Producer/Writer: Eric Cain, Editor: Lisa Suinn Kallem, Videographers: Greg Bond, Todd Sonflieth, Tom Shrider, Michael Bendixen, Field Audio: Randy Layton, William Ward, Narrator: Doug Tunnell
“In the middle of little tiny Southern Oregon, is the oldest largest professional regional rotating repertory theater company in the United States of America. How is that possible—in Ashland?”
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
It’s a surprising fact, and the question is a good one: Why Ashland?
It all began in the midst of America’s Great Depression.
In 1935, a man named Angus Bowmer was teaching English at the Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University) in Ashland. That summer, he proposed a new addition to the town’s Fourth of July celebration: a series of plays.
Bowmer called the performances “The First Annual Shakespearean Festival.”
The Festival’s “season” that year was three days long.
The all-volunteer cast performed Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice in the shell of an old Chautauqua meeting hall. The townspeople came, paid $.50 – 1.00 for admission and must have enjoyed the shows – because the Festival did indeed return, year after year.
The summer-only productions used just one venue, an outdoor Elizabethan-style theater, with the plays performed in the cool of the evenings. By the 1950’s, the actors were staging a rotating repertory of four plays, and much of the audience was driving in from out-of-town. The theater company adopted a slogan: “Stay four days, see four plays!”
In 1970, with the construction of the large, indoor Angus Bowmer Theater, the Festival took a “dramatic” leap forward. Plays could now be staged in the daytime, too, and at any time of year. Overall attendance doubled that first year and had tripled by the fifth.
Today, a visitor can see as many as nine plays during a single visit. The company employs 500 people, and an additional 600-700 volunteer their help. Eleven plays, by an assortment of playwrights, are performed on three different stages during the 9-month season. And what is now called the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has become the largest repertory theater in the country.
Oregon Experience tells the story with hundreds of archival photos - pictures of old Ashland from the Oregon Historical Society and dozens of classic images of players and plays from the OSF’s extensive collection.
The Festival has also preserved an abundance of audio recordings and films, going back to the 1950’s and earlier, and made available for this program.
The show compares materials from different points in the 80-year history of the OSF. The on-stage speaking style of the late John Barrymore is contrasted with the way actors say their lines now.
Viewers will learn about changes over time in costume design, set-building and the popular Green Show, a free daily presentation of performers of all genres.
OPB’s “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival” is also rich with original music – first written for various OSF productions by Todd Barton, the Festival’s Resident Composer Emeritus.
With the evolution of electronic media, many other kinds of entertainment now compete for theater-goers’ attention. The Festival invests many resources in diversifying both its acting company and its audience. And as actor Rodney Gardiner says, “This place is aggressively seeking a new and younger audience, which is vital for the survival of theater.”
For now, though, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is going strong.
Angus L. Bowmer died in 1979. He surely never dreamed that annual ticket sales would one day exceed $21 Million, as they now do, and that in 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would be celebrating its 80th Anniversary.
There is quite a number of books that have been written about subjects relevant to this show. Producer, Eric Cain, recommendations a couple:
- Scott Kaiser, Limelight Editions (2007), Shakespeare’s Wordcraft
A remarkably-informative, fun-to-read look at many of Shakespeare’s literary devices. This is an epic portrayal of The Bard’s love of words. Scott Kaiser, who appears in “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” is OSF’s Director of Company Development
- Kathleen Leary and Amy Richard, Arcadia Publishing (2009), Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Images of America)
A delightful book of old photographs, rich in facts and stories about the Festival. Kathleen Leary is a former OSF Archivist, and Amy Richard is OSF’s Media & Communications Manager
- All of William Shakespeare plays - and much of his poetry - can be viewed, downloaded and/or searched online at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A gold mine for Shakespeare explorations: William Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems
- The Oregon Shakespeare Festival maintains a very good, comprehensive website: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
- OSF’s YouTube channel offers hundreds of well-made, fascinating videos - behind-the-scenes demonstrations, interviews with actors and directors, Green Show acts, archival footage… a viewer could spend all day here: The Oregon Shakespeare YouTube site
- Several recent OSF productions have been recorded as CD’s and are available from the Festival’s volunteer-run Tudor Gift Shop. The shop also sells scripts of OSF-produced plays and guides to understanding Shakespeare’s works: OSF Volunteer-run Tudor Gift Shop for CD’s, scripts, plays and guides
Broadcast Date: October 19, 2015