Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Tenting on the old campground

Inside the OSF tent, for a tech rehearsal of "The Imaginary Invalid"/ Photo: Jenny Graham


Today, Thursday, July 7, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival begins its Great Tent Experiment, Bowmer in the Park, in Lithia Park behind the festival grounds in Ashland.

The experiment was forced on the festival. On June 18, during a soliloquy by Anthony Heald in Measure for Measure, a great cracking sound was heard in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. Heald pressed on, you know, the show must go on after all. But a close inspection after the show revealed that a main beam in the theater had cracked and needed to be repaired. In the meantime, which is now, the theater would have to be closed.

So, the tent. I’m a big fan of tents, tents of all sorts, from pup tents to yurts to big circus tents.  The idea of a tent gets me excited. A soft architecture, it defines and protects a space, makes that space special in some way. But it’s a temporary adaptation (well, I suppose all adaptations are temporary by some time scale). We don’t expect it to have all the conveniences of “hard” architecture. Maybe a tent brings out the hunter-gatherer in me, I don’t know.

Now, I haven’t seen the tent the Shakespeare festival is erecting (though I hope to make the trek to Ashland soon to check it out), but just from the press releases, I’m expecting something closer to Cirque du Soleil than a pup tent. It will seat 598; it’s air-conditioned (though not heated—bring a wrap for those evening shows); and I imagine the technical arrangements will be very sophisticated.

I hope they won’t be TOO sophisticated. I’ve been going to Oregon Shakespeare Festival off and on since the early 1980s, and if I had to register one general reservation about the productions I’ve seen, it’s that their cumulative effect can seem hyper-aesthetic. “Slick” isn’t the right word nor “manufactured” nor even “over-produced.”  But sometimes I leave thinking that I would have liked something a little rougher, a little wilder, a little less considered and more deeply felt.  Every square inch and every second doesn’t have to be designed—leave something for chance, for our imagination, for the skill and commitment of the actors to fill in.

I don’t mean this to sound harsh. The achievement at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is very great indeed. I never leave without my head full of thoughts the actors, directors and designers have planted. But sometimes, something simpler, less aestheticized, more direct, can be quite wonderful in an entirely different way.

Here are the first two sentences of Peter Brook’s very famous book on theater practice and philosophy, The Empty Space.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

I read it back in the early 1990s, when I started reviewing theater for The Oregonian. Brook led me to Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud and the idea that theater doesn’t have to be “elaborate” to be, well, wonderful. That was a good thing in Portland, because at that point no one except Portland Center Stage, then under the auspices of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, could manage elaborate, at least not consistently. Nearly all of the other theater companies in town performed in spaces that had been adapted—not built—to the purpose.

That didn’t mean those companies couldn’t make theater that touched me, though, and Brook explained why that could be the case.

Here’s Grotowski, whose interviews and essays were collected in Towards a Poor Theatre.

“By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, “live” communion.”

Grotowski’s practice was about how to establish that communion, lessons Brook extended and experimented with during his long theater tours of Africa and Asia, playing in front of any audience he and his company could attract.

The process of stripping down to the basics defined modernism in the 20th century. What is really necessary in a dance, for example? A stage? Music? A story? A dance vocabulary? The Judson experiments dispensed with all of them, and in dispensing with them, recovered their power as well as the power of the human body itself to communicate. Visual arts, architecture, music, movies, even literature, have gone through this process. The career of artist Cy Twombly, who died Tuesday in his home in Rome, reminds us of how interesting and useful the process can be.

This all sounds very formal, and Brook was anything but a formalist. In The Empty Space, He divided theater into four types—deadly, holy, rough and immediate—and I suspect he’d have more affection for a Punch and Judy puppet show than a sterile thought experiment brought to a stage.  Deadly theater, by the way, the kind that he saw all around him in London’s West End or Broadway,  is what we’re trying to avoid. And it’s theater without life.

Maybe I’m a hopeless Romantic, but the implication of “tent” to me, somehow, is “life.” (Also, hard ground and trouble sleeping, but that’s another story.) Theater in a tent? It’s going to be basic so the life of the actors is going to have to come through or else we’ll have a laughable failure on our hands. Believe it or not, I’m not necessarily opposed to laughable failures—my own have taught me a lot. But still, you don’t want to have paid $60 a ticket to see something you can get at home for the price of souffle fixings.

It makes sense that artistic director Bill Rauch would preside over the tenting of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (its first performances under Angus Bowmer were performed in 1935 on a makeshift stage at a cost “not to exceed $400”).

Rauch came to the festival from LA’s Cornerstone Theatre, with a reputation for doing rough, immediate and even holy theater. His theater in LA was engaged, politically and socially. It often worked with non-actors (Judson worked with non-dancers). It believed in the transformational power of the art form.

Some of that history has started to inform his work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival: I’m thinking specifically of the U.S. History cycle.  The accident of the cracking beam in the Bowmer gives him a chance to address the aesthetics of the festival a bit, perhaps, to show that it’s possible to simplify those complex productions and throw the burden of proof on the acting company, where Peter Brook would say, it belongs.

I won’t be there for the opening of the tent theater, but I’m hoping to see some performances there soon. Have I mentioned that I love tents?




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