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William Hurt and doin' easy time in Ashland, OR

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William Hurt and doin' easy time in Ashland, OR

An image of William Shakespeare with sunglasses is pinned the the bulletin board in a hallway at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival March 25,2008 in Ashland, Ore. The venerable festival is heading in new directions under new artistic director Bill Rauch. (AP Photo by Jeff Barnard)

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2008 AP/Jeff Barnard

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2008 (AP/Jeff Barnard)

I’m writing today from Ashland, OR, a town of about 20,000 in the beautiful foothills of south central Oregon, not far from Crater Lake National Park. Ashland is home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, kinda-sorta the Stratford Festival of the United States. In fact, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is even older than Stratford, having been created in 1935 in the depths of the Great Depression, the vision of founding artistic director Angus Bowmer. The town gave him $400 to produce two Shakespeare plays but made him also stage boxing matches to cover the loss on the plays. As it happened, the profits from the plays covered the losses on the boxing, and a local industry was born.

Bowmer still was alive and very much an active emeritus presence when I first went to Ashland in July, 1975. I talked with him a number of times during my Fourth of July week visit, which happily coincided with the 40th anniversary celebrations for the OSF, and the dandiest bluegrass fiddle festival I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. The fiddling was an annual Independence Day event in Ashland, held in sprawling Lithia Park, directly adjoining the OSF grounds. The park features a fountain where you can have a taste of yuck-inducing “Lithia Water,” bubbling up from natural springs, which built Ashland’s early 20th Century claim to fame as a spa town before the OSF was born. It’s what we Midwesterners used to call “egg water,” back when I was a kid.

By the time I arrived in 1975, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had two beautiful playhouses: the 1200-seat outdoor Elizabethan Stage (modeled vaguely after the Fortune Theatre of the 1590’s) and the 600-plus seat indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre. I had three friends in the very large OSF company that year, all of us having been undergrads together just a few years earlier at Tufts University. One of my friends was the not-yet-famous William Hurt, who told me that unattached actors such as himself had a stock line they used to hustle dates with lovely female tourists: “Come to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Stay three days, see six plays and f**k a future star.”

Some years ago the OSF added a third blackbox theater to its mix, a playhouse which was in use at the time of my third visit 10 years ago, in 2001. Angus was gone by then and his successor, Jerry Turner, had retired. The artistic director was my old friend Libby Appel, who had begun her teaching and directing career in Chicago and had been a member of the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee in the late 1970’s (which is how I had met her). Libby, too, now has stepped down as artistic director, although she continues to live in Ashland and direct at the OSF.

What brings me to Ashland for a fourth time is the annual conference of my professional organization, the American Theatre Critics Association (my WBEZ colleague Kelly Kleiman, also is a member). In the next five days I’ll see eight plays ranging from Shakespeare (4) and Moliere to Gilbert & Sullivan and at least one new American play, although I doubt very much that I’ll f**k a future star. It’s much more likely that I’ll take my pleasures by sampling fine Oregon wines and fresh salmon. The Chicago Connection is that Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County is one of the plays on the schedule. But I might cut out to hike in the beautiful Rogue River National Forest that surrounds Ashland, as I had the privilege of seeing the Steppenwolf original of Osage.

The American Theatre Critics Association helps bestow the annual Tony Award for an outstanding Regional Theater and we bestowed one on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sometime around 1986. Today this extraordinary company in such a gorgeous natural setting has 325 full-time employees, among them almost 80 actors and stage managers on union contracts. The annual budget is over $26 million, with which OSF presents an 11-play repertory season running from February to October.

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