Wherefore Art Thou, Ashland?

A Comic-Con for Shakespeare freaks. People out in the street dressed up as their favorite characters — Hamlet, Othello, Juliet, Puck — verbally jousting with lines from their respective plays.

That’s what I expected to find when I arrived at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

I quickly learned that I had underestimated the operation. This was no amateur hour, but a group of serious thespians creating high-quality theater (with a little help from a $26 million annual operating budget) for one of the largest and longest-running Shakespeare festivals in the world.

Not only that, but it isn’t just a weekend-long affair. The festival runs eight months of the year, and I had hit it during its peak season.

Kate Mulligan explains history of the Elizabethan Theater on our behind-the-scenes tour.

My first order of business was a behind-the-scenes tour that the festival offers. Kate Mulligan, an actress in two of this year’s plays who warned “I’m an Irish girl, and I can talk a blue streak,” was our guide.

First, Kate took us to the traditional open-air Elizabethan theater — the type of theater Shakespeare’s plays were intended to be performed in, with minimal background sets, to let the audience’s imagination fill in the scene.

“A wonderful thing called the Chautauqua Circuit used to run right through here in the late 1800s and stop at the Elizabethan for several days each year, “ Kate explained.

The storied traveling theater group — what Theodore Roosevelt called “the most American thing in America” – would begin in New York and end in southern Oregon each year. “The current festival owes its existence to the Chautauqua Circuit,” Kate said.

But the most interesting part of the tour was the costume and make-up area.

“This is where we all hang out between shows. It’s always buzzing with energy,” Kate explained. “I’ll be in my funereal dress playing Bananagrams with a Pirate of Penzance,” she said as she walked us by a lounge area with black leather sofas.

During the course of the tour, Kate talked about the two plays she was in, George Kaufman’s Animal Crackers and Medea Macbeth Cinderella. Her infectious enthusiasm convinced me to buy tickets (I had originally only gotten a ticket for Henry V.)

I was so glad I did.

McCall House Bed & Breakfast. Not too stuffy at all.

Animal Crackers was a riot and Medea Macbeth Cinderella was possibly the best play I’ve ever seen. In it, the three classics are being performed simultaneously, and the clever script reveal the similarities between the main characters’ struggles.

To complete my Shakespearian experience, I stayed at a historically registered bed and breakfast called the McCall House, built in 1883, and just a block from the theaters. Each room is themed, and mine was the Phyllis Courtney, a famous Shakespearian actress.

I was worried the Victorian inn would be stuffy, but it provided a fresh minimalist take on the era, not the typical overdone and frilly one. Nola, the innkeeper, and Kerry at the front desk were most gracious hosts, and dining-room breakfast each morning with the other guests was delectable.

Baked croissant French toast with butterscotch roasted pears; Mediterranean soufflé with sundried tomato, feta, and herbs; baked cheese blintz with reduced mixed berry sauce — all included in the nightly charge.

Ashland Creek running through Lithia Park.

Lithia Park is another gem in Ashland and central to the original Chautauqua Circuit as well. I went for a long run along Ashland Creek and the famed “healing waters” that have a faint rotten-egg smell to them, then up the Bandersnatch Trail behind the park, where I took in views of the town below and snowy mountains in the opposite direction.

While I never came across any crazily-costumed thespians performing in the streets, I did visit the Renaissance Rose, which has costumes and wigs galore. I tried to convince the other patrons in the store to don their best costumes and join me for some rogue Shakespeare in the park!

Okay, no I didn’t, but the thought did cross my mind.

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer

Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.

Comments

  1. Alan S.
    vista,ca
    June 22, 2012, 9:54 pm

    What I always notice and appreciate about your writting is your fun sense of humor- keep up the good work!

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  3. Ray & Judi MacLean
    Trabuco Canyon, Ca
    June 26, 2012, 9:15 pm

    Shannon, Judi and I were the couple who spoke to you during the tour with Kate. You gave us your card so we could keep up with your stories and travels. We’ve read your account of the Ashland experience and loved it. We found our almost a week there a delight. It sounds that you, like us, weren’t sure what to expect. We loved every aspect of the town and the plays. Also like you, we tried to see more than the three plays we had purchased in advance. We saw Animal Crackers, Romeo & Juliet and The White Snake. We wished we could have seen Medea, McBeth Cinderella, but alas, it was not to be. You are a very entertaining writer and we will tune in to follow your travels and career. Travel safe. Ray & Judi

  4. Shannon Switzer
    June 27, 2012, 12:03 pm

    Hi Ray and Judi!

    Thanks so much for your sweet message. I really appreciate you taking the time to get in touch and share your experience as well. I heard the White Snake was incredible and didn’t get a chance to see that one, so we are even :) Maybe I’ll see you both again in Ashland!

    Take care,
    Shannon

  5. Sandy Farewell
    Tacoma, WA
    June 29, 2012, 2:43 pm

    Hi Shannon,
    Thank you for your great article. I first visited OSF 10 years ago with my HS daughter (she had gone on a school trip and demanded that we return to see her favorite play). We did 4 plays that first year & that was the beginning of our annual pilgrimage. Now we buy tickets for all 11 productions each year and couldn’t be happier. I would like to recommend to you that next time you visit you aim your trip for the 3rd Monday in August (8/20 this year). That is the day of the Daedalus Project, an annual fundraiser for Aids charities in the Rogue Valley. There is a wonderful play reading in the afternoon, treasure & bake sale,and evening show. The evening show is like a company variety show showcasing amazing talent and infectious comedy. The centerpiece of the show is the Underwear Parade, bring cash, where cast members parade about in costume undies soliciting votes in the form of cash from audience members. It is an inspiring evening where OSF really wears its heart on its sleeve, just one way that theater makes the world a better place for all of us.

    Happy Travels, see you on the bricks!

  6. Shannon Switzer
    July 17, 2012, 4:00 pm

    Hi Sandy!
    Thank you for the fantastic tip…somehow I didn’t see it until now. Sounds like quite an event. I will be sure to catch it in the future!
    Thanks,
    S