ASHLAND, Ore. — When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director Bill Rauch isn’t curating seasons of classic and original theater, he’s on the Rogue River with his family, rafting.
“There’s such a strong culture of outdoors: You can hike, you can raft in the summer, you can ski in the winter,” Rauch, a Harvard alum and seasoned director, said in a phone interview. “Ashland, even though it’s a small town of only 20,000 people, has the cultural amenities of much larger cities in terms of extraordinary restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, galleries, and art house movie theaters. It’s part of the reason I fell in love: the best of a small town with a lot of the culture of a large city.”
Chris Acebo, the associate artistic director at OSF, enjoys a good raft on the weekends, but he’s more of a wine tasting guy. Both extracurriculars are feasible in Ashland. Nestled in a bowl of almost Tuscan rolling hills, Ashland offers art at a caliber unique to a city its size. A visitor could spend the morning in one of southern Oregon’s many bodies of water, taste top-scoring wines at one of the local vineyards, take a brewery tour before the green show, and see a Broadway-quality production before it arrives in New York. And make no mistake: Ashland, for all its natural beauty and gastronomic delights, belongs to its thespians.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival produces 11 plays in its nine-month season, including a couple of the Bard’s originals. Ironically, the non-Shakespeare plays should attract the attention of the theater geek; OSF commissions plays for each of its seasons, with premieres from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Lynn Nottage and Quiara Alegría Hudes. Its American Revolutions series, which presents original pieces that recount stories from US history, debuted “All the Way,” the Tony-winning play that ran in Boston in 2013.
“Head Over Heels,” the raucous reinterpretation of Arcadia set to the Go-Go’s songbook, runs in the festival’s open-air Elizabethan theater — the first built in the United States. Jeff Whitty, who wrote the musical, gained recognition for his raunchy masterpiece “Avenue Q” about struggling New York puppets. Whitty grew up on the Oregon coast, and saw his first professional theater production on the stage where “Head Over Heels” now runs, at a festival he calls “Broadway-meets-Burning Man.”
“I was spoiled! I thought this is how theater always is,” Whitty remembered, calling from his West Hollywood home. “It took me getting on a hippie bus to New York . . . and coming back home to realize where I started was exactly where I needed to be.”
The rest of any given season is usually rounded out with American classics (spot the Eugene O’Neill on the docket with “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”) and plays outside the Western canon. This year, “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,” a popular Chinese play, presented its first US performance in Ashland.
During the summer season, festivalgoers can see as many as nine plays in any of the three theaters on OSF’s campus, including the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, the Angus Bowmer Theatre, and the smaller Thomas Theatre. Or for those disinclined to buy tickets, the brick square among the three venues hosts a free green show six days a week from June to mid-October, featuring musicians and performers of all kinds.
Walking away from the festival, its influence prevails: Lion heraldry hangs from street lamps, an artist plays the hurdy-gurdy along Ashland Creek, Dobra Tea house mounts a framed picture of William himself on its teal walls.
Ashland may not escape its Shakespearean sway, but culinary ventures still roam. The beautiful Peerless Hotel and Restaurant, with its fountain courtyard and suburban setting, offers sophisticated modern American cuisine that escapes the big-fish-small-pond excuse. The Lunch Show bakes its own bread and roasts its own turkey. Dobra Tea serves more than 100 herbal blends from its tome of a menu (96 pages, 86 of which are solely dedicated to beverages).
But for those 21-plus theater fans looking for a break, Ashland and the surrounding area is chock-full of wineries, including DANCIN Vineyards in Medford, a 30-minute drive away. Closer to town, the Weisinger Family Winery offers inexpensive tastings of award-winning wines. For those who prefer a brew to a blanc, the Caldera Brewery pours 40 of its own on tap. Stick to the IPAs. This is Oregon, after all.
OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL 15 South Pioneer St., Ashland, Ore. Tickets: $30-$120. Through Oct. 31. 800-219-8161, www.osfashland.org
Brooke Jackson-Glidden can be reached at bjcksonglidden@ gmail.com.