Business is booming at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Is everybody happy’sort of.
Ashland, Oregon sits at the foot of the Siskyou Mountains like a favorite pair of boots at the foot of a bed, 20 miles outside of Medford, a cow pattie’s toss from Interstate 5. The nearest major metropolitan area is Portland, more than 300 miles away, and the nearest professional baseball team resides 400 miles to the south in San Francisco. Certainly there are more convenient places to produce Shakespeare, but none more popular.
Back in 1970, 172,334 people made the trip to see the Bard performed under the stars on Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor stage, most of them coming from more than 150 miles away. Then, the town of Ashland was little more than a gas stop buffeted by a couple of restaurants–and modest ones at that. Outside under a gibbous moon in Ashland, seeing Shakespeare was a matter of sweating (if the 100-plus daytime temperature lingered too long) or shivering (when the cold night wind whistled down the mountains and cut through your skin like a lance).
City Shakespeare it was not.
Nineteen-seventy was also the year the 600-seat Angus Bowmer theatre was christened, paving the way for an entirely new era of theatre in Ashland. Indoors, air-conditioned, versatile and modern, the Angus Bowmer opened with a production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, thus whetting the OSF audience’s appetite for new and more challenging non-Shakespearean work.
OSF has been growing like a well-tended weed ever since. More than 400,000 people attended the festival last year, bringing close to $68 million in revenue to the tiny town of Ashland. The much-anticipated $7.6-million Allen Pavilion of the outdoor Elizabethan stage was also unveiled last summer, and new artistic director Henry Woronicz took the creative reins from the company’s long-time overseer Jerry Turner, who held the position for 21 years.
To be sure, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is poised at the end of one era and the beginning of another, as it was in 1970, and has been many other times in its venerable history. Business is booming, and the popularity of the festival is at an all-time high.
But success has come at a price. The economic growth that was so vital and welcome during the 1980s has arguably reached a point of diminishing returns. Because their fates are so symbiotically linked, both OSF and the city of Ashland are discovering that too much of a good thing can be a strain.
As OSF has grown, so has the city of Ashland. Once upon a time the venerable Mark Antony Hotel was virtually the only place in Ashland where you could get a room and a meal. Ashland has since swelled to the point where it now has more than 100 restaurants and, according to the most boastful of Chamber of Commerce brochures, the highest number of bed and breakfasts per capita in the nation. So many upscale clothing stores, restaurants, wine shops, boutiques and espresso bars have opened in the last five years that locals euphemistically refer to the phenomenon as the “Carmelization” of Ashland. Indeed, while many of the 14,000 people who live in Ashland year-round still drive overhauled Volkswagen Beetles, one now finds a conspicuous overrepresentation of Lexus’s, Jaguars, BMWs and Mercedes Benz’s parked along the main drag during the summer. Predictably enough, real estate in Ashland has also skyrocketed. Land in and around Ashland is now the most expensive in Oregon.
Though the relationship between the city and the festival is reportedly very amicable, longtime residents still occasionally wake up bewildered that the festival and its hundreds of thousands of patrons have virtually taken over “their” town. A sign posted by “Citizens for a Poodle-free Ashland” in one of Ashland’s more renegade countercultural hangouts hints at the tongue-in-cheek tolerance of the locals for the yuppification of their city, but the perception of who actually “owns” Ashland depends entirely on who you ask.
PATRONS OF THE OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL tend to think fondly of Ashland as their town, but most of them visit only for four or five days per year, so the feeling isn’t necessarily mutual.
To the Deadheads and politically correct hippie wannabe’s who play frisbee in the park and busque for quarters on the streetcorner, the festival itself is viewed as a kind of cultural Disneyland where upper-middle class white people come to have their sense of Western cultural superiority reaffirmed.
To the people who descend on Ashland for the ski season after the festival closes on Nov. 1, Ashland is a ski town, period. Festival crowds are something they are happy to avoid.
Students of Southern Oregon State College, located a mile outside of Ashland, can hardly wait for festivalgoers to leave so that they can reclaim what they see as their turf. To be sure, Halloween partygoers during the late 1980s bid the festival such an enthusiastic farewell that the police had to intervene.
And to the businesspeople who live and work in Ashland, of course, those same festivalgoers are the backbone of their existence, earning them an average of $53,000 per year of the $68 million per anum the audiences unload on the local economy.
Indeed, one of the great and mysterious charms of Ashland is how it can possibly be so many things to so many different people. Visitors tend to see in Ashland exactly what they want to see, and the contradictions are staggering. Like so many small American towns that have been “discovered” by urban professionals looking for a bucolic getaway, the great challenge of the future is whether Ashland can continue to grow and embrace the contradictory forces that sustain it without destroying the very character that makes it such a wonderful place to visit.
