ASHLAND — As the Oregon Shakespeare Festival prepares to open its outdoor theater, tickets sales are up 8 percent over the same time last year, suggesting the possibility of another record season.

ASHLAND — As the Oregon Shakespeare Festival prepares to open its outdoor theater, tickets sales are up 8 percent over the same time last year, suggesting the possibility of another record season.

In its first 14 weeks, the festival has sold 7,500 more tickets than last year, OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson said Wednesday.

"I've been here for 30 years and I've never seen a spring like this one," he said. "We're hopeful that the trend will continue. Last year was very strong on the outdoor stage and we're hoping that this year will be just as strong, if not stronger."

The Elizabethan Theatre opens Tuesday, when "Twelfth Night" begins previews. Preview performances of "Henry IV, Part One" and "The Merchant of Venice" begin Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. The shows open June 11 through 13. Advance ticket sales show the festival's entire season is up 3 percent over last year, as OSF already has sold 10,000 more tickets than at this time in 2009, Nicholson said.

"Of course last year was a record season, so it's pretty amazing," he said.

Last season, OSF saw the highest attendance and revenue in its then 74-year history. The 410,034 festival attendees brought in $17.01 million.

The festival budgeted for a 6 percent drop in ticket sales this year, due to economic uncertainties, Nicholson said.

The two theaters with plays running, the Angus Bowmer Theatre and the New Theatre, have averaged 96 and 92 percent capacity, respectively, Nicholson said.

For the past three weeks, both theaters have played to 99 percent capacity crowds, on average, he said. Next week, ticket prices will increase for the summer season.

"The demand is extremely strong," he said. "People want to see the work and they know the prices go up in the summer. This week is the last week until the fall when they can get those prices." Advance ticket sales for the Elizabethan Theatre are up about 3 percent over this time last year, he said.

"It appears at the moment, from our numbers, that the outdoor season is being seen by our patrons as slightly more accessible than last year," he said.

"Hamlet," in the Bowmer Theatre, has sold the most tickets so far, Nicholson said. Advance ticket sales show "Twelfth Night" also will be popular, he said.

Tickets are still readily available for all plays except "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which closes on July 4.

The festival has included money in its budget to give salary increases to its company members, but will dole out the raises only if revenues are high enough. Nicholson is meeting with other festival officials next week to discuss the raises and possibly make a decision about them, he said.

As of Wednesday, the festival had presented 221 performances, out of the 766 scheduled for the entire season.

Nicholson declined to speculate on whether OSF will break its revenue record, set last season.

"If you'd asked me this 10 years ago, I'd have given you a straight prediction," he said. "Things change so quickly these days. There's much less certainty in the markets than there used to be, so it's much more difficult to make predictions — but I'm very hopeful."

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.