The history of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Drawing hundreds of thousands of guests each year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is, without a doubt, one of the state’s cultural events. 

Founded by Angus L. Bowmer in 1935, it has evolved from a two-play festival into a massive attraction that runs from March to October, featuring world-class talent and state-of-the-art production design. It is now one of the oldest and biggest non-profit professional theatres in the country— a far cry from its humble beginnings.

Since its inception, the OSF has steadily won over theatre lovers and critics alike. It went on to win a Tony Award for Outstanding Achievement in Regional Theatre and the Governor’s Association Award in 1983, then a Commendation award from the ACLU seven years after. recognizing its outstanding achievement in regional theatre.

To commemorate the OSF’s 84th year, let’s take a closer look at its origins.

How the Oregon Shakespeare Festival came to be

It all started with Angus L. Bowmer. An English teacher from what we know today as Southern Oregon University, Angus had a deep appreciation for Shakespeare. His talents in theatre even caught the eye of Governor Julius Meier, who hired him to work on the 1934 Diamond Jubilee.

When Angus first set eyes on Ashland’s old Chautauqua building, inspiration struck. For him, its walls were reminiscent of an Elizabethan stage. Surely, there is no better place to introduce Shakespeare’s works than in such a setting. 

And so, Angus and several members of the Active Club approached the city government with a proposal: a two-play festival for that year’s Fourth of July celebrations, held at the old Chautauqua building. The City granted Angus’ wish and provided a construction fund worth $400. The State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA) also hired a construction crew to help prepare the Chautauqua building and grounds.

Together with the help of volunteers, the first ever Oregon Shakespeare Festival opened on July 2, 1935 with a production of Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. The whole affair was a hit with the community, so much so that it earned well enough to cover the festival’s expenses and lost revenue from other attractions.

Since then, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has become one of Ashland’s most treasured traditions and would continue to prosper for decades to come. 

The man behind the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The world-renowned OSF began thanks to Angus Livingston Angus’ artistic vision and passion for public performance and theater. This great love was heavily influenced by his family’s enthusiastic appreciation for the arts. 

In 1931, Angus made his way from Bellingham, WA to Ashland. He was invited to each English at the Southern Oregon Normal School, now known as the Southern Oregon University. During his stint, he transformed the two-year curriculum by adding more theater-related courses. He also produced an annual spring play. 

Angus then decided to create a full-fledged theater department at the Southern Oregon Normal School. He believed he needed the support of the community for this venture. This led him to get in touch with the city so he can produce the inaugural  Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 

In 1942, Angus was drafted to serve in the US Army. At about the same time, the OSF took a break due to the threat of  World War 2. In January 1945, Angus returned to Ashland and continued his post as English teacher and theater producer. In 1947, the OSF was back with additional funding from the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. 

The OSF continued to grow in the subsequent years. In 1964, it was expanded to coincide with Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. Four years after, it was further expanded to run from February to October. In 1971, after having spent 36 years of his life with the OSF, Angus retired from his post. He passed away in May 26, 1979, leaving behind one of the most successful and long running regional theatre festivals in the country. 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival through the early decades

  • 1930s: In 1935, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was born. The Oregon Shakespearean Festival Association was incorporated as a membership organization in 1937.

    In 1939, the OSF staged a production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Golden State International Exposition in San Francisco. This was broadcast live nationwide on NBC radio.

  • 1940s: The Elizabethan Stage at the Chautauqua building was damaged in a fire. From 1941 to 1946: the OSF suspended its productions because of World War II. Angus Bowmer was drafted to the US Army and served from 1942 to 1945.

    In 1947, the OSF returned with funding from the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. Construction to replace the damaged Elizabethan Stage began. This year also marked the beginning of the OSF’s expansion.

  • 1950s: The birth of the OSF Green Shows, which were free shows that preceded the evening plays. These mini productions ran from June through October.

    In 1951, an adaptation of the OSF’s King Lear was broadcasted on national radio. This practice continued until 1974.

    In 1958, the OSF completed the Shakespeare canon with a production of Troilus and Cressida. The Elizabethan stage constructed in 1947 was also torn down the same year. By 1959, the new Elizabethan stage designed by Richard L. Hay was opened to the public.

  • 1960s: The OSF staged its first non-Shakespeare production: The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster. To mark Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, the OSF was expanded in 1964. Meanwhile, 1966 saw the establishment of the Endowment Fund.

  • 1970s: In 1970, the Angus Bowmer Theatre was opened to the public with a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. With the new theater, the OSF was expanded yet again to run for nine months. In the same year, the School Visit Program was also launched.

    Angus Bowmer retired in 1971 and was replaced by Jerry Turner. He passed away in 1979.

    In 1977, the OSF received the Governor’s Award for the Arts. The Black Swan theatre was also opened.

Learn more about OSF and other cultural gems Ashland has in store for you! Get in touch with Ashland Homes Real Estate at 800.334.7499/541.482.0044 or info(at)ashland-homes(dotted)com.