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2004: Thrivers, more than survivors

In 2004, Our Valley explored the notion of survivors who, against all odds, persist and thrive through the years — “All have compelling tales to tell, whether they’re trying to keep tradition, art, communication or themselves, alive.”

The issue invited readers to discover cultural touchstones, the natural world, structures and businesses that have endured and enriched our lives.

Chief among them was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a small group of incredibly talented people — in the mold of founder Angus Bowmer, 84 years ago — who found the theaters and the town of Ashland the perfect place to evolve their visions and skills, year after year.

Fifteen years later, we talked to three OSF veterans about their experiences with the company.

Tyrone Wilson

As he starts his 25th OSF season, actor Tyrone Wilson, a native New Yorker, reflects that when he got here, he viewed OSF as one of many stops in a long career that would include television, Los Angeles, Broadway — all the usual career-making opportunities.

“Obviously that changed, because I’m still here,” he says with a chuckle. “After a while, my friends and agent in New York said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a good gig. Stay there.’ Soon I had two sons being raised here, and I was saying to myself, ‘You absolutely need and want to be here.’”

So, what’s the draw?

“The festival is different than other theaters. You want to be part of this family of OSF and this community of Ashland. It’s not just a job, and it’s bigger than just being part of the festival. Both my sons were Scouts, and my oldest son is in the orchestra at Ashland High. I started a weekly hiking group, and we hike all over Southern Oregon and Northern California.”

What really surprised Wilson was when he went back “home” to New York and was visiting the 9/11 site, he was asked where he’s from and he blurted out “Oregon,” not New York.

“That’s when I knew,” he says. “I’m from here. And I’m pleased to watch how the Pacific Northwest is changing, and I think it’s a little healthier than many other places. We’re moving more toward a kind of caring for humanity more than some other places — and part of it for Ashland is this strong influence of our artistic energy. It’s moving us all in a good, positive direction.”

Is racism a thing here? “It’s less and less,” says Wilson, who is African-American. He recounts years ago being called the n-word from a truck and notes it can still happen.

At OSF, acting often goes way beyond performing a role and can be life-changing, creating a depth and bonding in the theater company, as well as the audience, he says. So it was in 2017 in “Henry IV,” when Wilson’s friend G. Valmont Thomas, dying of cancer, valiantly summoned the strength to play Falstaff, who died in the play. Understudy Wilson would often fill in and took over the role when Thomas died.

“I was there to see his final journey. I don’t think anyone will ever forget that experience and how he tried to keep up the energy — and how he hated not to be able to perform. I was there for his final transition. There is no more significant blurring of the lines between life and death. That’s what it’s all about, the temporary existence of both art and ourselves. It’s here and it’s gone. That appearance changed me. I have a different perspective on what’s important in life. That happened here in Ashland, and I can’t imagine it happening in any other place. It’s because we are family.”

Vilma Silva

Silva got offered an OSF slot in 1995 doing one show, “Blood Wedding,” then was offered a full season. She had booked other work and said no, but the festival called again and she’s been an integral part ever since.

“I was very, very lucky,” she says. “I’m still here. I have loved being part of a resident company, because you’re always growing and changing.”

Silva is a “survivor” but rejects the word, “because the process is about thriving, not surviving,” she says.

“I love being able to walk in a room and, like most people, know at least a few people in the room because of our shared history. You welcome newcomers and feel what they feel showing up on that first day. I love to be part of that energy that welcomes people to an artistic family. My husband and I made a family here.”

The OSF family is cast anew each July, as the actors are invited (or not) to join the company for another year. Actors read the plays and the artistic director asks whether they’re interested or would they rather take a break?

“I’ve been lucky enough to be invited back every season. I love Ashland. I grew up in San Francisco and am partial to cities, so I miss that energy, but I also love a place where I can walk to work, get to know Ashland people outside the theater. It’s small enough to do that. I’ve been very happy to be part of the community, do volunteering, get to know storekeepers and those who support the restaurants and are part of the ecosystem. It’s all part of the DNA of the town.”

Carol Jones

Box Office Manager Carol Jones, now in her 45th year at OSF, is the first face of the company that many see, and the greeting in her mind — and the one she trains her staff of 27 to give — is “Welcome to a wonderful experience in live theater, how can I help you?”

She reminds staff to smile when they talk, “because they can hear that smile on the phone,” especially when they’re rejiggering everything in the face of the newly challenging wildfire smoke of late summer.

Ultimately, she says, her job is about how OSF can give patrons “what we can and make it safe. We had challenges during smoke, but we worked through it and identified what we can do better as we went. Smoke has been the hardest, because it’s one of those things you can’t do much about.

“Smoke and air quality seem part of our life now. One of the biggest things was when the Bowmer Theatre beam broke (in 2011) and everyone had to work together to get the tent set up in the park. Moving plays to the Mountain Avenue Theater last year during smoke all happened so quickly, but we worked together and did it.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. You can reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Vilma Silva, right, is shown with Eduardo Enrikez in "Destiny of Desire" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2018. Photo by Jenny Graham