Thursday, October 13, 2011

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of New York

Stanley and I are on a book tour down the west coast: starting at Seattle and working our way down to San Diego by car (with a one night stand in Phoenix by air).  We’ve had a super time the whole way, but the highlight so far must be our visit to Ashland, Oregon.  Probably US readers know all about Ashland, but – excuse my ignorance – I did not.  It’s an absolutely remarkable place.  The sort of place where people come to visit for a few weeks and stay for the rest of their lives.  No, really they do. We met some.  And it’s quite easy to see why. 
Ashland, Oregon
As you approach the town from the north, the thick conifer forests give way to much more open country, much more like California.  It stops raining.  The sun comes out.  (The sun came out in Portland too while we were there but it carried on raining at the same time.)  There may be unpleasant or unfriendly people in Ashland, but frankly I doubt it.  Certainly we didn’t meet any of them.  Instead we met the amazing Maureen Flanagan who is the enthusiastic engine behind the Ashland Mystery Readers Group.  And Amy Blossom, librarian at the Ashland Library, who woke up one day to discover the county was going to close the libraries and fire all the staff.  She led the successful charge to get that reversed, even having to cope with a sit-in of children protesting against the library closure.  (Eventually she was forced to call the police – she carefully hand-picked a sheriff who read the kids stories until they were ready to go home!)
The open-air theatre

Angus Bowmer
Then, of course, there is the wonderful theatre. In 1935 Angus Bowmer, a teacher at the Southern Oregon Normal school (now Southern Oregon University) was struck by the similarity between the old Chautauqua building in the town and some sketches he had seen of Elizabethan theatres.  Excited, he persuaded the city to advance him an “amount not exceeding $400” to put on a Shakespeare festival as part of the city’s 4th of July celebrations. The Oregon Shakespearean Festival was officially born on July 2, 1935 with a production of Twelfth Night followed by The Merchant of Venice the next night. Reserved seats cost $1, with general admission of $.50 for adults and $.25 for children. Even at these prices, the Festival covered its own expenses. The Festival also absorbed the losses of the daytime boxing match that the City — which feared that the plays would lose money — held onstage.

Now there are three theatres with an annual operating budget of $26 million running a nine month season of 800 plays seen by 400,000 people! The town has around 20,000 residents.  It’s a truly outstanding achievement. 

Charles Robinson, Peter Macon & Mark Murphey in a scene from the play
The plays are absolutely top rate.  Because of Maureen’s generosity we were able to see a performance of The African Company Presents Richard III. Based on the true story of a black actor in the early nineteenth century New York, it reflects the racism of that time but also it is a study of the human spirit’s longing for creativity.  As the director asked in the program notes: “What is it that drives artists to keep making their art, in spite of animus, in the absence of creative acceptance?”
Michael - Thursday


  1. No, Michael, very few Americans know/knew as much about Ashland as you did. Including this one. And, somehow, I don't think the Ashlanders mind that! But I do know where I'll be heading the next time I'm out West. Say hello to the folks in Phoenix/Scottsdale.

  2. Lucky you -- I'm doing the Ashland circuit in 2012, and it was great to read about it. And about two hours after Michael called me, the entire jury pool was released. So we JUST missed each other.

    But next time . . .