Northwest Idyll

By West, Martha Ullman | Stage Directions, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Northwest Idyll

West, Martha Ullman, Stage Directions

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Boasting three theaters, a prestigious ensemble of talent and first-rate gear, this institution occupies an influential place in American culture.

Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is 15 miles north of the California border and 297 miles south of Portland. Rimmed by the snowcapped Siskiyou Mountains and close to the Rogue River, sites for such outdoor activities as skiing and river rafting, it is also a major theater town.

That's becavise of Angus Bowmer, who in the 1930s was a young theater professor at Southern Oregon Normal School, a training ground for teachers. In 1935, he founded the festival for the purpose of giving his students practical, hands-on experience with Elizabethan drama. That first year he produced, directed and acted in The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, staging three shows in two days in the "first Annual Shakespearean Festival." The productions were performed on the site of a former Chautauqua building, which was constructed in 1905 for performance festivals and eventually torn down in 1933. (The Chautauqua movement brought culture and entertainment to rural areas in the late 19th century.)

In the course of nearly 70 years, with a five-year hiatus during World War II, the festival has expanded into three venues: the 1,200-seat outdoor Elizabethan Stage; the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre; and the aptly named 268- to 296-seat New Theatre, which opened in 2002 following a capital campaign that raised $25 million, $10 million of which was dedicated to the festival's endowment. Today, with 450 company members, including 70 actors, OSF is the largest regional theater company in the U.S. In 2003, Time magazine designated it second in quality, ranking among the top five regional theaters in the country, commenting that, "Although [OSF] began as an all-Shakespeare troupe ..., [his] works now constitute less than half of its increasingly eclectic season."

It was Bowmer who set the eclectic tone in the first place, committed as he was to the proposition that theater, while rooted in the past, must also look at the present and to the future. "Theater," he said early in the game, "is always a living art, with open arms for the new." Under the directorship of Libby Appel, who is in the thick of her ninth season with OSF, that philosophy continues, not only with the presentation of new plays this year, such as African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog and Frank Galati's Oedipus Complex, based on the works of Sophocles, Jean Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud, but with Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors set in 1950s Las Vegas. As in Henry IV, Part One of several years ago, in which the play was moved several centuries forward to 1960s London, featuring a long-haired Falstaff with a bandanna headband, the language and drama remain Shakespeare's, but the works are kept fresh for today's audiences.

In addition to the above, 300,000 plus visitors to OSF this season can see George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family, in rotation with Comedy of Errors, Friedrich Duerrenmatt's The Visit and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun in the Bowmer. They can also take in Henry VI, Part One, Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy and TopDog in the New Theatre. And lastly, Bard lovers can flock to the handsome Elizabethan Theatre, where King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry Vf, Parts Two and Three (merged into one play directed by Appel) have been playing.

Eleven plays in three venues, performed six afternoons and evenings a week (the festival is dark on Mondays and there are no matinees in the Elizabethan) present a considerable challenge to Appel, whose dedication to bringing to Ashland a culturally diverse ensemble of actors as well as prominent guest designers and directors has given OSF an important place in mainstream theater. Flexibility across the board is essential to the festival's success. Actors must be prepared to play a modern comic character in the afternoon and a Shakespearean tragic hero or heroine in the evening; designers have to create sets for the indoor theaters that can be struck and/or loaded-in during the two-and-a-half hours between matinee and evening performances, which means the demands on the technical staff are huge. …

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