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All the world's a stage

The audience was silent as the actor playing Duke Orsino spoke: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was underway, and Act 1, Scene 1 of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland had begun.

Officially born July 2, 1935, the festival two days later presented the same play again and, in between, performed “The Merchant of Venice,” both directed by Angus Livingston Bowmer, an English professor who, in 1931, had come to the Southern Oregon Normal School, today’s Southern Oregon University.

Born in 1904, Bowmer was the son of Charles Bowmer and the grandson of Harry L. Bowmer, both printers and newspaper publishers in Washington state. With an old hand press, a few fonts of type, a bottle of printer’s ink, and a few reams of newsprint, Harry had started several papers throughout the Northwest.

Business was a family affair. Harry’s wife, Minnie, set type while keeping the home fires burning, and prepared an occasional snack for lunch. Harry gathered the news and sold advertising. Charles and his wife, Flora, were the editorial staff, and, when he wasn’t studying or playing with his friends, young Angus was the press boy.

Angus graduated from what is now Western Washington University in 1923 and began teaching.

While continuing his studies at the University of Washington, he met Ben Iden Payne, a noted English Shakespearean actor and director who gets credit for influencing nearly all modern productions of Shakespeare. No one had a greater influence on Angus.

Not long after he began teaching at SOU, Angus got an idea.

Looking at the remnants of the curved lower wall that once supported the two bubbly white domes of the Chautauqua building in Lithia Park, his thoughts turned to Shakespeare.

“The dome had just been taken off,” Angus told a reporter, “and it gave me the impression of a 16th century sketch of the Globe Theater. I got excited about the possibility of producing a Shakespearean work there.”

In the midst of the Depression, the local economy was hard hit, and Angus decided a festival rather than a single play would bring in tourist dollars over a longer period of time and best help the community.

With a grant of less than $400 from the city of Ashland and assistance from the State Emergency Relief Administration, he built a stage within the old Chautauqua shell, began to advertise, and launched the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“True to the Shakespearian style, very little scenery will be used,” the Mail Tribune said. “Most of the play will hinge upon the brilliantly colored costumes of the Elizabethan period.”

The annual festival was cut short after a 1940 fire and the outbreak of WWII. Angus enlisted in the Army, putting return of the festival in doubt. However, in 1947, he and the festival were back on stage.

Over the following years more performances were added, and soon the company was branching out into non-Shakespearian plays.

In 1970, as Angus Bowmer was about to retire after being a professor at the university for 39 years, a 600-seat theater was built and named in his honor.

He had directed 30 productions, performed 32 Shakespearean roles, and, in 1958, could finally claim that OSF had produced all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, the last being “Troilus and Cressida.”

“Perhaps one reason why the festival has been able to grow,” wrote Bowmer in 1952, “is the fact that it has had one primary purpose — public entertainment.”

On May 26, 1979, Angus Bowmer died, leaving a legacy that continues to grow ever stronger.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.