story: Jim Dyar
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland annually attracts some 125,000 people to its 11-show season, which runs from February through October. If you’ve ever been one of those attendees, you’ve experienced the creations of Richard L. Hay.
The Tony Award-winning festival, established in 1935, is dedicating its current season to Hay, the man who designed all three of the OSF’s active theater spaces. He’s also created the scenic designs for 229 productions at OSF over the span of 52 seasons. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Elizabethan Stage, the 1,190-seat gem designed by Hay and completed in 1959. It’s the oldest existing full-scale Elizabethan stage in the Western Hemisphere.
Hay “is still an unstoppable creative force,” wrote OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch in the playbill festival guide for the 2009 season. “With this season of plays, we have aspired to create a kaleidoscope of classic and new work that reflects Richard’s life-long love of our art form, his visionary artistry and his deep commitment to our company and audience.”
In the late ‘50s, Hay tried to capture the dimensions and look of the legendary Globe Theater in London, where Shakespeare himself produced plays in the 16th century.
“At that time, there wasn’t the amount of reliable research on what the Elizabethan Stage would have been like,” says the 80-year-old Hay. “Since the ‘60s, there’s been incredible amounts of information (discovered) on what the Globe and Rose theaters might have been like.”
Still, there haven’t been many complaints about the outdoor theater experience at OSF, which operates on a $24 million budget and employs 450 theater professionals. In 2003, Time magazine called OSF one of the top five regional theaters in the United States.
Indeed, the festival has grown from being an August-only affair to a season which spans the majority of the year. Hay went on to design the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre in 1970, the (now retired) Black Swan in 1977 and the 360-seat New Theatre in 2001. He designed the theater segments of the buildings and worked with architects who completed the rest of the amenities, like the lobbies and bathrooms.
Over the years, he’s also been the festival’s mainstay scenic designer. Of his 229 productions at OSF, he’s designed 114 works by Shakespeare, including the entire canon of the Bard. This season, he created the design for Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” in the New Theatre (March 25-Nov. 1), and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s “Don Quixote,” which opens June 3 on the Elizabethan Stage.
“I can’t think of doing anything else,” Hay says. “It’s been a lifelong learning process. Every show involves research into the place and time and elements that you otherwise might not pay attention to.”
Some directors have a clear idea what they want sets and effects to look like. Others have no idea and lean heavily on Hay. Either way, it’s a process of problem solving and collaboration that Hay has treasured.
“The main joy comes when the performance comes and the actors are on it and using it, and using it well,” Hay says. “It’s necessary to keep the actors in mind all the time.”
In addition to the two shows Hay has designed, OSF is also presenting Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” (through Nov. 1); Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman” (through July 5); Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (through Nov. 1); the world premiere of Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” (through Oct. 31); and Clifford Odets’s “Paradise Lost” (July 22-Oct. 31), all in the Angus Bowmer. Sarah Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” (through June 19) and Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” (June 30-Nov. 1) are appearing in the New Theatre.
In addition to “Don Quixote,” the outdoor season on the Elizabethan Stage will feature Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” opening June 2, and “Much Ado About Nothing” opening June 4. The outdoor season runs through early October.
Total attendance at OSF in 2008 was 400,851 (most visitors see an average of three shows), and the festival estimates that its economic impact on the state of Oregon was $168 million in 2008. It’s quite an endeavor that Hay has dedicated his life to.
“If I’m traveling, I try to emphasize how interesting a town Ashland is for vacationing,” Hay says. “We offer a big menu of plays and you don’t have to be an aficionado of Shakespeare to enjoy them.”