Walk through the streets of downtown Ashland on a summer afternoon and you might just start to believe it's 1998 again: In this Southern Oregon town Thai food is still novel, the arts are well funded and everywhere you look you see gray-haired yuppies happily driving enormous SUVs.
Every summer 110,000 theater lovers travel at least 125 miles apiece to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Northwest's finest professional theater company. Almost all—93 percent of them, according to the Festival's audience survey—drive. And judging by the contents of Festival parking lots, about half are making the trip in minivans and SUVs.
The summer trek to Ashland to take in Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night at the Festival's open-air Elizabethan theater is an annual tradition for many families in Oregon and California. It's always been a luxury—the tickets aren't cheap—but when gas was under $2 a gallon, it was a manageable one. These days, the opportunity cost of taking in a show is shockingly high: A Portlander driving, say, a 2003 Toyota Corolla, can expect to shell out $75 for gas, $28 for a night at the Ashland Hostel and $20 for the cheapest ticket—a total of $123, up $20 for gas alone since last year.
For many attendees the trip is worthwhile at any price. "We normally drive once a year to Ashland," says Walter Jaffe, Co-Founder of White Bird Dance, "and the price of gas won't make a difference." But given the number of Craigslist posters looking for passengers from Portland to Ashland—seven in the last week—some drivers are feeling squeezed.
Alternative transportation isn't really an option. Greyhound ($81 round trip) only stops in Medford, 10 miles up I-5, and Amtrak offers a 30-hour trip, by way of Sacramento, for the bargain price of $338.
And this is a problem. While Amy Richard, the Festival's director of media relations, says attendance so far is up 2 percent from this time last year, gas prices aren't expected to drop any time soon. The audience members most likely to be dissuaded from attending by the high cost of driving are a demographic the festival sorely needs: young people and families with children.
Although OSF, which was founded in 1935, has grown increasingly diverse in its marketing and programming of late—including discounted nights for theatergoers under 35 and a just-announced series of new play commissions on the theme of "American Revolutions" by cutting-edge playwrights like Naomi Wallace and Susan-Lori Parks—the median age of its audience rose from 48 to 58 between 1991 and 2007. And without an influx of young viewers, the 74-year-old Festival is in danger of becoming yet another playground for wealthy retirees, doomed to wither and die as its membership grows steadily older.
There's another, hidden price to pay when we make the drive to Ashland. If each of those drivers travels just 125 miles in a midsize car—a gross underestimate of actual distance traveled—trips to Ashland produce around 4,700 metric tons of CO2, according to the formula provided by climate change solution nonprofit Climate Trust. That's equivalent to the amount produced by about 930 average drivers in a whole year, and would cost over $56,000 to offset.
The festival, which has already taken a step toward energy independence by installing solar panels on some of its buildings in 2000, doesn't currently have a plan for reducing the carbon footprint of audience travel. Executive Director Paul Nicholson says, within five years, he hopes to reduce the festival's water consumption by 10 percent, its energy consumption and waste by 20 percent, and incorporate green-building practices in every building and reconstruction the festival undertakes.
Without help from Amtrak, sustainably minded Shakespeare fans will be stuck looking for a horse. A horse. My Escalade for a horse.
IS OREGON SHAKESPEARE FEST WORTH THE PETROL?
Still weighing the pros and cons of making the Ashland trip? Let WW be thine guide to a few of this season's OSF offerings. —BW
Director Laird Williams takes one of Shakespeare's most difficult tragedies—steeped in Roman history, military machismo and political philosophy—and gives it a startlingly intimate, gripping and downright flashy treatment. Think "Mr. Rambo Goes to Washington," and you get the general idea. This is the festival at its very finest.
Worth it? Absolutely. This play is performed so rarely that you're unlikely to ever see another production of this caliber.
The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler
This metacomedy by Tony-winner (Avenue Q) and Oregon boy (Coos Bay) Jeff Whitty is very, very witty: Quick-witted Hedda Gabler wakes up after the suicidal finale of Ibsen's play and sets out to rewrite her story, slumming with quip-spouting, SNL-style stereotypes and making pithy observations about the nature of storytelling on the way. Ugh. Bill Rauch's production is very nicely designed and acted, but this script doesn't deserve it.
Worth it? Nah.
The first English drama about interracial marriage is great reading, but it takes a lot to hold the audience's attention for more than three hours. Lisa Peterson's gothy-renaissance production, despite a thrilling performance by Dan Donohue as the villainous Iago, some lovely blocking and a score reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica, doesn't quite manage it.
Worth it? Only to true bardolaters.
Everybody loves to hate Thornton Wilder's small-town tragicomedy, probably because it tends to get performed by church groups and middle schools. But as Spalding Gray could tell you, there's a lot more to this play than you remember. Director Chay Yew and stage manager Anthony Heald downplay Wilder's whimsy in favor of a celebratory empathy. It's an excellent production and a nice antidote to the shocking inhumanity of Coriolanus.
Worth it? Unless you really can't stand folksy cheer, absolutely.
Also playing this season: The Comedy of Errors, Fences, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Clay Cart, A View from the Bridge and Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, S Pioneer St., Ashland, 541-482-4331, osfashland.org. 2 and 8:30 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 1:30 and 8 pm Sunday. $20-$81. Read more about this year's shows at wweek.com/wwire.