LIANE HANSEN, host:
From the screen to the stage now, and a small college town with one of the largest regional theaters in the country. The Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival started as outdoor summer theater back in 1935. Today, its budget hovers around $27 million, and as many non-profit theaters are struggling to survive these days, OSF finished last season in the black.
Independent producer Dmae Roberts has the story from Ashland, Oregon.
DMAE ROBERTS: In the lobby of the large indoor theater of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, folks are already talking about this new version of "Hamlet." Rae and Bill Saltzstein from Woodinville, Washington, just outside of Seattle, drove all day to get here.
Ms. RAE SALTZSTEIN: We come every year. We see all of the plays, and we actually have a place here now.
ROBERTS: The Saltzsteins, like many theater lovers, make this pilgrimage several times a year. They started over 26 years ago, in fact, and say they want to retire here.
Ms. SALTZSTEIN: We always see a very high caliber of show here. We come here because we like the company, we like what they're doing, you know, trying to integrate some classics from other cultures and also seeing some of the classics in interesting interpretations.
ROBERTS: What makes this year's "Hamlet" unusual isn't the multiracial casting - OSF's been doing that for decades. Actors of color make up over a third of the company, so seeing an African-American Gertrude and a very fair-haired Hamlet is no big deal. But what brought the house in this "Hamlet" was the reimagining of the players, a visiting acting troupe now done hip-hop.
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Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible) You are sick of late. So far from here and from your poor mistakes that I fear for you. Yes, (unintelligible). So let me just comfort you, my lord, I love you.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) too much even as (unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman: Will I be great or (unintelligible) great love grows here.
ROBERTS: Artistic director Bill Rauch says a hip-hop "Hamlet" simply stays true to the way Shakespeare himself mashed up the old with the new.
Mr. BILL RAUCH (Artistic Director, OSF): We have an opportunity and I would even say a responsibility to look at new forms of language so that we can be as daring and as bold with our uses of language as Shakespeare was.
Ms. VANESSA BUENDIA: The acting scene where the actors, the Players come out and they reenact what the actual murder was, completely different that what I expected. But I like it a lot.
ROBERTS: Vanessa Buendia(ph) is a college freshman from California, and a first-timer who'd never seen a Shakespeare play. She says she's hooked.
The kind of risky innovation that drew her in also attracts the talent to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Actors, designers and playwrights can't turn down a chance to do a blend of Shakespeare and new plays in three state-of-the-art indoor theaters. The other draw: the quality of life in the bucolic town of Ashland, nestled in rolling hills.
Mr. ANTHONY HEALD (Actor): When I go to the grocery store, the clerk has seen the play I did the night before, that my neighbors all go to the theater. The whole town lives and breathes Shakespeare.
ROBERTS: Anthony Heald is a film and television actor with "Silence of the Lambs," "Boston Public" and "Boston Legal" on his credits. He says OSF's reputation drew him here.
Ms. HEALD: The depth of the company, the terrific support that you get in every aspect - voice and text, dramaturgical support, the phenomenal costumes, the sets and the props. You know, there's a hunger on the part of actors, hunger to do good work and to do the classics, and to really feel positive about who you're working with and where you're living.
ROBERTS: Like other regional theaters last year, OSF pared down their budget. But even with cutbacks, the theater hired more than 100 actors and 400 designers, crew and staff. Paul Nicholson, executive director for more than 30 years, says that's what it takes to put on multiple plays simultaneously almost all year round.
Mr. PAUL NICHOLSON (Executive Director, OSF): This year we've got "Pride and Prejudice," which has a cast of about 19 or 20. We've got "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and that's even got a fair cast of 13 to 14. We'll do a Shakespeare, typically, with 18 to 25 people but we'll do four, sometimes five Shakespeares. And then beyond that, you know, you've got the other classics who've got significant cast.
Most theaters elsewhere are having to pare down, and most of them are paring down on the work on stage. And we think that that's not the way to go.
ROBERTS: For Bill Rauch, OSF's success is the solid theater work that's been 75 years in the making. He says he wants to reach everyone, including those who want costume dramas where the dresses touch the floor.
Mr. RAUCH: I want them to have their socks knocked off by a production with a very contemporary aesthetic. At the same time, for people who say, I am only interested in fresh, bold, innovative takes on Shakespeare, I have no interest in a traditional historical setting, I want them to see something at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in gorgeous period costumes, that is so dynamically acted that they are transported by that experience.
ROBERTS: Rauch can't wait for OSF's next big step. They've commissioned "American Revolutions," a project to develop 37 new works from playwrights around the country.
For NPR News, I'm Dmae Roberts.
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HANSEN: You can see highlights from 75 years of Oregon Shakespeare history at NPR.org.