Opening night of Love’s Labours Lost is packed. It’s a chilly night here at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre – the first of its kind – here in Ashland, Oregon, but I am wearing a thick jacket. Other spectators are wrapped in blankets; the theatre is, after all, outside. A trumpet sounds and a figure appears in the window at the top of the theatre. He hoists a flag, and we know the show is about to begin.
The outside of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre on a lovely day in Ashland, Oregon.
The theatre itself is lovely. Built in 1959, it was modeled on the Fortune Theatre, one in which Shakespeare actually worked, and for which the blueprints actually exist. It is one of three here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though the others are indoor. Love’s Labours Lost is one of four Shakespearean productions this season, though the Festival runs eleven shows per year.
The actors emerge and the show begins. For this production, the director has added music, and set the show in a vague-but-modern period. The King of Navarre and his lords are portrayed as fraternity guys. The language is hard, but the actors and the style make it incredibly easy to follow, and I am soon laughing my head off, along with everyone around me; the audience ranges from children to seniors and all are having a blast.
Can you imagine a more perfect place to see Shakespeare? (There is no photography allowed inside the theatre before, during, or after productions, so this was taken during my earlier backstage tour.)
That is the power of Shakespeare. Here we are, just over 400 years after the Bard’s death, and his entire body of work is still studied, and still relevant. The themes of love, friendship, betrayal, revenge, and more are just as valid today as they have ever been. It is truly amazing to consider. Most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are still studied and performed, but only selected works. With Shakespeare, it is the entire 37 play canon. Here at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, they take this seriously. The entire canon has been performed more than four times!
So how did world-class Shakespeare come to be in a small town in Southern Oregon? In 1935, a professor at Southern Oregon University (then Southern Oregon Normal School) obtained a $400 loan from the city of Ashland to hold three student performances of Shakespeare. Worried that the loan would never be repaid, the city scheduled boxing matches to help draw a crowd. Well, on July 2, Twelfth Night opened. That weekend, 500 attendees purchased tickets, more than covering the loan, and convincing the city to make it an annual tradition.
Plaques show which plays were performed each year.
Today, what started as a three-day weekend for 500 attendees of student-performed shows has turned into eleven shows in a nine-month season at three theatres, with professional actors performing for more than 400,000 attendees. And, rather than use their status to move from Ashland, Oregon to a larger area, the Festival has invested in becoming a fixture in their local market, and one of the largest sources of regional tourism. From my home base in Medford, it was only a 20 minute drive to watch what was the best live Shakespeare I have ever seen! (For true theatre fanatics, there is a week in summer where one can see ten of the eleven shows as the season changes over. That is my next visit!)
Amazing performance isn’t the only incredible thing about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. With its reputation and significant funding base, the Festival has also started to commission new theatre productions. Its acclaimed American Revolution series is 37 commissions (one for each play in the Shakespeare canon) on events in American history. One of these commissions, All the Way, about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, won two Tony awards and another, Sweat, won a Pulitzer.
OSF has also commissioned modern playwrights to update the English of Shakespeare, while keeping the poetry and prose. Called “Play On,” this aims to find a gateway to the Bard’s works for those for whom the language is too big a barrier. A couple of these have performed in the American South to great acclaim. I, for one, am fascinated to see a Shakespearean play with modern English in iambic pentameter!
As Love’s Labours Lost closes with a final musical number in the rain (created with a hose, though the front row or two might have gotten a bit wet), I stand in applause. I marvel at both the incredible artistic accomplishments of the show as well as the fact that I am enjoying world-class Shakespeare in 2018 in a small town in Southern Oregon. This is yet another reason for everyone to add the Medford region to their bucket list.
Note: thank you to Travel Medford for sponsoring my ticket to the show. This partnership has been incredible, and I am grateful for the belief you have shown in me.