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Along the Southern Oregon Way - Part I - Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Our taxi arrived before the sun rose. We drove through the darkened streets of Ashland, a small city in southern Oregon, into a residential neighborhood stopping at a house with a high porch where a woman waited to join us on the ride to the airport. She settled in the front seat beside the driver, turned around to face us, and in the forthright manner that seemed a hallmark of the local folk we’d met over the past week,  asked whether we – like so many visitors this time of the year -- had come to town for the Shakespeare Festival. We had, we said. How did we like it, she wanted to know, and how did we like Ashland? When we responded to both questions with enthusiastic affirmation, she smiled brightly and launched into the following story:

Years before, when she and her husband were living in the one of the suburbs in the Valley surrounding Los Angeles, they realized it was not the environment in which they wanted to raise their three young children. And so, after much discussion but little investigation, they abruptly sold their house and household goods, bought a trailer, took to the road, and drove around California looking for a place to put down roots. Late one afternoon about six months into their sojourn, they crossed the state border on I-5 into the scenic Rogue Valley of southern Oregon in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. “The next morning, we came into Ashland,” she told us, “and I said ‘This is the place.’ We bought a house with a small farm and settled in. I home-schooled my children – I suspected my son might have attention deficit problems, and I didn’t want him diagnosed and labeled. My husband made a success of his organic farm, and today I am the only teacher in one of the few remaining one-room schoolhouses in the area. And I tell you this, I can think of no better place to raise a family.”


Downtown Ashland


Surrounding scenic splendors

It seemed a remarkable tale. Yet somehow, despite the brevity of our Ashland stay, we could understand. You come for a visit, and you want to remain – or, at least, to return. So strong is the pull of this peaceful valley town blessed by the splendid vistas of embracing mountains and a moderate four-season climate where long summer days are marked by abundant sunshine and low humidity. The temperature soared above 100 degrees in an unusual heat wave while we were there. Yet we dined al fresco in perfect comfort on the shady patio of one of the local restaurants overlooking meandering Ashland Creek.

 Downtown Ashland manages to be picturesque without being precious. A broad Main Street, punctuated by heraldic banners flowing from tall poles, is lined with a mixture of old and new buildings, all of which gracefully accommodate interesting boutiques, specialty bookstores, restaurants, cafés, and galleries featuring works by local artists. Side streets run up or down the hilly terrain, branching off into beckoning lanes. Some lead into 93-acre Lithia Park named for the mineral found in local waters which has drawn visitors to the town since the mid 19th century. Designed by John McLaren, who also designed San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, this leafy retreat of curving stone-paved trails shaded by towering trees, open meadows, and an exquisite Japanese-inspired landscape of rock-gardens surrounding a pond filled with water lilies is a place for aimless wandering and dreamy contemplation.  

There’s a lively ambience to Ashland, a cheerful co-mingling of New Age, up-market, academic, and Bohemian sensibilities. Dining options, even along a short stretch of East Main Street, range from vegan to haute French; visitors range from 21st century Hippie to Rodeo Drive-clad Californian. And there are visitors aplenty, most– we would guess – having come to town for the Tony award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).

Set in a campus-like complex on a hillside that rises behind East Main Street and borders Lithia Park, this is a festival worthy of the name. Huge yellow and green banners float down from rooftops. Theater-goers rest on benches fronting garden walls or meet one another in a central plaza. Ultimately all follow brick pathways lined with bright flower beds of marigolds, daisies, zinnias, impatiens, azaleas, even a delicate rose garden to one of three performance outlets: the New Theater, the Angus Bowmer Theater, and the Elizabethan Stage.

To find your seat in the Elizabethan Stage beneath a darkening sky in the pleasantness of an Ashland evening and look down on the bi-level stage that emerges from a Tudor facade where a suspended scrim of colorful geometric shapes announces “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is to believe you are about to experience theater as it was more than 400 years ago. Such an illusion was quickly dispelled in the 2006 production, however,  since – in the creative spirit that inhabits the OSF -- Verona had been re-imagined into contemporary America, and the “Two Gentlemen”  had become a pair Amish youth off on a “rumpspringa” (a time allowed to young people to experience the outside world before deciding to commit to a traditional lifestyle).

