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August 1, 2011 at 11:21am

CARV’S WEEKLY BLOG: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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WHY THERE AND NOT HERE >>>

For my wife's birthday, I surprised her with a weekend trip to Ashland, Ore. and a visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I'd never been there - unheard of for a theater guy on the West Coast - so it was a treat for me as well. Thanks to the near collapse of the Angus Bowmer Theatre in the middle of a show this spring, Tracy Letts's three-hour dramedy August: Osage County was held in an air-conditioned tent better suited for a church revival than a long play. I loved the show and performances, and even the scaled-down set worked all right. I just wish my back wasn't still sore from the cramped plastic seats. The lanky dude next to me was folded into his seat like a contortionist.

As I said, the play earned its standing ovation, especially the performance of its lead actress, Judith-Marie Bergan. She was terrific, even in a tent, even late in the play's run. But I've seen performances just as good and vivid in Tacoma and Olympia. I found myself wondering how the Oregon Shakespeare Festival became, along with Vegas and New York, one of the nation's three theater destinations. Why is it that people will buy three tanks of gas for the round trip down to Ashland, plus 75 bucks a head for play tickets, plus meals, but we couldn't persuade more than 20 people a night to pay 12 bucks to see Oleanna right here at home?

It's not the familiarity of scripts chosen by the OSF. It doesn't just do comedies, and it only produces a musical or two each year. It isn't even all Shakespeare; the Bard represents less than half of the OSF's productions each year. But rather than staging only the best-known Shakespeare classics, they've performed his entire body of work at least three times. (Yes, people lined up to see Henry VI, Part 2 and Timon of Athens.) In any given nine-month season, as many as 300,000 people buy tickets to the OSF. It's not like we Olympians can't build a tent. It's not as if we don't have great actors. Granted, we're a bit short on top-notch directors, but we're even set for technicians. The OSF as we know it didn't happen overnight, of course. It took decades, and the success of the operation derives largely from its appearances on NBC, Armed Forces Radio, and Radio Free Europe. But our drive south was complicated by squadrons of buses and RVs, all full of people excited about live theater in a way seldom seen here.

So what is the missing ingredient? How do we make local theater seem cool again to more than a few dozen people? How do we make it seem special? What's the difference, in publicity terms, between an occurrence and an "event?" Both Harlequin and Capital Playhouse have active subscriber bases, and I'm sure the Tacoma companies have them as well. But how do we convey that enthusiasm to the masses? The Volcano tries each week, but I think it might be time for a new approach. We need our mojo back. I'm conducting an interview with folks from Capital Playhouse on that subject this morning, as I'm interested to see how they turned a very sharp corner last year.

Filed under: Tacoma, Olympia, Theater,

Comments for "CARV’S WEEKLY BLOG: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival " (5)

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glttrwrd said on Aug. 01, 2011 at 11:30am

Ashland is utterly beautiful. It's pleasant to stroll around town, take in the huge park or multiple restaurants and shops all of which are open and available all the time. The town makes the festival. If they were merely presenting shows, it wouldn't work. In this case, it takes a village to make a theater season work

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Carv said on Aug. 01, 2011 at 12:57pm

While I certainly agree Ashland's downtown is charming, wasn't that financed by the success of the Festival? Again, we're not hurting for charming businesses here. People go to Ashland, it seems to me, for the theater, and as a result they also pump money into the entire downtown.

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glttrwrd said on Aug. 01, 2011 at 2:13pm

Agreed. Tacoma has many charming businesses. How many are open every day from 10am until 10pm? How close are they to each other? How safe do people feel traveling from the Theater District to the Museum District, for example? The LINK certainly helps, but nothing beats walking if you want to discover nooks and crannies and sweet spots. BCPA is doing phenomenal work. If the City were to support anything, it should be to make sure every single empty space in the immediate 1-2 block area is filled with merchants who are willing to work theater hours.

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Carv said on Aug. 01, 2011 at 3:05pm

NICE!

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mike harper said on Aug. 02, 2011 at 11:03am

Guys....take this post lightly as I am an Ashland kid...although the kid part was a few years ago....Ashland is simply the best place on earth! Not only is our festival "World" famous for the obvious reasons....actors, musicians, directors, set designers, costumes and COMMUNITY.....Yes, Community! We have a population who lives and breathe's Ashland....Fantastic public schools, a wonderful university, and a diverse, educated population (63% college educated) that even has a few republicans....yes they have regrettably slithered into town and managed to keep from being burned at the stake...:) I have heard, that republicans have to show their passports to get into town....just a rumor. So stop wasting ur time trying to figure out how to do what we do or what makes us the best theater town in America....want theater head to Ashland.

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