THE FESTIVAL IS CAUGHT SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE of that challenge, and the theatre’s administration is all too aware of the pitfalls. The new Allen Pavilion was built as much to keep increasing traffic and party noise out as to keep the actors’ voices in, and the street adjacent to the pavilion is still blocked off during showtime to keep the noise level down. For many years, OSF enticed people to become dues-paying members of the festival by offering preferential treatment on ticket reservations. Now it is impossible for OSF to promise good seats to everybody exactly when they want them because membership has become so popular. Tickets for shows in the tiny 140-seat Black Swan theatre are particularly difficult to reserve, with a limit of two per customer, creating what OSF management calls “the Black Swan problem,” their biggest public relations bugaboo to date. Though staff people say there is still room for the festival to market its “shoulder seasons” in spring and fall, the festival already plays to 95 percent of capacity and is rapidly reaching the audience saturation point.
Those who have been around the festival for a while say that growth has always been a mixed blessing in the festival’s 57-year history. And now that the Allen Pavilion has been built and the company’s new Portland branch is in full swing–Portland Center Stage was launched in 1988 with a five-play October-to-March season and a separate administrative and production staff–executive director William W. Patton is inclined to think that enough is enough. In fact, he says, “Nobody wants to grow any larger than we are now. Our primary concern at the moment is to deepen the artistic integrity of the work.”
Patton was the festival’s first paid employee back in 1953, when fewer than 16,000 people per year made the pilgrimage to Ashland. For him, change has been a constant, and the new multimillion dollar Allen Pavilion is a perfect metaphor for the direction in which he wants the festival to move.
The pavilion was built largely to solve problems that had grown along with the city of Ashland itself. Noise from traffic and the park behind the former Elizabethan Theatre had gotten so bad that people sitting in the back third of the theatre could only decipher about half of the words. Actors were forced to shout their lines in order to be heard, straining their voices even in the most intimate scenes, to the point where people up front began complaining that the productions were looking more and more ridiculous. Actors were becoming reluctant to accept parts on the outdoor stage, and many people were beginning to feel that the viability of outdoor Shakespeare in Ashland was being threatened.
The idea was to create a sound barrier to the encroaching world outside while simultaneously improving the acoustics and intimacy inside. The futuristic stadiumlike structure wraps around the seating area, and the back third of the seats have been raised into a secondtier balcony, creating an acoustic shell that reflects sound back into the theatre. An entirely new lighting system housed in the perimeter of the shell has quintupled the technical capabilities of the theatre, the stage itself was extended by three-and-a-half feet, and two new vomitorium entrances have doubled the number of entrances and exits–all of which have turned the formerly beleaguered space into a director’s playground.
“It’s like a microwave oven,” actor Mark Booher tells people on his backstage tours. “Now that we have it, we can’t remember how we got along without it.”
In keeping with the festival’s current growth-control thinking, no new seats were added when the pavilion was constructed, though it would have been a perfect opportunity to do so. “We built this to improve the quality of our productions, not the quantity,” reminds Patton, and the pavilion has done just what he and other advocates of the project promised it would.
In fact, the acoustics are so good inside the Allen Pavilion that not only can the actors be heard, but so can every cough, sniffle, rustle, slurp, sneeze, whisper and crackle of a cellophane candy wrapper. In the past, nobody cared if people talked to their neighbors or popped cans of soda in the middle of a scene, but veteran Ashland theatregoers now find themselves having to be on their best behavior in these sensitive new surroundings. The problem was so noticeable last year that management is considering banning soft drinks and food in the future to minimize distractions.
Except for a few people reluctant to give up their view of mountains silhouetted by stars, reactions to the pavilion during its first year were mostly positive, especially from people who remember how bad the noise problems were getting. Mention the new pavilion in the OSF member’s lounge and faces beam with enthusiasm.
“It’s wonderful,” says Audrey Bernstein, a member from San Diego who has been coming to Ashland for more than 12 years. “When you walk in, it just feels more like I imagine things must have felt in Shakespeare’s day. It’s very exciting.”
“The wind doesn’t come down the mountain and smack you in the cheek like it used to, either,” adds Carol Tomas, another longtime OSF member. But the flipside to added wind protection is that the pavilion traps more heat on sweltering midsummer days, taking longer to cool down at night.
THE OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE RESPONSE TO THE Allen Pavilion is also good news to fledgling artistic director Henry Woronicz, not only because he was the one who advised the board of directors six years ago to build the structure, but because now that most of the problems associated with the outdoor stage have been solved, Woronicz can turn his attention to other more pressing issues facing him as artistic director–namely the fresh artistic vision he wants to implement.
