Shakespeare is Alive in Ashland

No doubt, the Bard was a pretty stylish fellow.  We'd like to think he was a Virgil James kind-of-guy who carried one of our bags, overflowing with sonnets and plays. After all, how could he be the writer he was and not appreciate the details of quality, the allure of luxury, and the opportunity to make a personal fashion statement. So, it's only fitting that our first tribute to the exceptional, to the utter extraordinary, celebrates William S. 

As part of our recurring theme, exceptional can be found everywhere, if you know where to look for it. Such is the case with taking in a Shakespeare play at one of the United States' largest and best festivals devoted to the Bard, which happens not in New York or Chicago but in the small college town of Ashland, Oregon, population 20,078. 

The Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in this little arts community boasts a whopping season of nine months and eleven plays. Besides major Shakespeare oeuvres, it also puts on other classic plays, as well as new works, musicals and more. It’s become a tradition and can’t miss annual ritual for those-in-the-know.

Originally hailing from a town not far from Ashland, we've been frequent visitors to the festival. Our first experience was in grade school and someone must have thought the ticket price and experience worthy for even a kid. We'll admit to not following every scene but the effect was lasting. Frankly, the experience can be magical, and worth whatever effort is required to attend at least once. For sure, some traditions get overblown simply because they are traditions (nothing wrong with that), but this festival merits the highest praise. We've seen even the most cynical observer lose themselves in the best reality show ever.

Stunningly Staged

The OSF opened in 1935 with a production of Twelfth Night. From that point forward it just grew, garnering awards, an endowment fund, publicity such as Time magazine coverage and, today, attracts an audience of more than 400,000 theatregoers each year. Aside from being one of America’s oldest regional repertory theatres, it also boasts "the oldest existing full-scale Elizabethan stage in the Western Hemisphere, built on the site of an old Chautauqua theatre established in 1893." Sounds like a good spot for immersion in some iambic pentameter!

The festival has three theaters: the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre with orchestra and balcony seating for an audience of 1,190; the indoor, intimate and beloved Angus Bowmer Theatre (seats 601); and the Thomas Theatre (seats 270-360). There’s not a bad seat in any of these houses!

The 2018 roster treats audiences to Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Sense and Sensibility, and other see-worthy selections such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, the musical-genre-revolutionizing Broadway hit from 1943, and the world premiere of The Way the Mountain Moved, an American railroad tale set in the desert in the 1850s that intertwines the fates of a bunch of "lost pioneers, cautious Native Americans, and an African-American Mormon couple." Juicy!

Productions in Action

This popular, world-class festival sells out quickly, so chances are you won't be able to go on a whim. Hotels and B&Bs in and around Ashland (and nearby Medford or Jacksonville) also need to be booked well in advance. Keep in mind that the flagship, outdoor Elizabethan theater is open only during the summer season.

If you fall in love with the top-notch performances as we did, consider membership with special privileges. If you crave deeper immersion into the world of theatre and Shakespeare, there are tours (including backstage tours), post-show discussions with experts, and a chance to meet the staff. Info on these special events and tours can be found on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival website. Also helpful: the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

Thousands of actors have appeared in OSF productions over the past 80+ years, and gone on to fame beyond Ashland. Today, the festival is a hotbed of young and new talent.  Each year about 100 actors comprise the OSF repertory acting company — the largest repertory troupe in the country. With diversity a major concern for Broadway and the theater industry at large, 61% of this year’s OSF ensemble are actors of color.   

Round Up

If you’ve read this far, you’re a true fan and deserve news on another special find in this corner of the Pacific Northwest. Although the OSF is indeed a destination event, no harm in getting all the culture you can find in one trip. The Britt Music & Arts Festival in nearby Jacksonville, OR is a bit of a regional secret. Once the province of world-class classical music, the repertoire has expended over the years to include a bit of everything with the same exceptional standards. You heard it here first!


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