It was always going to be impressive. ‘Are you going to Ashland?’ was one of the most frequently asked questions of our project. If wasn’t raised, I would say, ‘And, of course, we’re going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.’ It is the oldest and largest of its kind in a town that is small enough for Lithia Park to feel much bigger than Ashland’s modest network of streets, and for the dudes making music on their guitars, washboards and tambourines to compliment me on my hat every time I walked by. The festive atmosphere is easily caught through the huddle of independent stores – books, antiques, gourmet coffee, ‘Puck’s Donuts’, even ‘All’s Well Vitamins’ – and by the people. Conversations about the show that has just been seen, or questions about the time of the next event – a pre-show talk, midday lecture, post-performance discussion, or a backstage tour – are always, it seems, within ear-shot.
Ashland’s theatre culture is much more intense than Stratford-upon-Avon’s. There are four theatres built around a quadrangle creating a collegial atmosphere. Included among them are the box office, the teaching spaces, the administrative buildings and the members’ lounge. The Festival has 17,000 members who provide around 4 million dollars of its funding each year. It regularly performs ten, eleven and sometimes twelve plays in repertory over ten months and with a single company. Four or five of those plays will be by Shakespeare. The others will include classical world drama and new writing.
There are 600 employees and an operating budget of 30 million dollars. 70% of its revenue comes from ticket sales. One senses that Shakespeare himself would not only approve of this well-oiled entertainment machine that fosters new talent and shows, but would no doubt revel in it. Ashland is no less than the mother of all North American Shakespeare Festivals and stands as the product of an irrational, pioneering venture, established way out west in 1935, which today could easily hold honorary status at its country’s national theatre. Like Utah, OSF opens six shows in three successive days, so the beginning of the repertory festival is synonymous with the start of the season.
The Allen Elizabethan Theatre with the set of The Two Gentlemen of Verona being built during our backstage tour.
Between us we saw six productions during our brief stay (and we all saw five each). Richard III in the outdoor, Allen Elizabethan Theatre was a medieval pageant, carefully but powerfully spoken, the iconic Shakespeare show of the season which seemed to satisfy the expectations of many traditional festival goers. The Comedy of Errors, performed on an apron stage in the Thomas Theatre was set in Harlem and staged as a knockabout farce with the two actors doubling for both sets of identical twins, a popular staging choice but not one that I have ever actually seen. It bristled with witty nuances and several beguiling eccentricities (for example the bell that tinkled each time the word ‘chain’ was mentioned). The Tempest in the Angus Bowman Theatre was characterised by its use of movement and Asian-inspired storytelling techniques.
Into the Woods was striking for two reasons: it was the first time I’d seen the musical and there was break of 53 minutes in the first half as hundreds of us sheltered from an impressive thunder storm, an actual tempest. As always Stephen Sondheim’s style got under my skin, so I projected his characteristic sound onto the lightning flashes. At the beginning of each performance in the Elizabethan Theatre the audience is told the percentage chance of precipitation (39% on the Wednesday evening). Jack (Miles Fletcher) was just making his descent on a rope from one of the upper playing spaces and had sung the line ‘There are giants in the sky’. There was an immediate and almighty clap of thunder and then voice of the stage-manager interrupting the action and calling the show to a halt. Equally coincidental was the show’s recommencement after the downpour. Jack started to make his descent down the rope again – ‘There are giants in the sky’ – and then another clap of thunder – and a lightning flash – as though professionally cued.
The festival is dedicated to inclusivity and diversity. These policies matter as much to the organisation as to its patrons. At least 40% of the company are ‘actors of colour.’ There is a programme of outreach work into communities and a thriving programme of internships. Hastings in Richard III was played by a deaf actor, Howie Seago, who used sign language and whose voice was provided by his Mistress Shore (Omoze Idehenre). This season also saw an all female The Two Gentlemen of Verona (a first for the festival, though Crab’s sex was not revealed; the dog was called Picasso). OSF is a member of a national body dedicated to inclusivity within professional theatre. There are twenty-one members and the only other Shakespearian theatre involved is Cal Shakes, so far.
New work inspired by or complementing Shakespearian departures is a vital part of the festival’s work. We saw a remarkable new play, The Great Society, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Schenkkan, co-commissioned and co-produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. In Ashland, it’s being staged in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. The Great Society is the second of a two-part work about the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Jack Willis) and sits within OSF’s American Revolutions project: a United States History Cycle comprising up to 37 plays about moments of change in the nation’s history. The first part, All the Way, begins with the assassination of President Kennedy. It transferred to Broadway and won a Tony Award. The Great Society charts President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam war and the Voting Rights act. Martin Luther King (Kenajuan Bentley) features as a prominent character, as does Bobby Kennedy (Danforth Comins). One episode includes King’s famous walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Bloody Sunday, the crowd dispersed by tear gas and havoc reeked on them by the state police. Some of the individual dead appeared on stage to tell us who they were, how they died and to haunt Johnson’s conscience. Uneasy lies the head of state, whether he wears a crown or not.
It felt like I was watching a Shakespeare history play, and I was struck very much by some of the audience’s reactions, where the laughter came and the unsolicited applause. ‘You can trust the government’ drew a large laugh as did Johnson referring to ‘George Washington and his fucking Cherry Tree.’ At one point, members of the audience applauded as though they were members of the congress being addressed by the president on hearing him remind us that ‘all men are created equal.’
Why this play? Why now? Because racial issues are still a worrying current concern. The director, Bill Rauch (also the Artistic Director of the festival), writes in the programme, ‘it is vital that we remember what LBJ fought for and what he achieved, and also what he lost in the misbegotten nightmare of the Vietnam War.’ Fifty years on since the Voting Rights Act and with ‘the Supreme Court having eliminated key provisions only last year, the urgency of The Great Society is painfully clear.’ As we were also reminded at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, Martin Luther King’s words are every bit as relevant now as they were half a century ago. At one point in The Great Society we hear him say to President Johnson, ‘You have not been a black man in America for three hundred years.’
An abiding memory of Ashland for me is my walk in Lithia Park early on Thursday morning, gourmet coffee in hand. Three deer were grazing in front of a yoga class. I walked among ancient varieties of trees and was able to root the Festival’s politics in the soil which has nurtured it for almost eighty years.
Dispatched from Bozeman, Montana.