Jerry Turner, 76; Led Oregon Shakespeare Festival to New Heights

Times Staff Writer

Jerry Turner, who helped transform the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from a summer program for semi-professional actors into one of the top regional theaters in the country, has died. He was 76.

Turner died of heart failure Sept. 2 at his home in Olympia, Wash., said Eddie Wallace, a festival official.

During his years as the festival’s artistic director from 1971 to 1991, Turner led the Ashland-based company beyond its Shakespearean repertoire, adding works by Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw and others.

His passion for Scandinavian drama made Ashland a center for new interpretations of plays by Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, which Turner directed. He also translated a number of Scandinavian plays, including Strindberg’s “The Dance of Death” and “Miss Julie.”


He was admired as a risk-taking traditionalist. “Theater is supposed to be disturbing,” he often told his company. He saw the potential to surprise viewers by staging older plays that were usually overlooked.

“Expanding an audience’s horizons doesn’t necessarily mean doing new work,” he said in a 1987 interview for the festival’s program notes. That summer he directed “The Shoemaker’s Holiday,” a comedy by Thomas Dekker who was a contemporary of Shakespeare.

Turner was only the second artistic director in the festival’s 79-year history, taking over when Angus Bowmer retired. Under Turner’s leadership the festival more than doubled in size.

He added two new theaters to the festival’s original theater, the Elizabethan Stage, a 1,200-seat outdoor venue based on London’s Fortune Theatre of 1599. The 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theater was completed in 1970, and seven years later the 140-seat Black Swan opened. The Black Swan featured contemporary plays including Alan Ayckbourn’s “Woman in Mind” and Lee Blessing’s “Two Rooms.”


Attendance also grew dramatically, from 150,000 visitors during Turner’s first year as artistic director to nearly 400,000 in 2002. The festival won a Tony Award in 1983 for outstanding achievement in regional theater.

Five years later, the city of Portland established the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Portland, making it the largest nonprofit theater in the country.

In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the festival a $49,500 grant but the festival’s board of directors turned it down. The money came with the restriction that federal funds could not be spent on artistic work that the NEA judged to be obscene. The American Civil Liberties Union quickly responded with a formal commendation for the festival.

Turner, who was born in Loveland, Colo., earned a doctorate in theater at the University of Illinois. He began his career at the Oregon Shake- speare Festival as an actor in 1957. For many years he divided his time among acting, directing and university teaching. He was chairman of the theater department at UC Riverside from 1964 to 1970.


On a fellowship to study Swedish theater in 1970, Turner learned the language and immersed himself in the plays of Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman. The experience helped him clarify his vision for the theater.

“We must never be lured into the cheap and shoddy through pressures of ticket sales or financial needs,” he said in 1971, upon accepting his appointment as artistic director at Ashland. “We have all we need for a theater of greatness: players, two stages, staff, playwrights and a rightfully possessive audience. May we be worthy of the task.”

Turner is survived by his wife of 36 years, Mary; a daughter, Erika Turner Britton, and a son, Michael Turner, both of Riverside; a stepson, Ralph Young of Olympia, Wash.; a brother, Robert of Loveland, Colo.; and a sister, Dorothy Prewitt of Ruidoso, N.M.

Contributions can be made to the Jerry Turner Actors’ Fund, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, P.O. Box 158, Ashland, OR 97520.