Oregon Shakespeare Festival
In 1935, attendance was a respectable 500. In 2009, attendance hit a record high: 410,034.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival traces its roots back to the Chautauqua movement, which brought culture and entertainment to rural areas of the country in the late 19th century. Ashland's first Chautauqua building—erected in 1893, mostly by townspeople—saw its first performance on July 5. In 1905, the building was enlarged to accommodate an audience of 1,500. Families traveled from all over Southern Oregon and Northern California to see such performers as John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan during the Ashland Chautauqua's 10-day seasons.
In 1917 a round, dome-covered structure was erected in the place of the original Chautauqua building. The structure fell into disuse, however, when the Chautauqua movement died out in the early 1920s. The dome was torn down in 1933, but the cement walls remain standing today; covered with ivy, they surround the Elizabethan Theatre.
Angus L. Bowmer, an enthusiastic young teacher from Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University), was struck by the resemblance between the Chautauqua walls and some sketches he had seen of Elizabethan theatres. He proposed producing a "festival" of two plays within the walls, in conjunction with the City of Ashland's Fourth of July celebration. The City cautiously advanced Bowmer a sum "not to exceed $400" for the project. SERA (State Economic Recovery Act) funds provided a construction crew to build the stage and improve the grounds.
The Oregon Shakespearean Festival was officially born on July 2, 1935 with a production of Twelfth Night. The Festival presented The Merchant of Venice on the 3rd and Twelfth Night again on the 4th. Reserved seats cost $1, with general admission of $.50 for adults and $.25 for children. Even at these prices, the Festival covered its own expenses. The Festival also absorbed the losses of the daytime boxing matches that the City—which feared that the plays would lose money—held onstage.
Fun Facts for the Festival
Jaw-dropping numbers: Since opening in 1935, OSF has run 25,446 performances for 13,268,878 audience members.
The numbers: In 1935, attendance was a respectable 500. In 2009, attendance hit a record high: 410,034.
No donation too small: "America's First Elizabethan Theatre": The landmark sign near the entrance to the Theatre was made from one of the first donations ever made to the Festival—a simple piece of lumber given by John C. Cotton (see photo on opposite page).
For the love of theatre: In the early 1950s, when OSF actors first were paid, a summer season "scholarship" totaled $100.
By the seat of their pants: In the early years, a season costume budget totaled about $20 and relied on donated scraps and the work of volunteers.
Not always a "black box": OSF's Black Swan Theatre opened in 1977. In earlier incarnations, the space was home to Selby Chevrolet and Lyle's, a flooring business.
Come one, come all: The Merchant of Venice in 1991 was OSF's first production to be sign-interpreted for deaf audiences. In 2010, 7 performances will be sign-interpreted and 11 will be open-captioned in English; 6 in Spanish.