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Richard Hay’s OSF legacy can be seen everywhere

Richard Hay works in his design studio. He designed theaters and stage sets during 63 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

When Richard Hay accepted an invitation from Stanford University pal and lighting designer Bill Patton to come to Ashland in the late 1940s for a summer job at the nascent Oregon Shakespeare Festival, they both were unpaid staff. So Hay designed and built a stand where they sold fireworks to support themselves.

Patton, who died in 2011, went on to serve as general manager and later as executive director for the festival before retiring in 1995.

Hay became a designer and builder of things much more ambitious than the fireworks stand he cobbled together that summer long ago.

In 63 seasons at OSF, he was the principal influence or created the design for all festival theaters, and designed 246 productions, including the entire Shakespeare canon twice.

In addition, he worked in design and scenography for more than a dozen other theaters and organizations.

Hay, 92, was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology.

Hay didn’t grow up in an artistic family, but there must have been an artistic strand in his DNA.

When he was 7 years old, he attended a variety show performance at the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita, Kansas, and was struck by the stage effects.

When the curtain rose, dancing girls came filing onstage in front of a semi-circular arcade as the band played. The last girl tripped and jostled some of the scenery.

“What I had perceived as an arch was revealed in that moment to be just a painted perspective,” Hay said.

It was a wow moment for a boy who would one day become a famous set designer.

He was making model stages when he was in middle school.

“I played the lead in my middle school play, and did the set decorations,” he said. “My designing in high school consisted of rearranging a stock set of flats.”

Even in college early on, the theater was not front and center. He studied civil engineering and architecture in his undergraduate years at Stanford University, but he also found time to follow his design interests.

“I was always involved in productions,” he said, “working backstage in the scene shop or designing student productions.”

It was enough to convince him where his future lay, so he went to graduate school at Stanford and earned a master’s degree in theater arts. When he taught for the department of drama there, he began honing his design skills.

Hay knew Angus Bowmer from Bowmer’s days of graduate work at Stanford. It was another reason he was drawn to Ashland and OSF.

“I remember my first meeting with Angus at his home,” Hay recalls. “He was sitting at the end of a very long carpet runner, which I had to traverse with trepidation to meet him.

“Angus willed that runner to me, which is in my house. I think of him when I walk it daily,” he said.

While Hay’s long career focused mostly on stage and set design, the few theaters he designed figure prominently in his legacy.

OSF has had three iterations of the Elizabethan outdoor theater, all of them on the site of the old Chautauqua domes, of which there also were three.

When Bowmer started the festival in the summer of 1935, a stage with an Elizabethan façade was built in connection with the city of Ashland’s Fourth of July celebration, funded largely through the WPA. Bowmer provided a rough sketch for the construction manager, using a design by John Ashby Conway.

A fire destroyed it in 1940. After World War II, the city asked Bowmer to restart the festival, and a new stage was built from plans also drawn by Conway.

It was demolished in 1958 at the end of the season because the fire marshal deemed it a fire hazard. That’s when Hay stepped in, already with several years of design experience under his belt at OSF.

Hay began by having the 1947 stage razed and the old Chautauqua wall that encircled it removed. His plan required a semi-octagonal footing, not a circular one.

Hay’s design for the new Elizabethan incorporated the dimensions of the 1559 Fortune Theatre, contemporary with Shakespeare’s Globe and located near where the modern Globe is today in London.

In 1991, the Elizabethan underwent a major refurbishment, with Hay as a design consultant.

Hay’s imprint on OSF’s infrastructure was complete with his designs for the Bowmer and the Thomas theaters. He also designed two theaters for the Old Globe in San Diego, and for other theaters where he worked. “I design the yoke, and an architect designs the shell,” he said.

Hay has worked with many directors, sound designers and lighting designers during his OSF career. Collaboration to achieve the best set design is a two-way street.

“I listen to and question the director,” he said. “With nonvisual people, I do thumbnail sketches until I hit upon one they like.”

Dealing with practicalities is a part of solving design problems.

“Without fail, there is always a space problem when designing a set,” Hay said. “It is either too small or too large. You’re imposing a design on an existing piece of architecture.”

He remembers designing sets for the old Black Swan Theatre, an auto garage in its previous life.

“There was a large concrete column at center stage, holding up the building,” he said. “Visiting designers would complain about it — understandably. It was just something we had to work around. Having to cope with those kinds of things forces you to be creative.”

There is one question that is certainly on the minds of many of his fans: What’s the story behind Dick Hay Pie at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre?

The decadent concoction of ice cream, peanut butter filling, and chocolate ganache on a chocolate cookie crust has been on the dinner theater’s dessert menu since it opened.

“My favorite dessert was vanilla ice cream on a chocolate cookie crust, invented by my friend, Craig Hudson,” Hay said.

When Hudson opened the Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, he put the specialty on the menu and named it after its biggest fan.

It must seem like a metaphor for Hay’s long and distinguished career — multi-layered, rich and satisfying.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.