Even so, the roots of the OSF, its strong connection to Elizabethan theater are planted here, on the grounds of the oldest full-scale Elizabethan stage in the Western Hemisphere.

They are roots that go back to 1893 when Ashland became a stop on the Chautauqua Circuit (a series of summertime cultural and entertainment programs that toured rural areas and small communities throughout the country from the 1890s into the 1930s). During the ten day period when the Chautauqua was in town, folks throughout Northern California and Southern Oregon joined Ashlanders for performances of vaudeville acts, Broadway shows, band and classical music concerts, even Shakespearean plays.

Fears by Circuit managers that the Bard might be too “high brow” for Chautauqua audiences were soon dismissed. "These people are God-fearing, God-living, and know their Bible and their Shakespeare," an actor imported from England declared.

By 1935, when the Chautauqua movement was no longer operative and all that remained of the Ashland site was an open space enclosed by ivy-covered walls, a young theater professor at nearby Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University) conceived of staging “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice” in the Chautauqua setting in conjunction with the city’s Fourth of July celebration. His proposal was a spark that ignited lingering memories of Shakespeare under the stars and spurred the city into giving Professor Angus Bowmer $400 towards production costs. A stage was built, each play was presented twice, and with admission ranging from one dollar for reserved seats to twenty-five cents for children, the Festival covered its own expenses, even absorbing the losses of boxing matches held during the day which the city had insisted on staging to cover what was expected to be the plays’ losses. And the OSF was on its way.

After closing during the years of World War II, the Festival resumed in 1947 and has since only grown in scope, recognition  and critical acclaim. Today it is one of the oldest and largest professional repertory regional theater companies in the country. With a season that runs from mid-February through October, the OSF remains faithful to its original mission, producing four Shakespearean plays each season (the canon has been completed three times), but it also includes seven works by classic and contemporary playwrights.

In 1970, the 601-seat Angus Bowmer opened with an inspired non-Shakespearean choice for a Shakespeare festival: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”.  Seven years later, the intimate 140-seat Black Swan debuted. Geared to small experimental plays, it was replaced in 2002 by the 270 to 360-seat New Theater, an arena-shaped, state-of-the-art performance space where no matter where one sits, the stage never seems far away and where an ingenious arrangement of trap doors on the stage floor permits large scale scenic changes in seconds. During a 2006 stark and stirring matinee of “King John,” minimalist scenes of medieval royal courts alternated seamlessly with battlefields enhanced by cinematic imagery. But by curtain time that evening, the stage was in another time and place: the Midwestern 1950’s diner of William Inge’s “Bus Stop.”

The OSF is big-time theater. Its staff numbers close to five hundred professionals: directors, playwrights, stage managers, and choreographers; actors, dancers, musicians, and stagehands; scenic, sound, and lighting technicians; costumers, hairdressers, and administrators -- in short, the small universe required for a live production. And then there are the five hundred volunteers from Ashland and the surrounding Rogue Valley who serve as ushers, ticket sellers, salespeople in the gift shop  and otherwise contribute to this exceptional institution (“We could not do without them, says Libby Appel, the OSF’s fourth artistic director whose tenure ends with the 2007 season. Bill Rauch, a five- season OSF veteran who directed the inventive “Two Gentlemen of Verona”  production we had seen and the New York premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House” at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater the fall of 2006, will take over starting with the 2008 season).

