The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has grown from a summer outdoor series in the 1930s to a season that stretches from February to October, incorporating Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean plays at three theaters. The OSF has become the largest regional repertory theater in the United States.
A season at OSF consists of a wide range of classic and contemporary plays produced in three theatres. Three plays are staged in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, three in the Thomas Theatre, and five in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. OSF provides a broad range of educational programs for middle schools, high schools, college students and theatre professionals. While OSF has produced non-Shakespearean works since 1960, each season continues to include three to five Shakespeare plays. Since 1935, it has staged Shakespeare’s complete canon three times, completing the first cycle in 1958 with a production of Troilus and Cressida and completing the second and third cycles through the works in 1978 and 1997. Since 2000, there has also been at least one new work each season from playwrights such as Octavio Solis andRobert Schenkkan. In addition to the plays, a free outdoor “Green Show” drawing audiences of 600 to 1200, precedes the evening plays from June through October from a modular steel stage with a sprung floor for the dancers, a removable wheelchair ramp for handicapped performers, and built-in storage facilities that eliminate carting equipment from and to distant storage facilities six days a week. Originally, it offered Elizabethan music and dancers. From 1966 till 2007, it consisted of three shows in rotation inspired by the plays showing in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. Live music was supplied by the Terra Nova Consort and other guest musicians and modern dance was performed by Dance Kaleidoscope. In 2008, the Green Show was revamped. Performers may include a dance group from Mexico or India, clowns doing ballet on stilts, jugglers, or a fire show. OSF actors might showcase their musical talents.
Improv, metal, or rock-n-roll variations on Shakespeare might be seen. Individual performers, groups, choirs, bands, and orchestras may present Afro-Cuban, baroque, blues, classical, contemporary, cowboy, funk, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, mariachi, marimba, poetry, marionette, renaissance, or salsa, sometimes combined in unexpected ways. Performers are drawn from throughout the Northwest and California.
The Festival presents 750 to 800 performances of eleven plays in three theaters from February through early November each year, to a total audience of about 410,000 each season. The company of nearly 1400 people consists of about 675 paid staff and 700 volunteers. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is listed as a Major Festival in the book Shakespeare Festivals Around the World.
In 1893, the residents of Ashland built a facility to host a Chautauqua event on July 5. In its heyday, it accommodated audiences of 1,500 for appearances by the likes of John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan during annual 10-day seasons.
In 1917, a new domed structure was built at the site, but it fell into disrepair after the Chautauqua movement died out in the 1920s. In 1935, the similarity of the remaining wall of the then roofless Chautauqua building to Elizabethan theatres inspired Southern Oregon Normal School drama professor Angus L. Bowmer to propose using it to present plays by Shakespeare. Ashland city leaders granted him a sum “not to exceed $400” (approximately equivalent to $6900 in present-day terms) to present two plays as part of the city’s Independence Day celebration. However, they pressed Bowmer to add boxing matches to cover the expected deficit. Bowmer agreed, feeling such an event was in perfect keeping with the bawdiness of Elizabethan theatre, and the performances went forward. The Works Progress Administration helped construct a makeshift Elizabethan stage on the Chautauqua site, and confidently billing it as the “First Annual Oregon Shakespearean Festival,” Bowmer presented Twelfth Night on July 2 and July 4, 1935, and The Merchant of Venice on July 3, with Bowmer directing and playing the lead roles in both plays. Reserved seats cost $1, with general admission of $.50 for adults and $.25 for children (approximately $17, $8.50 and $4.25 in 2014). Ironically, the profit from the plays covered the losses the boxing matches incurred.
