As the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has grown into one of the nation’s premier regional theaters, this community of 16,000 residents has struggled against a tendency to let the stage overrun the streets.
There are motels, to be sure, with names like The Bard’s Inn.
But on Main Street, standing out starkly among Shakespeare banners and boutiques, is Harrison’s Parts, an auto parts and machine shop with oil-stained wood floors, and fan belts and radiator hoses hanging from the ceiling.
“There is no question that there has been a conscious decision on the part of Ashlanders to not be Disneyland, to not be a theme park,” said Mayor Cathy Golden. “What’s happened is the theater has grown with Ashland. It has matured with the community. They’ve grown both individually and in parallel ways that complement each other. It’s the secret of success of both the theater and the town.”
Ashland was founded by Ohio farmers in 1873 in the foothills of the rugged Siskiyou Mountains. Early on, residents had visions of a resort and developed the local mineral springs, whose sulfurous charms still can be sampled from lithia water drinking fountains downtown.
In 1935, a teacher at the local college, Angus Bowmer, started the town on a journey to the place it has become.
With a group of students and friends, Bowmer put on the festival’s first plays during the Fourth of July weekend. Convinced that the plays would be a bust, the town fathers demanded that boxing matches be held during the intermissions to make sure tickets would sell.
The boxing matches are long gone, but the plays have grown in recognition each year. The company won a Tony award in 1983 for outstanding achievement in regional theater.
The festival’s big break came in 1964, Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, when it took three plays to Stanford University, where they were reviewed by critic Richard Coe of the Washington Post.
The American Theater Critics Assn. brought its 1985 convention to Ashland, helping to celebrate the festival’s 50th anniversary.
Last year, the festival’s season spanned eight months, with 733 performances of 11 plays in three different theaters drawing 350,000 people, making it the biggest regional theater in the nation.
One follower, Kristin Kraus, actually likes getting up at 5 a.m. to stand outside the box office for extra tickets.
“It becomes this little community,” said Kraus, 29, who has been coming to the festival since she was 12. “You end up talking about your whole life history to complete strangers. It’s really embarrassing, but that’s OK, because there’s nothing real about it anyway.”
“Yeah,” said her friend, Denise Mauro. “It’s like this fictitious land.”
Both local merchants and the festival have resisted becoming a Shakespeare fantasyland, however.
Sheila Drescher, a partner in the Bloomsbury Books shop and a member of the festival’s board of directors, remembers a time about 15 years ago when there was a restaurant called Hamlet’s Roost and a shop called As You Like It.
A Tudor facade showed up on a prominent wall of one of the buildings on Main Street.
“It was so cutesy,” she said. “People were against it.”
But the facade gradually has come down. Now only one panel of white stucco and dark brown timbers survives as a kind of a reminder of what could have been.
The 500-member company has remained committed to performing the complete works of Shakespeare, as well as controversial modern pieces.
“We don’t do plays on the stage in an English accent,” said Pat Patton, assistant artistic director. “It’s not a theme park. It’s a serious artistic endeavor.”
Politically, Ashland stands out as a liberal enclave in conservative southern Oregon. Voters rejected an anti-homosexual measure by 3-1, although it won wide support elsewhere in rural Oregon. The statewide measure was defeated in 1992.
“Ashland has a nice mix of that small-town feel and the benefits of a city,” said Katrina Seibert, manager of the Winchester Inn bed and breakfast. “People are more artistic and less geared to career. I think most people are here because they like living here and they are finding a way to make it work.”
One way people make it work is by starting other theaters. Four have spun off the festival.
“Obviously, Shakespeare is the draw, and Shakespeare is what created the theater energy in the town,” said Jim Giancarlo, a former Shakespeare Festival dancer who started Oregon Cabaret Theater in a converted church. “It’s the theater, but it’s also the town.”
Golden traces much of Ashland’s appeal to voter decisions to control strip development, support schools, make the town pedestrian-friendly, promote bicycle riding and boost recycling.
But above it all hovers Shakespeare, especially for visitors. Ask parking patrol officer Matt Caswell as he leaves yellow chalk marks on the tires of cars.
“The biggest question I’m asked falls between where the Shakespeare box office is and where is the best place to eat,” he said.