“We are a destination theater,” says Amy Richard, the OSF’s Media Relations and Audience Development Manager. A tall and willowy blonde with an easy-going manner and engaging smile, Amy came to Ashland from the Massachusetts coast to visit her brother some years ago and found it so hard to leave, she decided to stay. “Coming to Ashland is our theme,” she told us, and coming from her, it had the ring of truth. “There’s something for everyone,” Amy continued. “Many people will see nine plays because they’re theater fanatics. Some will see just two. Some have to see all the Shakespeare productions. Others don’t like Shakespeare and come to see the other plays. Most of our audience drive from some distance so they have to stay overnight, and while they’re here, they have the opportunity to experience southern Oregon.”

Among the manifold experiences offered in southern Oregon is a second performance option just a few blocks away from the OSF. Nearly fifty years after Angus Bowmer conceived of a Shakespeare Festival in the abandoned Chautauqua site, Craig Hudson, another young professor, dreamed up a cabaret theater in a former Baptist church  painted a bright shade of pink that had become a dilapidated “pink elephant” when he managed to acquire it at a very good price.


Amy Richard handles Media Relations for the OSF

Two years later, the Oregon Cabaret Theater (OCT) opened its doors with a production of “Dames at Sea.” By 2006, when “Five Guys Named Moe” -- a rollicking, high-energy tribute to the legendary Louis Jordan whose infectious music was the bridge from jazz to r& b and rock ‘n roll -- was staged in this venue for the second time, OCT was celebrating its twentieth anniversary and 100th production.

Virtually in between OSF and OCT, another Ashland structure is witness to the dynamism of this exceptional little city. The Ashland Springs Hotel began life as the Lithia Springs Hotel in the heady days of the 1920s when the combined effects of Chautauqua offerings, mineral springs, and Ashland being a convenient railroad stop had made the town a destination deemed worthy of a nine-story hotel – the tallest building between San Francisco and Portland at the time.  But by the mid 1990’s when Doug and Becky Neuman first came upon the property, it had been through a series of owners as well as names, and although listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was in a state of serious decline.

Still it commanded attention as the tallest place in town, looking out squarely from the corner of East Main and First Streets to an uninterrupted view of the distant mountains and surrounding hillsides, and it spoke to the couple who’d relocated to Ashland from Santa Barbara, California. They saw past the boarded-up windows, rusting fire escapes, and façade painted a depressing shade of brown to a handsome exterior that melded gothic, beaux-arts and arts and crafts architectural elements and a soaring two-story, mezzanine-rimmed lobby whose huge windows had jewel-like stained glass panels.

After purchasing the hotel at a tax auction in 1998, the Neumans, who, to that point in time had tackled many an old house but never a hotel, began a two-year, twelve million dollar-process of restoration that culminated with an opening that -- in keeping with the theatrical ambience of the neighborhood – earned rave reviews. Critics in such outlets as “House Beautiful” and “Architectural Digest” praised the now cream-colored and newly named Ashland Springs Hotel for its eclectic lobby design where potted palms were joined by an 18th century glass fronted cabinet (found in a Paris flea market) filled with unusual sea shells, a miniature tree growing out of an Art-Nouveau painted vase, a huge fireplace, gas lamps, and ceiling fans that rotated in leisurely fashion. They extolled the charms of an English garden and the comforts of 70 guest rooms, each of which had hand-painted lampshades, deep down duvets over hand-pressed linens, and lavender sachets on the pillows.

The Neumans’ credo is expressed on the menu of Larks, the hotel’s restaurant: “Home kitchen cuisine as a celebration of Oregon – its farms, orchards, vineyards, and charm.” The description is ably fulfilled by Executive Chef Damon Jones and served by a staff of informed, gracious and energetic young people. The focus is on comfort food: home-made soups like the organic potato-leek with fried leeks and chive oil; risotto made with local wild mushrooms, leeks, asparagus and peppers; salads greens and vegetables from local organic farms; grilled fish from Rogue Valley lakes or the Oregon coast; beef from cattle raised in nearby ranches. It had been many a year since we tasted meatloaf, and we thought never to have that 1970’s staple again. But Larks does it with Yukon gold (grown in Oregon, naturally) mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, and it was truly a treat. We drank an excellent cabernet sauvignon from a vineyard just a few miles away, and for dessert binged on s’mores and sundaes made with chocolate supplied by a local chocolatier.

