Drama of a Different Sort Is Playing Out in Rogue Valley
ASHLAND, ORE. — THE Rogue Valley of southern Oregon may represent the future of much of the American West. Long dependent on natural resources to sustain its economy, it is moving from an age of industry and spotted owls toward recreation and tourism.This is not to say the log trucks will not continue to roll out of the Cascade and Siskiyou mountains to the mills that produce finished lumber and plywood to house Californians. But the unique combination of natural beauty and culture here is attracting more and more visitors, as well as year-round residents. It started 56 years ago with the founding of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which put on a couple of summer plays. (Usually "Twelfth Night" and "The Merchant of Venice," the favorites of founder Angus Bowmer, who loved to play Shylock.) That expanded over the years to a full summer program of outdoor performances on an Elizabethan stage constructed where an old Chautauqua theater once stood. In the early 1970s, with construction of two indoor theaters, the season was extended to eight months (and the n umber of plays in repertory from four to 10). Shakespeare continued to be the core, but classical and modern dramas were added as well. That in turn brought more related businesses - hundreds of bed-and-breakfast establishments, restaurants, and gift shops - to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to see several plays over several days. It is now estimated that the Shakespeare festival in Ashland (whose 706 performances last year drew an attendance of nearly 350,000) means $64 million a year to the local economy. This will become more important as revenues from timber continue to decline. The strength and sophistication of the festival's offerings have attracted and spawned other cultural activities. A half-hour away in the historic gold-mining town of Jacksonville, the Britt Music Festival presents 40 outdoor concerts ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Emmylou Harris to Christopher Parkening. Several other theaters have opened in the Ashland area as well, including cabaret, lyric theaters, and storefront organizations that perform original works. Collectively these are dubbed "Off Bardway." Festival actor and retired theater-arts professor Jack Vaughn recently launched a new community theater, citing the "strong core of talented actors, directors, and technical people" in the area, he said. While the increase in tourism is good for business, it is also changing the nature of the town and its surroundings. Some long-time retail firms catering to local residents have been replaced by shops designed to attract vacationers. A California factory-outlet developer has plans for the area. Another developer wants to convert agricultural land to a "destination resort." New parking lots have had to be built. Like much of the rural and small-town West, Oregon's Rogue Valley is going though demographic and economic changes. Mills are laying off workers. Transplanted retirees ("equity emigr) are driving up the price of housing. City-bound families are escaping north for a bit of clear air and culture. Not as stirring as Shakespeare's tales, perhaps, but a drama in its own way.