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Sierra Lodestar 01/06/16
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Shakespeare Is Alive, Well and Thriving

In the tiny town of Ashland, Ore., the play really is the thing. You can literally see five of them in four days. My husband, Charles, and I have been doing this—and loving every minute—for more than ten years.

Ashland is a bit like the mouse that roared. The village of some 20,000 inhabitants is home to the country's largest repertory theater. Imagine if you can possibly 90 actors playing multiple roles in 11 different plays. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Three to four maintenance people support each actor.

Erica Nunnelley, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Nunnelley of Murphys, is one of them. As a stage ops specialist, Erica does some tough and terrific work. You won't see her on the stage because she's either crawling out on a catwalk or in a black box suspended from the ceiling above or behind you controlling the lights.

"Mine is the art of not to being seen," Erica explains. Hers is a hands on job. Working in a rotating repertory, stage ops specialists are expected to kick a lot of butt. At peak season Erica may change four sets at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, three in the Thomas Theatre and three in the Elizabethan Theatre.

Readers may know Erica from her work at the Murphys Street Theatre. She has since been graduated from St. Anne's College where she majored in theater arts. "I always knew I wanted to be involved in theater in some manner. Stage operations are at the very center of it."

Erica seems to have found the perfect niche at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, an eight-month season budgeted at 40 million. Great theater meets big business.

It's unlikely that anyone could have imagined such a thing back in 1935 when Ashland's desperate city fathers were wracking their brains for something— anything—to bring in revenue. With the Depression at its heights, no one thought much of Angus Bowmer's suggestion. Can you imagine, that crazy kid professor wanted to put on a weekend Shakespeare festival!

After much argument, the hard- pressed town council granted the young idealist $400 to mount his production. Even then there was a caveat: the stage must also be used for boxing.

Folks thought Bowmer would be furious. Perhaps he'd even refuse the arrangement.

But young Angus knew his Shakespeare. Diligent research had revealed that in the Bard's time, boxing exhibitions preceded plays on stage. His delight at the prospect of pugilistic exhibitions surprised everyone. And, as it turned out, his festival was so successful that it actually subsidized the less popular boxing matches.

In the intervening 82 years, there've been a lot of changes made. The mini resort of Ashland now encircles an entertainment complex that includes three state-of-the-art theaters enabling more than 100,000 people to attend the festival each year. What do they find there?

Though Ashland's highest cultural expression is its Elizabethan Stage— covered in ivy and open to the stars —this is only the beginning. The immortal bard gets nightly competition

from a variety of edgy, young playwrights. This year's festival, which opened with previews in February and will run through October, features only four Shakespearean plays out of 11 productions. Eddie Wallace, festival spokesperson, explains: "Our name sometimes misleads people who don't yet know who and what we are. If you're just thinking two weeks of Shakespeare in the summer, think again. Ours is a true festival with classes, music, dance and backstage tours." I, personally, make a point of booking a tour every year and always learn something new. Maybe it's an insight or perhaps a new technique. Invariably there's a telling anecdote. And, because of the egalitarian nature of the repertory company itself, the morning tour guide can easily be last night's leading man. This year my guide was Catherine Castellanos, formerly of Valley Springs. It's Catherine's second season and she appears in two roles. In "Merry Wives of Windsor"—a lively romp is there ever was one— Catherine plays Mistress Quickly. A far more somber assignment is her portrayal of Eurycleia, Odysseus's mother in "The Odyssey." "My favorite part is always the current one," Catherine says. "It has to be." When asked if she didn't find performing Shakespeare a bit off- putting, she was amazed. "Absolutely not! Shakespeare's story lines are so contemporary. There's nothing new under the sun. He wrote about it all." Though the 2017 season is in full swing, plays have already been selected for the

2018. Designs are on the drawing board for sets and costumes and casting is

underway. Ashland, where then play is always the thing, is gearing up for its 83rd season.

Membership in the theater company is highly competitive. Actors are well paid

but work under year-to-year contracts. This system keeps the company on its toes.

