Angus Bowmer and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A greatly expanded Elizabethan stage opened in 1959. Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo
January 22, 2022

Plays proved more popular than pugilistics

By Dennis Powers

Angus Bowmer taught in elementary schools in the Puget Sound area while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Washington. After accepting a position in the English Department at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University), the 27-year-old Shakespearean actor came to Ashland in 1931 during the dark days of the Great Depression. 

While gazing at the old Chautauqua ruins in Lithia Park, Bowmer had an inspiration. The Chautauqua had been a summer series in the early 1900s in art, politics, music, and other subjects for several days in the mid-summer — but by now was closed down. The building was torn down, leaving only its old, concrete curving lower walls.

“It gave me the impression of a 16th-century sketch of the Globe Theater (where Shakespeare’s plays were held),” he said later. “I began to do some research and got excited about the possibility of producing a Shakespearean work there.”

Playing Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at the school in 1934, he found that production was a hit; Angus thought he could stage this again, along with “Twelfth Night,” during Ashland’s July Fourth celebration the next year. Owing to Governor Julius Meier’s interest in supporting the arts and Bowmer’s talents, Angus received the commission to write, produce, and direct the historical pageant for Oregon’s 1934 Diamond Jubilee. 

The Elizabethan stage in 1935. Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo

By 1935, Bowmer’s idea had caught on with Ashland residents, and he asked the city to allow plays at the Chautauqua site: Pageant volunteers agreed to help, the city reluctantly granted $400 as seed money, and the State Emergency Relief Administration chipped in, allowing a stage to be built within the Chautauqua shell.

The festival began as a two-play production on July 2, 1935, performing the two Shakespearean plays. Ashland’s grant was with the stipulation, however, that afternoon boxing matches would also be held to help cover costs. The festival succeeded so well that the theater ticket revenues covered the boxing matches’ losses. In 1937, the Oregon Shakespearean Festival (“OSF”) became incorporated as a nonprofit, membership organization.

Although operations ceased from 1941 to 1946 owing to World War II, Angus started up performances again in 1947 with four plays and a new stage. The first Green Show (free shows before the evening plays) was performed in the 1950s. Bowmer continued teaching as he built OSF, and a greatly expanded Elizabethan stage opened in 1959. 

As the OSF added non-Shakespearean plays to its schedule, additional venues became vital. With Duke Ellington’s orchestra as the kick-off for fundraising for an indoor theatre, the contributions mounted as residents and non-residents joined together. The Angus Bowmer Theatre opened in 1970, and the following year Angus retired as the OSF’s artistic director. 

Over time, the OSF received numerous awards and achieved national status. The Festival and Angus Bowmer received the Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts in 1977; six years later, a National Governor’s Association Award was given for “distinguished service to the arts,” as OSF received the Tony Award for Regional Theatre; and since 1977, four others with OSF have received the Oregon Governor’s Award. Angus Bowmer passed away in 1979, but he had seen the wondrous development from what years ago had just been an idea. 

In 1984, the OSF instituted a play-reading service, expanded into Portland for six seasons, and increased the size of the company and its coverage. It added a pavilion to the Elizabethan theater, reconfigured seating, and improved the acoustics. In 1995, OSF began raising the moneys to replace the Black Swan Theatre (which had opened in 1977) with the modern New Theatre (opened in 2002).

The three OSF stages are: the Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion (1,190 seat capacity), the August Bowmer Theatre (601 seats) and the New Theatre (up to 360). It presents in a typical season 11 different plays (four of Shakespeare and seven in the classics or modern genre) with over 700 performances to an attendance of 400,000-plus (pre-pandemic). The Oregon Shakespeare Festival performed all of Shakespeare’s 37 works during the 1958, 1978, and 1997 seasons.

Well-known actors and actresses perform each year: Tony-nominated Anthony Heald, George Peppard (“Breakfast at Tiffany”), Joel David Moore (“Avatar”), Gretchen Corbett, Harry Anderson (TV’s “Night Court”), Dick Cavett, Jean Smart (“Designing Women” and “Fraser”), and many more. William Hurt with Emmy-winner Jean Smart, for example, was in the 1975 production of “Long Day’s Journey into Night”; he won an Oscar for his role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” among nominations for other films.

Stacy Keach was in the title role in “Henry V” in 1963; later he had the lead in the 1990s TV series, “Mike Hammer; Private Eye,” and various other roles on Broadway, the movies, and television — as other OSF performers. And the list continued on. 

Years ago, Angus Bower had a vision that became a reality. Despite cancellations due to COVID-19, this region continues to be enhanced by the  ongoing excellence of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Sources: Kathleen F. Leary, “The Oregon Encyclopedia (‘OE’): Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” at OSF (With Images); also, Ulrich H. Hardt, “Angus Bowmer (1904-1979),” similarly at Bowmer (OE); “About OSF,” at OSF Website (With Images); John Darling, “Seeing Stars,” Mail Tribune, April 17, 2011.

Retired Southern Oregon University business law professor Dennis Powers, a historian and author of 25 books, has lived in Ashland for some 30 years. Email him at dennis@dennispowersbooks.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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