Theatre Heaven on Earth — Ashland, OR

Written by: Jill Podolsky

Ashland, Oregon. Home of Southern Oregon University, wonderful wineries and vineyards, sales tax-free shopping, fabulous organic restaurants, many, many bed and breakfast hotels and spas and, of course, the internationally known Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s nestled in a valley surrounded by the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. And it’s an easy 6 hour drive from San Jose, through beautiful Dunsmuir and the majestic Mt. Shasta (which is particularly stunning when viewed in your rearview mirror). Or, if a 6 hour drive doesn’t sound appealing, it’s a mere hour flight (direct out of SFO to Medford) with a 25 minute taxi ride into Ashland. You don’t really need a car in Ashland unless you want to drive to decadent Rogue Creamery where you can enjoy award winning blue cheese or to Jacksonville, which has a quaint downtown and is home to the Britt Music Festival.

I’ve gone to Ashland at least once a year since 1996 and I’m considered a newbie! There are people who’ve gone every year for 25-30 years. It’s so much fun to talk to these people and hear their stories of how it’s changed and how the versions of the shows have evolved over the years. People are more than open to exchanging stories and to chatting while on the “bricks” (the outside area where people wait and gather before the doors open).

The main reason I go to Ashland is for the theatre, restaurants, shopping and the incredibly nice people—those who work/live there and those who, like me, are there to get away and live a life where all you do it stay at a lovely B&B, walk around the town, eat, see a show, get a massage, eat and see another show. To me, it’s a perfect day when I get to see 2 shows, eat at at least 2 great restaurants and find beautiful shoes that I don’t have to pay sales tax on! There’s Lithia Park to wander through and lots of wine to drink, as well. It’s a place for adults to get away and it’s a place to take your kids.

In addition to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), there’s The Cabaret and many other local theatre groups.  The Cabaret has fun musical shows (usually changes about 4 or so times a year) and can include a meal. It’s really a lot of fun.

For me, though, OSF is the main event. A couple of common misconceptions about OSF are that it’s just Shakespeare and that it only runs through the summer. The season runs from February through November and of the 11 (or so) shows they put on, in 3 theaters (2 indoor and 1 outdoor), generally only 4-5 of them are Shakespeare. In recent years, since Bill Rauch has taken over as artistic director, the other shows range from well-known musicals (like The Music Man or Pirates of Penzance) to world premieres and collaborations between the artists and playwrights.

When I first started going to Ashland, I thought I only liked Shakespeare’s comedies. I was entirely wrong. Not only have I grown to just tolerate the comedies, I have grown to love the dramas and the histories. Shakespeare in Ashland is accessible and easy to follow. The shows are set in many different times and are always relevant to what’s happening in our lives at the time. Measure for Measure (playing in the current season) for example, is set in the 1970s. It explores religion, sexuality and morality and Bill Rauch (who directed it) included musical scene transitions from an award-winning Mexican “girl band” who became unique and fascinating characters in the show. OSF is always very flexible with race and gender (a woman is playing Julius Caesar this year) and to me, this makes the shows ever so much more engaging and reflective of our communities.

What they did with The Pirates of Penzance this season was amazing. They took a Gilbert and Sullivan show, created over 100 years ago that has, in many ways, become a parody of itself, and brought it up to date by incorporating music from Porgy & Bess, A Chorus Line, Titanic, Ghost, rap and The Beatles. It was joyful, entertaining and very funny.

Whether or not the story of the play grabs you, the production elements (sets, lighting, props) and acting are always innovative, imaginative and flawless. Actors come from all over the country to work there – the season has a repertory cast of about 70 or so actors, most of whom play 2-4 roles during the season. It’s entirely amazing to see them in each of their different roles, seamlessly moving from character to character and you believe them each time.

I love Ashland, and I highly recommend it as a destination for a quick weekend away or for a week’s vacation. There’s a lot to keep you and your friends/family entertained!

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