Sitting at a table that looked out to East Main Street and watching the early evening parade of visitors during the last hours before the sun set, we took in the setting of the Ashland Springs Hotel, a place that lingers in memory for being suffused with a dreamy, dawn-like light, a combination, we’d guess, of the clear, clean southern Oregon air, the high ceilings and tall windows that let in light through the long hours of daylight in July, the color schemes of peach, apricot, and melon.

It was all part of the Ashland atmosphere, something that is quite out of the ordinary. Small enough to be contained and all of a piece: the theatrical venues, the shops, restaurants, Lithia Park, the guest houses and inns, the Ashland Springs Hotel. But more importantly perhaps, it does seem – as the woman in the taxi said -- a wonderful place in which to live.

The last day of our visit, Catherine Coulson took us on a little tour. Amy Richard had arranged for us to meet Catherine on the brick plaza of the Festival grounds, and although we’d never met before, somehow we immediately recognized the blonde woman who was smiling at us expectantly. Then we realized we had seen her the night before on the Elizabethan Stage where she played the role of Lucetta in “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Catherine was also playing Mrs. van Daan in the OSF’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” which unfortunately we did not get to see. But we did place her from yet another context. She’d been the log lady in the gothic television series “Twin Peaks” (which she went on to host when the series was repeated on the Bravo network).

 After driving with Catherine into the eastern part of town, past the children’s science museum and the middle school, we came to a less populated area with enormous vistas of surrounding mountains and meadows where most of the houses of worship are located. Catherine explained that she has another role in Ashland as the wife of Marc Sirinsky, rabbi of Temple Emek Shalom.


 Temple Emek Shalom

“We have a great relationship with our neighbors; we share this parking lot with the Church of the Nazarene,” she told us pulling into a spot outside the three-year-old futuristic synagogue that takes full advantage of its splendid scenic locale. “The whole idea of being in this beautiful town and being able to relate to the out of doors was very important to the rabbi,” Catherine said.

Rabbi Marc, as he prefers to be called, is a soft-spoken, serious man, very attuned to the importance of place. He enjoys showing visitors around the soaring spaces of the three-year-old synagogue, describing its sacred architectural features, the historical and symbolic meaning behind its many visual elements.

When he told us he is a student of the “Kabala,” it was as if one would expect no less. On the one hand, the medieval work of Jewish mysticism might appear to be an exotic subject in a southern Oregon town. But then again, there is a mysticism to the entire Ashland experience which makes the study of the “Kabala,” though composed in a dramatically different setting and very long ago, absolutely apropos.

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

Oregon Shakespeare Festival
P.O. Box 158
15 South Pioneer Street
Ashland, OR 97520

Phone: 541-482-2111
Ticket Sales 541-482-4331
Group Sales 541-482-5406
Web:  http://www.
osfashland.org

Oregon Cabaret Theater
1st Street & Hargadine/POB 1149
Ashland, OR 97520

Phone: 541-488-2902
http://
www.oregoncabaret.com

Ashland Springs Hotel
212 East Main Street
Ashland, OR 97520

Phone: 541-488-1700; 888-795 4545

Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine

Phone: 541-488-5558
Web:  http://www.
ashlandspringshotel.com

OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL 2007 SEASON

  • Angus Bowmer Theater
    • “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare
    • “On the Razzle” by Tom Stoppard
    • “The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov
    • “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson
    • “Tartuffe” by Molière
  • New Theater
    • “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire
    • “Tracy’s Tiger” based on the novella by William Saroyan; books and lyrics by Linda Alper; Douglas Langworthy’ and Penny Metropoulos; music by Sterling Tinsley
    • “Distracted” by Lisa Loomer
    • Elizabethan Stage
    • “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare
    • “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare
    • “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

     

#   #   #

About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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