Now Playing:


Oregon Experience

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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

Lake view of the original Elizabethan theatre

Lake view of the original Elizabethan theatre

Photographer: Dwaine E. Smith. Courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival

“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?”


Kimberley Barry,
Associate Producer,
Stage Management
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.

1936 performance of Twelfth Night with Doreen Leverette and Dorothy Pruitt

1936 performance of Twelfth Night with Doreen Leverette and Dorothy Pruitt

Bushnell-Perkins Studio

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.

A group of actors with Lillian Davis as "Queen Elizabeth" stop for gas in the 1930s

A group of actors with Lillian Davis as “Queen Elizabeth” stop for gas in the 1930s

Courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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.  

Scenic Designer Richard Hay showing the model created for Tempest

Scenic Designer Richard Hay showing the model created for Tempest

Oregon Public Broadcasting

The completed set for the Tempest in 1986

The completed set for the Tempest in 1986

Photographer: Stuart Cotts.  Courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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 Bowmer offering a handshake

Angus Bowmer offering a handshake

Photographer: Hank Kranzler.   Courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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


Web sites

  • 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
  • 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


Broadcast Date: October 19, 2015

More Oregon Experience

More OPB

Send Oregon Experience A Message

Related Content

Incidental Artworks

We shot the first interviews for “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival” in Ashland, in Spring, 2014. We also recorded some great footage in the Festival’s set-building shop and paint shop.   By the time we finished shooting -- several months later -- most OSF production departments had moved into a huge, brand-new building in Talent, a few miles north of Ashland.   During those early shoots, I had snapped some photos of the crazy stuff on the walls of the original work-spaces. For several decades, while building hundreds of sets, dozens of creative people had personalized the rooms with wonderful bits of art.   I suppose that those workrooms have been repainted and re-purposed by now, but just for the record, here are a few examples of how they once looked.   Eric Cain, producer Oregon Experience    

San Francisco Expo / NBC radio

The Oregon Shakespearean Festival began in 1935, but the onset of World War II soon closed it down. The Festival's founder, Angus Bowmer, later wrote that a certain pre-war radio broadcast had helped convince the city that his company might indeed have a bright – and productive – future.

Shakespeare's Words

A quick internet search will reveal hundreds – even thousands -- of modern English words, phrases and expressions that are attributed to William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616.) But how many of these he himself invented is simply not known. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Director of Company Development, Scott Kaiser, has written extensively about Shakespeare's use of language.

Vilma Silva on Shakespeare's Work

Like many other performing arts organizations, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is always at work to recruit new audience members. The company extends an extra effort to bring in "non-traditional" theater-goers. OSF actor Vilma Silva believes that Shakespeare is for everyone. She says there's no reason that a younger, more-diverse audience shouldn't enjoy his work.