Relocations: Let’s talk about OSF

The historic "America's First Elizabethan Theatre" sign welcomes visitors to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's landmark outdoor theatre. Graham Lewis photo
August 12, 2022

Does its leadership trust Shakespeare?

By Herbert Rothschild

In an op-ed that appeared in this publication on July 25, Brad Carrier suggested a number of ways that could serve the community even more usefully than it does now. All of his suggestions are worth considering, but one stood out because it reinforced my belief that we can become a curator of community conversations. Here’s the way Carrier expressed that idea: “Who knows what residents have to offer or what they might think? … A single, comprehensive gathering place, an online town square and bulletin board, like, could reacquaint us with us.”

Herbert Rothschild

I devote this column to catalyzing one community conversation. Bert Etling, our executive editor, is committed to publishing numerous responses. The shared space won’t be quite like a town square or a bulletin board, because the submissions will be moderated to assure civility and perhaps shortened (but not changed). With that advisement, I invite you to contribute your opinions about what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is now offering.

On Aug. 3, 2017, I published an op-ed in both the Mail Tribune and the Daily Tidings. It generated more responses than any other piece that month. I strongly criticized OSF’s then-recent productions of “Timon of Athens” and “1 Henry IV.” I suggested that OSF’s main problem was the directors of its productions and that their main problem was they didn’t trust Shakespeare.

I suspect that those now running OSF have the same problem. An arts organization that originally produced only plays by Shakespeare is now producing fewer and fewer of them. This year it’s offering three Shakespeare among its nine plays, next season two of its eight (plus non-Shakespearean offerings on its digital stage). For comparison, the Royal Shakespeare Company this second half year is staging 11 plays in its three venues (Stratford-upon-Avon, London and on-line), six by Shakespeare.

In response to the op-ed, many respondents, including Bill Rauch, tried to make diversity the issue. That would have made their defense easy, because diversity is the moral high ground. However, I had specifically mentioned OSF’s “commendable” commitment to diversity under Rauch’s guidance. The issue was artistry, not politics. Actually, at that time I thought (and wrote) that the non-Shakespeare offerings were better than the Shakespeare. Black playwright Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” set in eastern Congo and presented by an all-black cast, is one of my all-time favorite OSF productions.

Regarding Shakespeare’s plays, I carry no brief against experiments in setting, costuming and staging, and certainly not against diversity in casting, especially gender diversity — the plays themselves are full of gender switching. It’s just that such experimentation isn’t required to make them “relevant” or engaging, and the notion that such experiments by themselves guarantee memorable productions is sheer folly. The goal of a director, like the goal of a symphony orchestra conductor, should be to bring out in performance what’s inherent in the text. That requires setting aside the ego and giving oneself over to the scripts.

As for making Shakespeare’s plays the staple of OSF’s season, the uncontestable truth is that they are peerless, and their drawing power has endured for more than four centuries. When I hear inferior contemporary plays defended because they appeal to younger audiences, I want to ask why schools bus students to Ashland from miles away? Is it to hear the word “m…..f…..” set to rock music, or is it to experience human life dramatized in words like these?

Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,

That the [watchman’s] eyes may wink, and Romeo

Leap into these arms untalked of and unseen. 

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,

Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty.

For you have mistook me all this while.

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king?

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears

Do scald like molten lead.

                                     Let the Volsces

Plough Rome and harrow Italy! I’ll never

Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand

As if a man were author of himself,

And knew no other kin.

                                    There may be in the cup

A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,

And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge

Is not infected. But if one present

Th’ abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known

How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,

With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Email him at Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of welcomes letters. Please limit length to no more than 300 words and refrain from personal attacks. Letters may be emailed to or submitted through the “Article Submission Form” link at the bottom right corner of the footer section. Letters on local topics by local authors are preferred. Please include your name and city of residence with your letter (which will be published) and, in case we have a question, your contact information (which won’t be published unless you say it’s OK). To to go the letters page, click here. Longer pieces may be submitted as a Viewpoint (suggested word length 500-700 words).

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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