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The Bard rises from Ashland

The southwest Oregon town is famous for its Shakespeare festival but also is close to skiing, hiking and antiquing.

February 12, 2006|Curt Hopkins | Special to The Times

Ashland, Ore. — SNOWFLAKES the size of quarters filled the air of the Bear Creek Valley and felted the grassy hills above Ashland with white. Nature, Shakespeare said, mirrors the affairs of man, and this snowstorm was no exception. The first play of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2006 season, opening Friday, was to be "The Winter's Tale." And at that moment last month, the whole of the town felt as still and breathless as the wronged Hermione.

I have had a long relationship with this corner of southwest Oregon; my grandfather and uncle served as mayors in two neighboring towns. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, running this year to Oct. 29, always provided me with an acre or two that felt like my own, where I could meet proverbial kindred spirits. The festival attracts not people looking to fill a Saturday night but theatergoers with an abiding love of drama. It is not an ivory tower. It's a wooden one. Where nature and artifice meet.

This town of 20,000 is slotted between the steep walls of Bear Creek Valley 15 miles north of the California border. It has been steeped in a decades-long experiment with Shakespeare, begun in 1935 by local teacher Angus Bowmer. There are just enough Elizabethan touches -- crenelated parapets on the drugstore, trumpet banners hanging from the streetlights -- to tart up the place but not so many that it seems forced. Wild rivers, historical gold rush towns and skiing lie within 20 miles of Ashland's main thoroughfare and its three state-of-the-art theaters.

Sometimes in a place like Ashland, visitors succumb to the temptation to treat it like a cultural vending machine. They drop in their change, pull the lever, consume what drops and return home. But Ashland and its environs, even the festival itself, is a richer place when you indulge your curiosity.

For my part, I talked my way backstage into the costume and design shops and spent time conversing with several of the actors to get an insider's view of the festival, the town and the area.


Painting the scene

THE scene shops at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival were cavernous bays filled with a controlled confusion of men (and a few women) rolling great "carts" or sections of sets, back and forth. The air was filled with the whine of wood saws and the hiss of paint guns. The shop was building the set to one of the first plays "The Diary of Anne Frank," due to open Saturday. The festival's scene shop is busy 10 months of the year.

This buzz of activity was matched in the costume shop as well, where Chris Smith-McNamara rode herd over three or four rotating "studios" of costume creators as well as the craft workers who make hats, shoes and armor; the dyers; the wig-makers; and more.

Bill Langan, who is set to play Leontes in "The Winter's Tale," has just returned after a year in his native New York City. Ashland may be remote, Langan said over coffee at the nearby Starbucks, but the audience is as sophisticated as an actor could hope for.

"One time I came into the theater and saw balloons attached to one of the seats," he said. "I thought it was someone's birthday." It turns out that the audience member set to occupy that seat was "completing the canon." At the end of the night, he would have seen every one of Shakespeare's plays in performance. Rare? Not really. Langan knew at least a couple of others who had done the same thing.

Ashland, lying as it does in a long, narrow valley, is itself long and narrow. The axis of the town is Main Street, running north to south through a mix of gas stations and hillside houses. In the downtown core, where most of the shops and theaters are located, the street splits into Main and Lithia Way. Right below the theaters off Main is a parking roundabout bordered by shops, taverns and Lithia Park. There, in the middle, where punky kids and vagrants lounge, is Lithia Fountain, which delivers foul-smelling mineral spring water.

Once Main rejoins Lithia Way at the public library, a small but heavy-looking stone building, it becomes Siskiyou Boulevard and leads you out past Southern Oregon University and into the pine and madrono-covered hills south of town to Mt. Ashland and, ultimately, the frequently snowy Siskiyou Pass and the California border.

Most of tourist Ashland is in those six downtown blocks. But other walkable neighborhoods are easily reached on foot. East of the main streets is the Railroad District, a small collection of shops, restaurants and cafes clustered around A Street. Up the hill in the other direction, above the theaters, is a windy, leafy residential district. Or, you can walk through Lithia Park. From either direction the dramatic hills -- constantly changing color and texture depending on the time of day, the season and the weather -- reward the wanderer.

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