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OSF treasure hunt

More than 80 years of Shakespeare history in Southern Oregon soon will be at the public’s fingertips.

Online access to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival archives could preview as early as this summer. The "microsite" of www.osfashland.org is envisioned as a more “vibrant” experience than expected of traditional archives, says Randolph Jones, OSF’s digital content manager. The project, he says, likely will be completed early next year.

“Imagine searching … for ticket information about ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and being able to browse a photo gallery and listen to archival audio of past performances,” says Jones. “Being able to draw on a rich collection of digital material about past performances will allow us to reacquaint our audience with certain works of Shakespeare and other classics.”

Digitizing OSF’s audiovisual archives has been a three-year effort, backed by a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Public access was among the grant criteria, says lead archivist Maria DeWeerdt, adding that she couldn’t locate another theater in the country that specializes in Shakespeare and links its archives to the Internet.

“If you’re a Shakespearean enthusiast, it’s going to be a very, very rich source.”

Radio broadcasts from the ’40s, films from the ’50s, recordings of actor interviews and behind-the-scenes footage all are likely to be popular, says DeWeerdt. Shakespeare scholars and longtime festival members will delight in the home movies of OSF founder Angus Bowmer engaged in stage-fighting and arrayed in some of the earliest costumes, she adds.

“I have a theory that people like history more than they think they do,” she says.

In the 1930s at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University), Bowmer was an enthusiastic, young teacher who proposed staging plays on the former site of Ashland’s Chautauqua building. The dome-covered structure hosted entertainment and cultural lectures from 1917 until its 1933 demolition, which spared the cement walls, still standing today.

Recalling sketches he had seen of Elizabethan theaters, Bowmer noted the Chautauqua walls’ resemblance and potential as the foundation for a “festival” of two plays in concert with the city of Ashland’s annual Fourth of July celebration. City officials skeptically advanced Bowmer a sum “not to exceed $400” for the project. Funds furnished by the SERA (State Economic Recovery Act) paid a construction crew to build the stage and improve the former Chautauqua grounds.

OSF officially debuted July 2, 1935, with a production of “Twelfth Night,” followed July 3 by “The Merchant of Venice” and a July 4 encore of “Twelfth Night.” Adults paid 50 cents for general admission, children 25 cents; reserved seats cost $1. Ticket sales more than covered expenses for the festival, which also absorbed losses from the city-sanctioned boxing matches held onstage during the day.

Documenting those earliest days of OSF, several scrapbooks are among the “treasures” in the archives collection, says DeWeerdt. Black-and-white snapshots mounted in the circa-1937 scrapbook of costumer Frances Schilling depict rehearsals, excursions to Crater Lake and picnics on Neil Creek.

“It was a fun crew,” says DeWeerdt, leafing through the pages. “It wasn’t stodgy Shakespeare.”

Classical interpretations of Shakespeare, however, held sway during OSF’s first few decades. Elizabethan costumes are prominent in the archives’ approximately 250,000 photos and negatives, which constitute about 15 percent of the collection and are DeWeerdt’s next priority for digitization. Most of the requests that OSF archivists field, she says, are for photos from past productions.

“When it comes down to it, a picture really is worth a thousand words, because it contains so much information,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of excellent backstage photos, as well.”

The inner workings of each production are revealed in prompt books, aka the stage managers’ scripts, dating to the late 1930s. Official publications, such as souvenir programs, were saved from the festival’s genesis, says DeWeerdt. Along with a “very robust collection of newspaper clippings,” she says, the archives contain a variety of organizational documents and records, including Angus Bowmer’s family papers.

“It’s like a treasure hunt every day for me,” says DeWeerdt.

Still other portfolios contain fabric swatches, patterns and drawings from the costume shop, she says. And an entire room, she adds, is filled with models created by the scenic design department, which also has saved every drawing during the 65-year tenure of Richard Hay, OSF’s senior scenic and stage designer.

“Most of what we have in here is paper,” says DeWeerdt, explaining that the medium is a fairly reliable means of preservation, particularly inside a box and stored correctly.

Far more fragile are the archives’ reel-to-reel tapes, 8 mm and 16 mm films and videos deemed “at-risk” under the NEH grant. Three-quarters of the 2,655 obsolete audiovisual materials were in various stages of deterioration and generally unusable when NEH awarded the grant in 2013.

Digitizing entails shipping items to a Pennsylvania company, which also restores the original in some instances, then ships them back. Grant funds covered the transfer of half of OSF’s audiovisual collection to digital storage, says DeWeerdt.

“It’s expensive to digitize.”

About $10,000 has been allocated annually, says DeWeerdt, to finish the job at a rate of about 60 pieces per year. Waiting their turn are films just “rattling around in cans” and lacking reels needed to play them. The adhesive used for splicing sections of film is failing, and the magnetic coating on tapes is flaking off, she adds.

“A lot of the editing is falling apart,” she says. “A lot of it doesn’t have much more time.”

More than 100 digital recordings already have been uploaded to YouTube. Search OSF Archives playlists to hear and view clips from the entire Shakespeare canon.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.