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New OPB Oregon Experience Documentary Explores the History of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival


“Oregon Shakespeare Festival” airs October 19 on OPB TV; advance public screening events in Portland and Ashland  

OPB will premiere a new Oregon Experience documentary that explores the origins and the evolution of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland—the oldest and largest professional regional rotating reparatory theater company in the United States.  

Airing on October 19 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and online at watch.opb.org, the one-hour program tells the history of how one man’s vision for a holiday event grew to become the economic mainstay of the city of Ashland and a leader in American Theater.  

In 1935, Angus Bowmer taught English at the Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University). As summer vacation approached, he proposed a new addition to the town’s Fourth of July celebration: “The First Annual Shakespearean Festival.”  

With a three-day-long season, the all-volunteer cast performed The Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, and the towns people paid a dollar or less for admission. The audience and the players came back the next year, and subsequent years after that.  

By the 1950s, much of the audience was driving in from out of town and the actors were performing four plays in rotation on the outdoor, Elizabethan-style stage. Performances were restricted to the summer months, in the cool of the evenings.  

Beginning in 1970, with the construction of the Angus Bowmer Theatre, plays could be staged indoors, in the daytime and any time of year. Overall attendance doubled that first year and had tripled by the fifth.  

This year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival celebrates its 80th anniversary. The season lasts nine months, and each year, actors perform 11 plays—old and new, by an assortment of playwrights—on three different stages. The company employs more than 500 people, has nearly 700 volunteers and annual ticket sales exceed $21 million.  

Oregon Experience’s new documentary explores the evolution of this world-class theater company—exploring the changes over time in costume design, set building, performances and more. It also addresses the challenges and rewards of Shakespeare and the future of theater in general. It features hundreds of archival photos, audio recordings and films from the Oregon Historical Society and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s extensive collections.  

The program includes interviews with:  

  • James M. Clark, Properties Manager, OSF
  • Eduardo Placer, Actor, OSF
  • Rodney Gardiner, Actor, OSF
  • Vilma Silva, Actress, OSF
  • Shirley Patton, Former Actress, OSF
  • Kathy Oyler, Volunteer and Actor’s Spouse, OSF
  • Bill Rauch, Artistic Director, OSF
  • Claudia Alick, Associate Producer, Community, OSF
  • Todd Barton, Resident Composer Emeritus, OSF
  • Kimberley Jean Barry, Associate Producer, Stage Management, OSF
  • Lue Morgan Douthit, Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, OSF
  • Scott Kaiser, Director of Company Development, OSF
  • Richard L. Hay, Senior Scenic and Theatre Designer, OSF
  • Jeff LaLande, Historian

Oregon Experience: “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival” was written and produced by Eric Cain and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. It airs Monday, October 19 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and will be available to watch online at watch.opb.org at the same time.  

In advance of the TV premiere, OPB is hosting two free, public screening events for the community to attend:  

Ashland: Monday, October 12 at the Varsity Theater. Show begins at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30).  

Portland: Wednesday, October 14 at the Oregon Historical Society. Show begins at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30).   Both events will feature the full-length documentary and a Q&A with producer Eric Cain.

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About Oregon Experience

Celebrating its 10th season, Oregon Experience is an exciting history series on OPB TV that brings to life stories that help us understand this place where we live and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. Co-produced with the Oregon Historical Society, the series draws upon the Society’s skilled researchers and extensive photography and moving-image archives. The program also incorporates OPB’s own film and video resources and the expertise of some of Oregon’s finest historians. Each episode features captivating characters – both familiar and forgotten – who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. This program is supported in part by Arlene Schnitzer and Jordan Schnitzer , the Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust, the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Clark Foundation. For more information, please visit http://www.opb.org/television/programs/oregonexperience/.

 

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