The Ultimate Audience

Where are all the faithful theater fans? Would you believe Oregon?

By Cary M. Mazer

I was out of town when theater critic Toby Zinman slugged it out in these pages with Megan Bellwoar and other local theater people about critics and audiences. But while that was happening, I too, was thinking about audiences, as I found myself sitting in the middle of an unusual one.

While my wife and I were on vacation in Northern California and Oregon, we checked out the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, catching three plays (of the 11 productions in repertory in three theaters) in two days.

I had never seen audiences like those I sat with in Ashland -- not at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park (where I worked as a production assistant to Joe Papp one summer in the '70s); not at the defunct Stratford, CT Festival (where, when I was in junior high school, I saw my first Shakespeare play -- Cyril Ritchard doubling as Oberon and Bottom in his own production of A Midsummer Night's Dream ); not at the old Villanova Summer Shakespeare Festival or the current Allentown one (which completed its fifth season last week); nor even at the Royal Shakespeare Company's home base in Stratford-upon-Avon (where I've seen several dozen productions over the past 23 years).

I should have anticipated that the audiences at Ashland would be something special. Every time we struck up a conversation across the breakfast table at a B&B en route, other guests lit up when we told them we were going to Ashland. "We've gone every year for 17 years," they'd typically say. These were people from the Bay Area (at least a seven-hour drive away), Portland (five hours) or the faraway Seattle. Some were avid theatergoers in their home cities. Most were not. They were people who liked making the trip, just to see a half-dozen plays in half as many days, and to stay in a charming town with miraculously unschlocky shops (my wife couldn't even find an ugly cheapo plastic snow globe to add to our collection of ugly cheapo plastic snow globes) at the southern extreme of the Cascade Mountains, only an hour away from Crater Lake.

They bring their children, their grandchildren or their aged parents; pig out on big breakfasts at their guesthouses, and sun themselves between shows in the endlessly long park in town, designed by the same landscape architect who designed Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And they are willing to sit outside in the chill of an Oregon night until the small hours (Coriolanus started at 8: 30 p.m. and didn't end until after midnight) in the open-air, though somewhat bogus, Elizabethan-replica outdoor theater that houses three of each season's four Shakespeare productions.

There are many professional Shakespearean scholars who go to Ashland regularly (I know a few), as well as professional theater critics (ditto). But it's not at all like, say, Stratford-upon-Avon, where there's a cadre of theatergoing cognoscenti up from London for the show, sitting beside busloads of tourists passing through town on their guided holiday tours, many of whom don't speak English. Nor is it like the mix of rough-and-tumble high school students and Upper West Side subscribers jostling cheek-by-jowl under the murky stars at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

As my wife and I sat in the Elizabethan Theater at Love's Labor's Lost , one of Shakespeare's most verbally ornate and linguistically convoluted plays, I noticed something I had rarely experienced when seeing the play (and I'd already seen four productions): the audience was getting it, laughing at the wordplay, discerning the idiosyncratic verbal styles of the four French noblemen in their love letters to their respective girlfriends, understanding how the simple-minded Constable Dull can mishear the pedant Holofernes' Latin "Haud credo," as "old gray doe." And when it came time for the play's humanity to come through (in one delicious moment when the lisping curate, Sir Nathaniel, miraculously loses his lisp as he reads aloud the principal nobleman's soaringly beautiful misdelivered love letter; or when the play-long games of courtship give way to death and mourning in the final moments), the audience was right there with the play, ready to take it all in.

I overheard several pairs of people leaving the theater after the performance, jogging their memories of the last production of the play they had seen at Ashland, five years before at the Angus Bowmer Theater, the Festival's middle-sized indoor auditorium. It's not that they remembered the details of that earlier performance, nor that they knew the play from reading and studying it. They were simply used to seeing anything and everything there, ready to open themselves up and take it all in. Over 80 percent of theater tickets at Ashland are sold (often a year in advance) to repeat patrons. When the Festival stages Timon of Athens next year, they will have worked their way through the complete canon three times since the Festival was founded in 1935 (something the New York Shakespeare Festival still hasn't done after 40 years). This is an audience that knows the plays; or, more accurately, that isn't frightened of any play.

Mikael Salazar and Vilma Silva play in "Romeo and Juliet."

And the directors don't dumb down the plays to the audience. The productions we saw in the outdoor theater (a hot, sinuously choreographic Romeo and Juliet directed by Rene Buch of the Repertorio Espanol, and Love's Labor's Lost directed by festival veteran Pat Patton) weren't terribly inspired; nor were they as conservative as the strictly-Elizabethan-dress productions that were the rule in the Elizabethan Theater (a critic in a nearby seat told me) until only a few years ago, when Libby Appel, formerly of the Indiana Rep, took over as artistic director. (Coriolanus and Romeo and Juliet are staged in eclectic/ modern dress, Love's Labor's Lost in 18th-century style, like a Watteau fte galante .) Nor was the acting spectacular: some of the company veterans looked as if they had been doing regional Shakespeare for a decade too long; and the younger actors (many of them non-Equity) rarely stick around nowadays for more than a season or three, one of our B&B breakfast companions told us. (I'll say this for the acting, though: every word could be heard in the outdoor theater, without any amplification.) The productions just told the stories clearly, and the audiences were ready and willing -- ecstatically thrilled -- to follow along.

The audience's willingness to visit an interesting world and to sit back and experience the emotions of characters living out their lives in that world, was also evident in the one non-Shakespearean production we saw in the Bowmer, Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets. The production captured expertly the slice of 1930s Jewish lower-middle-class apartment life in the Bronx, quite a tribute to the apparently non-Bronxite cast and to Director Debra Wicks (who is, interestingly, a person of color). The largely West Coast audience looked upon the suffocated and suffocating lives of the struggling Berger family with the same alien curiosity, and with the same warm empathy, with which they regarded French courtiers or Veronese lovers. (The audience was amused only when Ralph Berger complained that his girlfriend's guardians were threatening to send her "out West" to Cleveland.)

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then, is blessed with the greatest natural resource that any theater company can ever wish for: an audience that is ripe to join them on their artistic journey.

So how does a festival theater develop such an audience? It helps to be in the middle of nowhere (this rules out city and suburban festivals), in a place without many rival attractions (this rules out, say, Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA), and in a place with its own natural beauty. A Shakespeare festival like the one in Allentown, an easy commute from Philadelphia, will attract daytrippers if the play sounds undaunting and the reviews are good. But when will it have the courage to do, say, Troilus and Cressida , and when will its audiences want to join in for that ride? Even the Royal Shakespeare Company has learned that it can count on only 10 of the 38 plays to fill its largest house in Stratford, even with all the captive tour-bus audiences.

And what about Philadelphia theaters? When will audiences see the revival of one of the more obscure plays from the standard repertoire with other than curiosity or contempt? After such productions in Philadelphia, I've often heard audience members (and, I'm ashamed to say, even a critic or two) say, "I'm glad I saw it and they did it well, but was this play worth reviving?" It would be wonderful if we had an audience that would instead say "wow," or at the very least, "thanks."

I guess we all have our work cut out for us.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's repertory season continues through Oct. 27, with performances daily except Mondays. For schedule and reservations, write P.O. Box 158, Ashland, OR, 97520, or call (541) 482-4331.