I'd heard of Ashland, Oregon, long before I visited it. Its Shakespeare festival, which runs February through November, has a international reputation and is often mentioned in the same breath as Stratford-on-Avon, where the plays originated. I can't say I'm a devotee of The Bard's work, but I have seen and enjoyed enough of his plays to jump at the chance to visit Ashland at the height of the festival. It was road trip time, down through the winding hills and thick forests of Oregon to just a few miles north of the California border. My anticipation was high, but my expectations of finding costumed denizens and live jousting ala a Renaissance Faire turned out to be very different from my experience.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is a celebration of live theater. But a word of caution about this... If you intend to see Shakespeare performed in the classical Elizabethan style, read the play descriptions carefully or you may be disappointed. Some of plays reengineer Shakespeare, placing them in times and places far removed from what the playwright had imagined. The performance I attended of Romeo and Juliet was an excellent example. Set in 1840's Alta California (a Spanish colonial province which is today the combined area of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah), the performance suffered from a unique case of split personality disorder. I'm still trying to wrap my head around actors delivering their Elizabethan lines in thick Mexican accents; or punctuating an impactful monologue with the occasional Spanish word as if only to reinforce how this version of Romeo and Juliet was so very different. Judging by the recurring snickers from the audience, I wasn't the only one who found this, well, ineffective.
Fear not. If altered Shakespeare isn't your cup of tea, the OSF and Ashland provide plenty of other live theater choices. In fact, we had twelve different options ranging from other Shakespeare titles to off-Broadway productions. The selection reinforced Ashland's catchphrase: "Come for four days, see four plays." With performances running continually in a lavish complex of both indoor and outdoor theaters, you could actually see more than four if you had the inclination and the money.
When I tired of Shakespeare, I strolled the downtown area which, in many ways, reminded me of Sedona in Arizona's Verde Valley. Most of the businesses were upscale boutiques, creekside cafés and art galleries with a strong hippie vibe. The penchant for live performances spilled out onto the sidewalks, where everyone from teenaged crooners to stringed quartets to transients with broken ukuleles vied for attention and tips. The heart of the downtown area is Lithia Park. Dating from early twentieth century, the park was designed as a tranquil refuge where urban dwellers could enjoy the arts, explore nature and ponder their existence. It was also the most visible expression of the Chautauqua educational movement, which strived to bring culture and beauty to America's more rural areas. A century later, Ashland still embraces Chautauqua and it was gratifying to see such large crowds (and so many children and teenagers) attending the plays, hiking the nature paths or listening to music. In the era of Jersey Shore and Twilight, it seems like America needs a good dose of Chautauqua. Kudos to Ashland for providing it!
For more on Ashland and the chautauqua movement, see my articles on the Oceanscape Network.