Hiring Woronicz to pick up where Jerry Turner left off is considered by many OSF observers to be an extremely conservative move, if only because Woronicz has spent most of his adult life performing Shakespeare. Woronicz has been a beloved member of the acting company in Ashland for years, but some worry that, if he doesn’t know anything else, he can’t do much more than maintain the status quo.
Woronicz himself gets a mischievous twinkle in his eye when the charge of conservativism comes up, because he knows why people say it and isn’t very comfortable with the reasons. Woronicz agrees that relatively traditional productions will continue to be staged outdoors under his reign, though he will try to entice more diverse and prestigious directors to Ashland (a record four women directed plays in Ashland last year, and more than 10 percent of the acting company were people of color, a distinct change in the company’s cultural diversity over past years). But where Woronicz’s artistic touch will be felt most is in the Angus Bowmer and tiny Black Swan theatres.
Speculation runs rampant about what exactly Woronicz’s vision might look like, but at least a few clues about where he intends to guide OSF can be gleaned from last year’s program of plays, which he co-produced with Turner, particularly La Bete, the first non-Shakespearean play he chose to direct in his new role as artistic director.
La Bete bombed on Broadway in 1991, but Woronicz was attracted to the language of the play–wit-laced rhyming couplets mimicking Moliere–and thought it would perfectly complement the festival’s Shakespeare. He also thought that 32-year-old playwright David Hirson deserved a second chance, and liked the fact that the play took not-so-subtle satirical jabs at the staid arts-patron establishment, including the National Endowment for the Arts and OSF’s own loyal but conservative supporters.
“I was looking for something that would jump out at people–something with a little more bite to it,” says Woronicz. On opening night, with Ray Porter playing the lead role of Valere, a bombastic pseudo-genius hired to add some zest to a lackluster 17th-century acting troupe, La Bete received one standing ovation at the end of Valere’s monumentally self-absorbed 22-minute opening soliloquy in the middle of the first act, and another at the final curtain. Critics didn’t embrace the play as warmly, but critics don’t go unscathed in La Bete either.
THOUGH DEVELOPMENT OF NEW PLAYS WILL NEVER be a main focus of the festival, Woronicz intends to keep challenging OSF audiences with increasingly adventurous work by up-and-coming playwrights. During the Turner era, OSF audiences were often treated to Turner’s own translations of his favorite playwrights, Ibsen and Strindberg. Eager to put his own stamp on OSF, Woronicz rattles off names such as Caryl Churchill, Steve Tesich, Steven Dietz and John Guare as examples of the kind of work he wants to produce. Woronicz is all too aware of OSF’s lingering national reputation as a place that does safe plays for vacationing, relatively unsophisticated, middle-class audiences, and has made it his personal mission to see that theatre in Ashland gets the respect he thinks it deserves.
“It’s easy for us to get lulled into complacency here,” says Woronicz. “People will come to whatever we put up, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. As artists, we want to take this opportunity to breathe some life into some areas of the operation that may have gotten stale. For a theatre that’s arguably the largest regional theatre in the country, with a $12-million budget, a company of 65 actors, four theatres in two cities producing 16 plays a year, we should be able to find some room to support new writers.”
Keeping his word, Woronicz has made sure that in addition to a full slate of Shakespeare next year, OSF audiences will also have the opportunity to see Caryl Churchill’s latest play, Mad Forest, written in response to the fall of Romania’s Ceausescu regime, as well as Light in the Village by John Clifford, The Baltimore Waltz by Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s The Illusion, Georges Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear, and in Portland Lips Together, Teeth Apart by Terrence McNally, and Spunk by George C. Wolfe. The largely white artistic staff will also take a multicultural microstep forward this year when Clinton Turner-Davis, only the second African-American can ever to direct an OSF production, directs August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Privately, under his breath, Woronicz also whispers about the possibility of finding a small fourth theatre somewhere in Ashland where his more esoteric side can be indulged. For now, however, his pet solution to the Black Swan problem is to use it as a venue for more experimental, artistically adventurous work, since it will be packed to the gills no matter what goes up, making the popularity factor almost irrelevant.
Somewhere between managing, directing, holding hands and sleeping, Woronicz also wants to get back onto Ashland’s outdoor stage and have a go at Hamlet once more before he turns 40. Like the festival and the city of Ashland itself, Woronicz is in the midst of a middle-age transition. He has gotten where he is by stretching himself to the limit, as have OSF and Ashland.
Ten years from now, neither the festival or Ashland will be same as they are today. Continuous growth has been relatively kind to them in the past, and one can only hope that future change will be managed intelligently to preserve the magic and character of both. As almost half a million people a year can attest, Shakespeare and sage-brush have never gone so well together. With any luck, the Bard will be able to kick his boots off and hang out in the hills of southern Oregon for a long time to come.