Conceivably, an actor can work for 10 years and not be rehired for the 11th.

Graduate students are recruited for two or three year internships. At the end of that time

they have the opportunity to audition for membership. Most try and try hard.

What’s Playing in Ashland This year's theatrical smorgasbord is particularly rich. Lovers run rampant

whether adulterous or steadfast, timid or fierce. Always—or this wouldn’t be drama--

something gets in the way. Here’s how it plays out.

At the Angus Bowmer Theater

"Julius Caesar"—A democracy in the midst of a controversial leadership transition that puts society at risk. Warring egos, where the difference between a desire to lead and a desire for power has become indistinguishable. (Closes Oct. 29

"Shakespeare in Love"— Shakespeare discovers his best and most profound inspiration in the beating hearts, restless minds, and uniquely complicated stories of the people around him. (Closes Oct. 29)

"Unison"— The world premier of a musical inspired by the poetry of August Wilson. (Closes Oct. 29)

"Off the Rails"—The world premier dramatizing of the reality of the Native American boarding school movement of the 19th and early 20th

centuries. (Closes Oct. 28)

At the Thomas Theater "Henry 1V, Part One"— Some of the most amazing characters of all times –Falstaff, Prince Hal, King Henry, and Hotspur—collide in a world gone mad. Hilarious, vibrant, tragic and passionate. (Closes Oct. 28)

"Hannah and the Dead Gazebo"—The world premier of a comedic drama centered around family, identity, secrets and legacy. (Closes Oct 28)

"Henry 1V, Part Two"—A young man trying to find his voice, not just an echo; a kingdom that is fractured; and characters looking forward or backward in time to make meaning of their world. (Closes Oct. 29)

At the Elizabethan Theater "The Merry Wives of Windsor"—A lusty and desperate man set on seducing, not loving, the wives of Windsor meets his match. (Closes Oct. 15)

"The Odyssey"—Like Odysseus himself, "The Odyssey" is a survivor. The play lasted for a millennia because—I think—because it's such an entertaining vehicle for a profound idea. (Closes Oct. 14)

"Disney's Beauty and the Beast"—In a tale as old as time, a beautiful and intelligent woman falls in love, somewhat reluctantly with an ugly beast. In doing so, she releases from an evil spell what was really a handsome prince. (Closes Oct. 15)

When You Go

Tickets range from $30 to $113. Show dates and times vary, so check the website (www.osfland.org or phone (541) 482-4331 for information.

Ashland, located about 300 miles north of Sacramento, lies in the foothills of the Siskiyou mountain range. Responding to the success of the festival, the town has grown from a tiny logging village to a full fledged resort. Today there are more than 40 inns and B & Bs in the immediate area, but they fill up fast.

Four personal favorites—because of their charm and location are the Ashland Springs Hotel (1-888-795- 4545), the Winchester (1-800-972- 4991), the Columbia (1-800-718-2530) and the Iris Inn (1-800-460-460-7650). For a stay of more than a weekend, consider renting a house from Vacation Rentals By Owner (www.VRBO.com).

Now about restaurants, like the inns they do fill up during the season. Reservations are advisable— particularly if you’ve a curtain to catch. Here are a few hot of the fork favorites, within two blocks of the theaters.

Standing Stone Brewing Company—101 Oak St. Phone: (541) 482-2448. Consistently good food, open every day from 11:30 to midnight.

Larks—212 East Main. Phone: (541) 488-5558. A trip to Ashland really isn’t complete for me without at least one meal here. Soups are specially outstanding here. (You can also get a fabulous martini) Open daily from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Sesame Asian Kitchen--21 Winburn Way. Phone: (541) 482- 0119. Another creekside favorite. Enjoy a variety of wraps as an appetizer. For an entrée, I suggest the salmon plate. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. on.

Ashland Bistro Café—38 East Main. Phone: (541) 482-2117. Casual but consistently good and super convenient. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Jazz on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.