Founder’s mission blended theater and education into a seamless whole
By Marsha Price Chevalier
Thank you, Herbert Rothschild, for the invitation to weigh in on the ups and downs of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In my opinion, OSF has lost sight of its heritage and its mission. A previous writer has pointed out that the OSF culture cannot and probably should not try to compete with big city theaters focused on constant innovation and social controversy. I think innovation and social controversy are still viable in Ashland but that OSF’s core mission needs to be revived to give the festival the stability it needs.
I am a former company member (1965 and ’66). I had the immense privilege of working directly with Angus Bowmer. He was not only an artistic director; he was also a teacher, a mentor, and a loving friend. He cared for OSF as if the theater of his dreams was also his child. Actors were mostly college students or hopefuls just starting out in their careers. Energy and enthusiasm ran high and Angus’ loving care surrounded all.
In his now sadly out-of-print book, “As I Remember, Adam: An Autobiography of a Festival,” Angus talks about how OSF was born of the idea handed down to him from his mentors of giving audiences the opportunity to see Shakespeare plays performed as they would have been performed in the English Renaissance. This was Angus’ mission, and it blended theater and education into a seamless whole. And it wasn’t just about the plays. There was Renaissance music and dance, foods and cultural demonstrations, and even an Institute of Renaissance Studies. Shakespeare and the Renaissance were front and center, and I, yes, even as a teenage visitor in 1961, was thoroughly impressed and inspired.
As the festival expanded with the building of the Angus Bowmer Theatre, more plays were added, at first from classical theater and then from romantic and modern offerings. But always, Renaissance-style Shakespeare was at the core, and the plays were mostly sold out.
This is the central mission that has been lost. It has been the victim of change for change’s sake and commercial interests. Were there inequities? Certainly! And those needed to be addressed, but not at the expense of Angus’ mission.
I have appealed to several artistic directors at OSF to bring back the OSF brand. I suggested for example, running a three- or four-week mini season of just Shakespeare in repertory including with the full Renaissance ambiance offered in the past. I’m betting that they would find Shakespeare as popular as ever. And the core mission, or brand, of OSF would be revived.
Without this, I cannot imagine a solid future for my beloved OSF.
Marsha Price Chevalier is a resident of Ashland.