Oregon's stage success story

Reviewers, including some of national stature, still tend to marvel at the quality of the theater produced in this small (population 15,000), isolated town in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains along the Oregon-California border.

And audiences still crowd the Oregon Shakespearean Festival's three theaters. Some 265,000 patrons pushed through the turnstiles last year, 91 percent of them having traveled more than 150 miles to reach Ashland -- the festival draws more heavily from Seattle and San Francisco than it does from nearby lumber towns like Medford and Klamath Falls.

Despite the fact that the festival expanded its season dramatically last year while increasing the number of productions offered, it still managed to achieve better than 90 percent audience capacity.

The festival is that rarity, a genuinely regionalm theater, drawing both audiences and talent from the entire West Coast (and at times more widely than that).

This is obviously an increasingly perilous situation as gasoline supplies dwindle and prices soar. Moreover, while the festival was once a pioneer in the regional theater movement, holding out against the drift of American theater toward Broadway and Hollywood, it now has lots of company. Regional theaters have sprung up throughout the country, and Shakespeare festivals dot the map, giving Oregon's, the nation's oldest such festival, a great deal of competition for those same audiences and actors. Most of these competing theaters are closer to population centers, and they are bidding up salaries for the region's best performers and technicians.

The festival's management has drawn a clear imperative from these trends: Grow or die. The company has already experienced its physical growth. It added a third stage three years ago, and last year expanded its season to run from late February to early November. While the season may yet be stretched a bit further, there are no plans for new theatrical construction (aside from a couple of rehearsal stages), and the festival doesn't plan to meet the challenges of the times through constant expansion.

Instead, it is attempting to grow in professionalism, on the theory that it can continue to draw audiences from hundreds of miles away only by improving the quality of its wares. Its effort not only to survive but to improve will be watched keenly by thousands of playgoers around the country who have become devoted to making regular theater pilgrimages to Ashland.

There is a certain bittersweet quality to the transition that's under way. For decades, the festival has paid its actors and technicians through "scholarships," stipends designed chiefly to provide minimum support for young performers, usually just out of college, who could be looked upon as theatrical apprentices. While each season's company would include a handful of more experienced veterans, Ashland was a place where a beginning professional could plunge in (sometimes over his or her head) by playing Richard III or Desdemona or Prospero or a leading role in a more contemporary classic. Frequently the actors would be reaching beyond their grasp, and productions would wobble, especially in the secondary roles.

But what the company lacked in polish, it made up for with youthful energy and spirit, while affording regular patrons the special pleasure of watching the more talented recruits come into their own during several seasons with the festival.

Beginning with last year's company, and far more visibly with the current ensemble, the festival is moving toward a more mature, more experienced, more widely traveled group of performers. There are now a number of company members with Equity credentials. Backing them up is a larger contingent of veterans with impressive resumes. (Many have familiar faces; the festival is attempting to preserve a sense of continuity by inviting back a number of actors who got their early training at Ashland and have since carved out careers around the country.)

It appears that the Shakespearean Festival is well on its way toward its goal of building a company in which at least half of the performers have established reputations. "Professionalism" has already given the company a smoother, more confident quality. Those who have loved the festival during its years as an "educational theater" can only hope that the benefits of this approach will be retained as the professionalism increases.

"If we don't grow and change we're not going to be part of the mainstream of the American theater," says John Evey, director of the festival's Office for Resource Development. "We don't want to be considered a training theater but a major professional company. That of course means a commitment to hiring more professional personnel." The commitment to professionalism brings with it a commitment to a sharply higher salary schedule, and Mr. Evey and his office are in the midst of a herculean fund-raising effort aimed at building up an endowment fund, the interest from which could meet salary needs and other inflating costs.

"We always want to have younger performers, and not just have them carry a spear," he stresses. But he adds realistically: "That will become increasingly difficult."

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