oregon. It rains, although not to the mythological degree most visitors expect. The summers are mostly dry, with starlit nights. When it does rain, blankets are always for rent, and sometimes audience members pull out little plastic ponchos. No cancellations for weather here. Later, I wonder: how will they dry out the velvet costumes, dragged through the real waves of water blowing across the stage that night? The actors had continued as if the weather was a planned part of their act. Audiences tend to follow actors’ leads and play along. If the actors can carry on, so can we. It’s like wearing a badge of honor to stay to the play’s final curtain. Persistence in the face of adverse weather makes all present—actors and audience—members of the same troop.

For the less stout of heart, there are also two well-appointed indoor theaters complementing the full-on Shakespearean experience offered by the Elizabethan venue. The three theaters are nestled into a ninety-three-acre park in the center of Ashland, itself located in the wild, pine-covered mountains of southern Oregon. OSF has been called a national treasure, and to me, this is an understatement. I think the quality of the work at OSF rivals that of any venue in the world. The festival draws me several times a year, since I want to see the entirety of each season—usually a dozen plays a year. Beginning in February and running until Halloween, the Festival requires making at least two trips to see everything, since some plays close and others open in midsummer.

The 2007 season will bring As You Like It, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. The last production will feature the older generation in Elizabethan costumes and the younger in contemporary street clothes. I’ve seen Shakespeare’s plays performed in costumes from every era. One was set in an Atlantic City casino, with the two main characters dressed as bellhops, and various dukes costumed as Mafiosi. The more Shakespeare I see, the more I feel his characters embody archetypes that can be at home in any historical period.

Although the festival’s name might lead you to think it was all-Will-all-the-time, every season offers a great deal of variety. In addition to the three or four Shakespearean plays that are always produced, a comedy or two and some more somber dramas may be included. Past seasons have included some wonderfully arch Oscar Wilde plays, and a breathtaking production of The Diary of Anne Frank, that left some of the teenagers in the audience sobbing wildly at its heartbreaking conclusion. Last year’s staging of Bus Stop still lingers in my mind. The past four or five seasons have each featured a play by August Wilson; the 2007 offering is Gem of the Ocean. In addition, new plays are often commissioned—this year Tracy’s Tiger, based on a William Saroyan novel, will see its world premiere. 

OSF is one of the largest non-profit theater companies in the world. OSF’s ticket sales totaled $14 million in 2006, and its average house ran at eighty-seven percent capacity. The Festival drew nearly 400,000 people last year, providing an economic engine for the tiny town of Ashland.

No one gets to Ashland by mistake. About five hours north of Sacramento or south of Portland, it is a few miles off Interstate-5, and not on the way to anywhere. You can fly to within twenty miles of Ashland, which is great if you are a fan of small planes and multiple airport changes. Sadly, getting there by public transportation is so challenging that most just give up and drive. 

In the winter, when the theater closes, its actors hit the roads. Each fall, teams begin visiting urban and rural schools in Western states, engaging the audience of the future. OSF’s School Visit Program is now in its 36th year, and is one of the largest theater outreach programs in the country. The teams bring the Bard extremely up-close to students, making Shakespeare personal and presenting his plays in ways that can fire up the kids’ imaginations and create an appetite for culture in them. Summers bring school buses full of these same kids to Ashland from around the West. My niece went several times with her high school class from San Jose.

OSF’s people often stay with the theater for entire careers—character actors and stage managers marry wardrobe managers or lighting directors, and their kids grow up in the creative atmosphere and become part of the scene. There are actors who come for a season and move on, but the core of OSF’s quality is the lifetime commitment many of its people have to the place and the art. Ashland’s a place where you can go to the local organic grocery story and see a dramaturge by the iceberg, or last night’s royal countenance chatting up the check-out clerk, and then hopping on a bike to go home and cook dinner. Here you can have a vibrant life in the theater and still have a life.

Photo: Love’s Labor’s Lost (2005). Ensemble, by T. Charles Erickson.


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