In Oregon, A Theater Thrives Despite The Downturn One of the largest regional theaters in the country is located in the small college town of Ashland, Ore.-- and at a time when many nonprofit theaters are struggling, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival finished last season in the black. Dmae Roberts explains.

In Oregon, A Theater Thrives Despite The Downturn

In Oregon, A Theater Thrives Despite The Downturn

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's open-air Elizabethan stage is one of the oldest such venues in the United States. Modeled on the Fortune theater in 16th-century London, the third incarnation opened in Ashland in 1959. T. Charles Erickson hide caption

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T. Charles Erickson

For Bill and Rae Saltzstein, theater is a passion. They love it so much that a couple of times a year, in the past 26 years, they've driven the more than seven hours from their home in Woodinville, Wash., to Ashland, Ore., to see some of the best plays in the Northwest.

The Saltzsteins are longtime fans of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a 75-year-old institution that has become synonymous with Ashland. They are such fans, in fact, that they have bought a place in town and are thinking of retiring there.

At a time when many nonprofit theaters struggle to stay afloat, it's the loyalty of people like the Saltzsteins that has kept OSF firmly in the black.

"We always see a very high-caliber show here," Rae Saltzstein says. "We come here because we like the company — we like what they're doing, trying to integrate some classics from other cultures and new works. Some of the commissioning that they're doing we're very excited about, and also seeing some of the classics in new, more interesting interpretations."

Recently, the Saltzsteins attended the opening night of a modern-day Hamlet featuring a show-stopping hip-hop take on the traveling troupe of players that helps the hero prince spring a trap upon his murderous uncle. The Players --"speak the speech I pray you" and "catch the conscience of the king" — have been re-imagined as rhyme-busting actors with moves that bring down the house. OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, who staged the production, says the theater's contemporary interpretation pays homage to the way Shakespeare himself mashed up the old with the new.

"We have an opportunity — and I would say a responsibility — to look at new forms of language so we can be as daring and as bold with our uses of language as Shakespeare was," Rauch says.

So far, this risky approach seems to be working. Vanessa Buendia, a college freshman from California, had never seen a Shakespeare play before the OSF production of Hamlet. Now she says she's hooked.

"The scene where the Players acted out the actual murder — that was completely different from what I expected," Buendia says. "But I like it a lot."

'The Hunger To Do Good Work'

Theatergoers aren't the only people drawn to Ashland. Actors, designers and playwrights have a hard time turning down a chance to work on both Shakespeare's plays and more contemporary works — all in a bucolic valley surrounded by Ashland's rolling hills. Film and television actor Anthony Heald — he was in The Silence of the Lambs, Boston Public and Boston Legal — says it certainly helps that everyone in the small town seems to live and breathe Shakespeare.

"I love the fact that when I go to the grocery store, the clerk has seen the play I did the night before," Heald says. That kind of community support replaces "the hunger for recognition and advancement," Heald says. "It's the 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."

First-class production values are another lure, says Heald, who praises "the depth of the company, the terrific support that you get in every aspect, voice and text, the dramaturgical support, the phenomenal costumes, sets and the props. You're surrounded by colleagues — some you get to work with over and over again."

Ashland hasn't been completely immune to the troubles of the economy. Like other regional theaters, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was forced to at least temporarily reduce its budget in 2009, cutting more than 6 percent off projected expenditures. It also had to forgo part of a planned yearly budget increase. But a bump in donations, and record-high sales at the box office, meant that in the end OSF finished in the black; in fiscal year 2009, the company spent just a little less than the $26.6 million it had originally budgeted, employing more than 100 actors and 400 designers, crew and staff in the process.

That's the kind of outlay it takes to put on multiple plays, simultaneously, almost year-round, says Paul Nicholson, the theater's executive director for 30 years.

"This year we've got Pride and Prejudice, which has a cast with 19 or 20," Nicholson says. "We've got Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and that's got a cast of 13 or 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've got the other classics."

But scaling back, he says, is not an option for the OSF.

"Most theaters are having to pare down, and most are paring down on the work on stage," Nicholson says. "That's not the way to go."

Old Voices, New Plays, And The Anxieties Of An Age

Nicholson attributes the theater's success to great working conditions, which help the company put "the best possible work on stage." He says it's also about OSF helping audiences enjoy their experience in Ashland. "It's the way our people treat the audience when they walk through the door or call up the box office," Nicholson says.

Before taking on the top job at the OSF, artistic director Bill Rauch co-founded and ran the influential Cornerstone Theater Company, which specializes in collaborative theater designed to involve local communities and build bridges across cultures. Jenny Graham hide caption

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Jenny Graham

Bill Rauch credits the festival's reputation for solid theater work, a reputation that has been 75 years in the making. And make no mistake, he's interested in reaching a diverse audience — and wants theatergoers to have their "socks knocked off" by new takes on classics as well as traditional interpretations.

"For people who say, 'I am only interested in fresh, bold, innovative takes on Shakespeare; I've no interest in a traditional historical setting' — I want them to see something at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in gorgeous period costumes, that's so dynamically acted that they are transported by that experience."

He wants them to hear new theatrical voices, too. The latest in the OSF's catalog of ambitious undertakings? "American Revolutions" — a 10-year project designed to develop 37 new plays from writers around the country.

Inspired by Shakespeare's history plays — where the Bard examined his own era's anxieties, fueled by worries about an aging Queen Elizabeth I and uncertainties about a coming transfer of power — Rauch says OSF wants to "look at our age's anxieties, our hopes, our fears, by looking at moments of our past in U.S. history."

The first American Revolutions production kicks off in June.

Dmae Roberts is an independent producer working in Portland.