When I mention I’m going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival I often get a similar set of questions: When? Where? Do you, like, dress up? I can imagine people assembling a scene in their heads. Maybe a large field full of white tents. A long weekend of Elizabethan nerds in whimsical dress (I can say that, right? Since I fall into the category). Swords and/or jousting might be involved.
In reality OSF is something of the opposite. The festival runs eight months out of the year in what would likely be the otherwise sleepy town of Ashland, Oregon. Each season runs up to a dozen plays in three modern theaters. There’s the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, the large indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre, and the intimate and newly-named Thomas Theatre. Ashland is full of cute boutiques, organic restaurants, and plenty of Bard-themed lodging. If people dress up, it’s more like summer dresses and sports jackets. I’ve explored just about every square foot of the town. If all goes according to plan, this will be my 13th consecutive year attending the Festival.
It started as a “bucket list” item that quickly turned into a tradition. My first 11 trips were with my mom, the very first when I was just 15. At the time I was enrolled in a Shakespeare class at my local community college (I had a rather odd education), and I had fallen in love with the language and charm of the Bard. Our trips started small – long weekends and two plays – but gradually evolved into longer and more adventurous forays into Southern Oregon (one year we drove down early to climb Mt. McLoughlin) on top of 3 plays.
OSF’s first production (“Twelfth Night”) was in July of 1935. They’re going strong in their 82nd year (although there were no performances from 1941 - 1946 due to the war). The stage was built on the foundation of an older Chautauqua building that had fallen into disrepair. Originally it was only the Elizabethan stage and only Shakespeare productions. In 1958, the festival completed the canon, and two years later they introduced their first non-Shakespeare production. A combination of Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare plays has continued ever since.
I have always looked forward to the trips. I research new restaurants, activities to do around Ashland, where we should stay. I can always count on lazy hours spent wandering and writing postcards in Lithia Park, and dessert at the delightful bakery, Mix. But most importantly I am excited for Shakespeare and reigniting my love for live theatre.
OSF has certainly evolved in the decade+ that I’ve been attending. Even the playbills have gone from black and white bi-folds to full-color, perfect-bound little books. The plays vary from stripped down to borderline grandiose, set in different time periods and themes.
Each and every one I’ve seen has been impressive in it’s own way. In 2010 there was a production of “Hamlet” that left me feeling physically uncomfortable; Don Donohue fully embodying the Prince of Denmark, the emotion palpable. There was a musical production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that took the whimsy factor through the roof – each set of characters decked out in a different colorful decade. “All’s Well That Ends Well” in 2009 nearly brought me to tears (fairly hard to do).
In a review of that 2010 production of “Hamlet” in the Oregonian, Marty Hughley comments on Donohue’s superb acting:
The line between feigned madness and true madness is one of the play's richest ambiguities, and Donohue -- dancing between the rueful and the impish -- makes that line a colorful blur. With his sardonic wit and a physicality that seems at once coiled and slouchy, he's intensely watchable. His is a Hamlet that makes us feel that the moral conflict and the mortal wound is simply being human.
It’s not just Shakespeare that stands out. Because OSF repeats popular Shakespeare plays, it got to a point, after 5 years attending, where we had already seen too many to avoid those repeats. We had to branch out. “A Streetcar Named Desire” set an impressive bar as the first performance we saw in 2013, and “Pride and Prejudice” (2010) provided all the laughter and swooning you’d expect from Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennett.
The actors are master class. All from diverse backgrounds and some acting at OSF for 20+ years. They absolutely amaze me. Many perform in multiple plays – Shakespeare and non – and if you do the math, it means they only have about 4 months to learn and rehearse their roles to perfection. And they rarely, rarely stumble. Many of them sing and play instruments. Dancing is often required. Along with the challenge of using acting techniques to make Shakespeare accessible and enjoyable to a general audience. I say bravo to all!
Misha Berson, in a review of the 2016 season in the Seattle Times, asserts:
Under the leadership of current artistic director Bill Rauch, and his predecessor Libby Appel, OSF has kept faith with the Bard of Avon while gradually but firmly steering away from straightforward, Elizabethan-style mountings of the canon. Today OSF (like many classic companies) tends to reconceptualize and reconfigure and pop-musical-ize Shakespeare, with a modern slant — sometimes to a play’s detriment, at best with a bracing vigor that makes the audience rethink and reconnect to this theatrical treasure trove.
And I wholeheartedly agree. At times I’ve felt that the acting was overpowered by fancy lighting and effects. 2013’s production of “Cymbeline” comes to mind. But for the most part the themes and costumes simply add another level to the experience. You never quite know what you’re going to get. It could be a wild west take on “A Comedy of Errors,” “Troilus and Cressida” set during the Iraq war, or a post-WWII “Much Ado About Nothing.” But at its core, it’s simply and unequivocally Shakespeare.
Just over 2 years ago, my mom left Oregon to travel the US and in that move I lost my original Shakespeare buddy. I had to decide if I was going to let my 11-year tradition fall away. Luckily my good friend (and Backwords co-founder), Jenny Chu, voiced interest, and we quickly picked a date for a weekend away. The experience was entirely different but there was something magical about showing someone that had never been to Ashland – let alone the festival – the ropes of OSF. This year again I find myself making plans with yet another friend. Every time I consider putting the festival on the back burner, I hesitate. Without it there would be something missing from my year. After all, I still have 12 slots to fill in my canon.