ASHLAND, Ore.–For eight decades, drama lovers have flocked to the stages of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in Ashland. From the first Fourth of July weekend in 1935, the festival has exceeded expectations. Festival spokeswoman Debra Griffith says, “we started at three days and two plays, and now we’re up to three theatres and 9-1/2 months of the year.”
The festival was the brainchild of Angus Bowmer, a young English professor at what was then Southern Oregon Normal School, before it became Southern Oregon College and University. Griffith says, “when he was teaching at the elementary school he and his first wife Lois would convince the towns to build a stage to put on productions to raise money for other things that the schools needed. So he was sort of a ‘‘Johnny Appleseed’ of theatre” coming across the country.”
A year after staging a state-sponsored Diamond Jubilee in Medford, he approached Ashland city fathers with a plan for a Fourth of July stage event that would help raise money for the town. “The city is like, ‘well o.k. We could do that. But, we’re going to stage boxing matches to make up the loss.’ But it turned out to be the other way around!’ says Griffith with a chuckle. They put on “Merchant of Venice” and “12th Night”, with Bowmer playing the lead role of “Shylock”.
Bowmer set up a stage in the place where Chataqua programs had been presented in the decades before. Griffith says, “he liked to say that he and Bob Stedman, one of the first actors, were just sitting out on the hill out here one day and looking down into the old Chataqua walls. And ‘what does that look like to you?’ ‘Looks like an Elizabethan stage!’ And it kind of grew from there.”
She adds that, “right from the beginning he called it the ‘first Shakespearean festival’, fully intending that this was gonna go on forever! Like he liked to say, all his ‘dreams are open ended!’ there is no, y’know, ‘now we’re at the end’!” She adds that “the first season went really well. The second year they got up, did another season and still very short. Less than a week. Again they made a profit. But that season they were sort of co-producing with the Normal School, and the Normal School’s athletic department had a deficit. So their money got wiped out again! So in 1937 we incorporated!”
In 1939 festival players went to the San Francisco exposition and presented a radio version of a play nationwide over the NBC radio network. It was a surprise hit and the fame achieved then carried over after World War Two, when the festival was on hiatus. “There was enough name recognition. There were enough people still saying, “hey, whatever happened to that festival?” so the memory of people was much longer than the town thought it might be! So they were able to restart in 1947.”
In 1959 a new outdoor Elizabethan theatre opened. But still the festival only produced Shakespeare’s plays. But when the outdoor festival sold out for several years in a row a dream of Bowmer’s was realized with the opening of an indoor theatre in his name, allowing a longer season and more plays to be produced. Griffith notes that “that opened in 1970, and for quite a few years we were able to just with the two theatres continue to grow.”
In 1977 the small Black Swan theatre opened. 25 years later what is now the Thomas theatre was built from scratch and provides another venue for more non-traditional productions. The first non-Shakespearean plays were produced in 1960, first with Shakespeare’s contemporaries, then later, more modern playwrights. Griffith says “Angus had actually wanted to go to non-Shakespearean productions much earlier, but there was some difference of opinion with the board about how we would be perceived. We were the Shakespeare festival. We should just do Shakespeare!”
In the fifties the festival adopted a new slogan called “stay 4 days and see 4 plays.” And while the festival was still only producing Shakespeare productions it was also tying in to the area’s economy, which also led to a flowering of the theatre industry in southern Oregon.