Wide-Eyed in Ashland

Shakespeare’s not just the cultural heart of Ashland, he’s at the center of the town’s economic life as well.

As a theater geek, a visit to Ashland, Oregon, always gets me dreaming big idealistic dreams about what it might be like if theater were ever again to move to the center of our cultural life. On my second day here I passed two teenage girls sipping iced coffees in a cafe who were talking not about boys or Facebook, but about a favorite scene in Fences. A couple of nights later I overheard another couple in a bar passionately arguing over the interpretation of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (I'm relieved to say they didn't come to blows, and left together.) Theater's in the hot sultry air of this town, and with free preshow performances on the plaza's outdoor stage and crowds crossing between the three theaters, even weeknights feel like opening-night parties.Shakespeare's not just the cultural heart of Ashland, he's at the center of the town's economic life as well. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has an annual budget of around $26 million and employs 550 people, including a repertory company of over 100 actors (including quite a few former Seattleites). A recent economic survey calculated that the Festival brings over $163 million to the region, and Ashland's businesses do what they can to attract those dollars: A nutritional store is called All's Well, a music place CD or not CD, and Bill's balding pate can be seen on ads for b&b's, real-estate agents, and even car lots. "Some business owners have insurance in case we suffer a major catastrophe, like a theater burning down," says the Festival's executive director, Paul Nicholson.But even while the OSF has been somewhat insulated from the economic woes that have crippled or killed theaters in Seattle and nationwide in the last eight years, Nicholson's still concerned about the future. "We've had maybe a seven to eight percent drop in income since 2001," he says. "We didn't lose a single job during our tough times in 2002 and 2003. I don't know if that will still be true in the next year or two."The problems the Festival faces are similar to those we face in Seattle—graying audiences, a decrease in private and corporate donations (though the Festival averages an astonishing 77% in earned income), and rising gas prices. Nicholson sees the lousy economy as having the largest impact. "Most people are poorer now than they were a couple of years ago. There's not a lot we can do about that." But he also believes that the baby-boomers who've been the backbone of the Festival's audiences have a difficult attitude toward theater, even when they enjoy the experience. "They come here and say 'Great! Wonderful!' And we say, 'Then we'll see you next year?' And they'll say, 'No, we're going to do the Grand Canyon.' There's a boomer desire for a multitude of experiences."Whenever I think about how theater in Seattle could be supported and improved, it's Ashland that's the paragon in my imagination. They do it all so well—employ a huge company of world-class actors and artists, have three marvelous stages, and offer great community outreach and education programs, all to the glory of the world's greatest playwright. Hell, even the ticket-takers are all smiles. The Festival's been humming along for more than 70 years, through good times and bad, yet it's sobering speaking to Nicholson, and seeing, for the first time in memory, discounted tickets offered for some shows. If he's worried about the next couple of years, living in what is essentially a theatergoer's paradise, shouldn't we be?

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