The festival has continued ever since (excepting 1941–1946, when Bowmer served in World War II), and quickly developed a reputation for quality productions. In 1939, OSF took a production of The Taming of the Shrew to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco that was nationally broadcast on radio. The lead actress, learning at the last minute the broadcast would be to a national audience, suffered a panic attack, was rushed to the hospital and the stand-in took over. The scripts didn’t arrive on the set until three minutes before air time. The Festival achieved widespread national recognition when, from 1951 to 1973, NBC broadcast abbreviated performances each year that were carried by more than 100 stations and, after 1954 on Armed Forces Radio and Radio Free Europe. The programs won favorable review from critics and for the first time people began to come from around the country. The programs led Life magazine to do a story on the Festival in 1957, bringing even more people to the plays. The NBC programs and the subsequent attention go a long way to explaining the mystery of how a tiny out-of-the-way timber town in the Northwest became a theatrical and tourist Mecca.
A second playhouse, the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre, opened in 1970, enabling OSF to expand its season into the spring and fall; within a year, attendance tripled to 150,000. Bowmer retired in 1971, and leadership of the festival passed to Jerry Turner, a respected actor/director and later a translator of Henrik Ibsenand August Strindberg. Turner opened OSF’s third theatre, the Black Swan, in 1977, and festival attendance soon reached 300,000. In 1983 OSF won a Tony Award for achievement in regional theatre. Five years later, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival was renamed the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. At the invitation of the City of Portland, from 1988 to 1994, OSF established a resident theatre in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, which later spun off to independence as Portland Center Stage. Those six seasons ran from November–April, and company members often worked in both cities.
Turner retired in 1991 and actor/director Henry Woronicz took control for five seasons. When Woronicz left in 1996, OSF recruited Libby Appel from the highly respected Indiana Repertory Theatre, and a guest director at OSF from 1988 to 1991, as artistic director. In 1997, the OSF-commissioned The Magic Fire was presented at the John F. Kennedy Center and named by Time among the year’s best plays. In 2001, the ten millionth ticket to an OSF performance was sold. In 2002, the Thomas Theatre replaced the Black Swan as the venue for small, experimental productions in a Black box theatre. In 2003, Time named OSF as the second best regional theatre in the United States (Chicago’s Goodman Theater was first).
Bill Rauch. succeeded Appel as Artistic Director in 2008. Rauch was the co-founder and artistic director of the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles and had been a guest director at OSF for six seasons prior to his appointment. His vision includes making direct connections between classic plays and contemporary concerns, exploring beyond the Western canon to incorporate Asian and African epics into the Festival, and reaching out to youth. While continuing to work with established playwrights, he has commissioned works by new ones, and has initiated the Black Swan Lab to develop new works for the stage. Each year, ten OSF actors are assigned to the Lab to work with Bill Rauch, OSF Dramaturg Lue Douthit, and Producer Sarah Rasmusen.as one of their regular repertory assignments. In recognition of his work, he has received the Margo Jones Award for his impact on American theatre in 2009.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s canon of plays, Rauch initiated a 10-year commissioning program of up to 37 new plays called American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle (2008–2018). Under the direction of Alison Carey, the plays look at moments of change in America’s past. Grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Collins Foundation, the Edgerton Foundation, the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Trust, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation support American Revolutions. Partnerships with Arena Stage, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, CenterStage, Company One, Guthrie Theatre, Penumbra Theatre Company Playwrights Center, The Public Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensure that the plays will reach beyond their original OSF audience.
Through December 2014, 23 plays have been commissioned and seven of these have reached the stage, beginning with American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose (2010) season. It was followed by Ghost Light (2011); The March (2011 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company); Party People and All the Way (2012); The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace (2013); and the sequel to All the Way, The Great Society (2014, commissioned by and co-produced with Seattle Repertory Theatre). Through December 2014, All the Way has received seven awards including co-winner of the inaugural 2013 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. The 2014 Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Broadway Play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Play, the Elliott Norton Award for Outstanding Production by a Large Resident Theatre, and the IRNE Award for Best New Play, Large Theater. In addition, the 2014 Tony Award for best actor went to Bryan Cranston for his portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in All the Way.