Six plays in four days. That was our plan upon arriving in Ashland, Oregon, in August for the annual Shakespeare Festival. I’m happy to report: mission accomplished. My husband actually saw seven plays, when a last-minute ticket for a sold-out matinee became available. Shakespeare penned four of the plays we saw. We love Shakespeare. Contemporary playwrights wrote the others, which was fine with us, because as veteran drama majors, we love live theater, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival never disappoints.
Our visit to Ashland exactly coincided with a heat wave: It was hotter there than in California’s Central Valley. Our first evening’s curtain time was pushed back half an hour to allow the heat in the outdoor theater to dissipate a bit. But the shows, as they say, went on. The actress leading our backstage tour one morning described how the costume crew had figured out ways to slide frozen chill-packs under the actors’ wigs and into the layers of their corsets and jackets. She’d even had a battery-powered fan fitted under her giant hoop skirt to keep her from fainting onstage. Those fixes came from some dedicated and well-funded costumers.
This wonderful whirlwind of pitch-perfect Shakespearean theater contrasted with a production of “Hamlet” that I attended last spring. This staging took place in a state prison. The inmate actors and writers had labored to cut the five-act play down to a manageable chunk, and to update some of the language. They did this on typewriters, if you can imagine that. Their budget for the production was zero dollars, so they figured out ways to bring the magic of Shakespeare onto prison grounds by using anything they could glean. Bed sheets became curtains. Costumes were odds and ends salvaged and donated by the resourceful social worker who directed the play. A staff member on mandolin and an inmate on guitar collaborated on live musical interludes during set changes. The swords were fashioned from discarded boxes. But the story of poor, doomed Hamlet was as moving in the visiting room as it was on the professional Elizabethan stage, because the actors believed in the play and breathed real life into it.
That’s Shakespeare. That’s live theater. Both can change you.
The difference in the budgets of the prison production and the festival production was glaring, of course, starting with the program each audience member was handed upon arrival: two typed pages smearily reproduced on an aging copier cannot compare to a computer-generated, ad-filled glossy booklet. But the similarities between these Shakespearean endeavors were marvelous to behold. Professional actors and inmates new to acting alike had to understand the lines they memorized in a way that made it possible for them to convey the meaning of those oft-archaic words to the audience. They had to discover the timeless themes of humanity and inhumanity and make them resonate in these times. They had to stay in character and throw themselves into their roles in order for the audience to suspend disbelief. They had to work together as a cast to spur the play forward and spin the web of tragedy. And they had to take in stride any unexpected glitches that happened in the course of the performance.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival takes pride in its mission of inclusivity, meaning that characters of a traditional gender or race or nationality or age are often played against type. The macho, hotheaded character Hotspur, for example, in the Ashland productions of “Henry IV, Parts I and II,” was unexpectedly and brilliantly played by a woman. The production of “Hamlet,” performed in a male prison, necessarily resurrected the Shakespearean custom of male actors braving the roles of women. A floor mop recreated the beautiful Ophelia’s tresses, and Queen Gertrude’s tin foil crown encircled a buzz-cut head. The beauty of Shakespeare is that it can be reinterpreted and re-imagined throughout time and in any space. It can even rehabilitate.
Tickets to professional theater productions can be costly (we splurged our whole federal tax refund in Ashland), but I believe a good play is worth saving up for. And sometimes, a production filled with huge heart and soul is free of charge. In between, a theatergoer can find many plays performed by universities, high schools, community theaters, dinner theaters, regional theaters, traveling troupes and small nonprofits. Go see them! Fall under the spell! You may find that Shakespeare lives, and that live theater is a manifestation of pure love.