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OSW lives on the edge

Wh at Peter Alzado has in mind is off-Broadway-style theater in a small town in Oregon. It's easier said than done. In the 31/2 years since Alzado opened Oregon Stage Works in a remodeled steel works in Ashland, the house has often been half-empty, or half-full, depending on how you look at it.

"To do my theater, it's very prohibitive without a lot of support," Alzado says. "If we're dedicated to classical American works, a literate theater, that kind of goes against the conventional wisdom of what works, which is to do a lot of popular entertainment."

OSW focuses on challenging, sometimes edgy works, along with the occasional popular piece such as the recent "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the current "Holiday Memories."

OSW has been building an audience, slowly, while trying to do Alzado's kind of theater.

"It's hard to put people in seats," says Rochelle Sevitt, who came to OSW fresh from South Coast Repertory in Orange County, Calif., and now sits on its board. "But I think if you do what you do well, people will find you."

Sevitt says one or two "crowd-pleasers" a year are enough.

Alzado opened a $150,000, 100-seat theater in Ashland's A Street Market Place in June 2004 with two plays running in repertory: Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and "Panama" by the little-known American playwright Mike Folie. The choices showed a willingness to mix gold-standard modern classics with the new and unknown. Attendance is up about 50 percent since the opening year.

One of those who came was Sevitt, who showed up to see OSW's production of Michael Frayn's challenging "Copenhagen."

"I knew right then I'd found a home," she says.

Still, there are questions about Alzado's vision.

"I don't know if a theater can stay true to doing just this certain kind of thing and be financially successful in this environment," says Brandy Carson, a veteran actor who has performed in several OSW plays.

"Even Shakespeare," she says, meaning the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the nation's largest and most successful theaters, "does a lot of crowd-pleasers."

OSW in its first year had an influx of $45,000 contributed by members, foundations and patrons, followed by a second-year drop-off as Alzado concentrated on putting on plays. Giving has increased again, to $35,500 in contributed income this year. The budget grew about 10 percent this year, to $210,270.

When he wasn't directing plays, acting in them or tending to the business end of the theater, Alzado wrote grants — all in addition to a full-time day job selling cars.

"The most frustrating thing is that I'm not able to get on stage," he says.

In the year after OSW's opening, Alzado drew $1,000 in compensation. Although entitled to a salary under his contract, he says he often doesn't draw it.

"It would be nice to be paid enough not to have a day job," he says.

Nearby Camelot Theatre, with the same capacity as OSW, has full-time positions for both artistic direction and management.

OSW has a lease good for a dozen years, but it's a hefty nut. Rent on the theater and an adjacent office is $3,000, and utilities add another $1,000.

"And that's half the going rate in Ashland," he says of the rent.

Alzado acted on Broadway and on TV soaps, taught acting at Long Island University and The University of Rochester and was artistic director of Actors' Theatre in Talent, Camelot's predecessor, for five years. OSW was born in late 2002 when Alzado's contract as artistic director of Actors' Theatre was not renewed by the theater's board.

Some members didn't like Alzado's choices, such as David Mamet's "American Buffalo" and Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive." They demanded the power to review and approve plays. Other members dissented, adding that such arrangements are rare, and seldom successful.

Alzado left, gathered supporters and founded OSW, putting on plays where he could. There were plays in the Ashland Springs Hotel, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's old Black Swan Theatre and even the Black Sheep restaurant and pub. OSW produced six plays its first season. It's done "Lettice and Lovage" by Peter Shaffer, "Proof" by David Auburn, "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerance and "Orphans" by Lyle Kessler. There were seven plays last year, eight this season.

"We have devoted followers," Alzado says. "We just need more of them."

One solution may be a more aggressive fundraising effort. OSW has received grants of $5,000 to $12,000 from the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Carpenter Foundation and the Gardner-Grout Foundation. A group of OSW volunteers led by Sharon Javna of Ashland is seeking a major, three-year grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust.

"What we're going for is salary for a full-time position for fundraising, marketing, management and public relations," Javna says. "Then Peter could focus on the artistic part."

The grant would ratchet down for three years, she says. By then the theater would hope to be able to keep and pay for the position.

There is still the crowd-pleasing question. Coming plays include not one but two musicals, although Alzado points out that one ("Tales of Fannie Keenan Better Known as Dora Hand") is original, and the other ("The Great American Trailer Park Musical") is certifiably fringy. The season also includes the acclaimed "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Sevitt is convinced OSW is on the right track.

"When you see a play that's revealing of the human condition, you leave feeling good," she says.

Ultimately, Alzado would like to have a permanent company of actors and technicians in residence.

"It's a stronger way of having a theater," he says. "This way doesn't allow a skill level to develop. A lot of people in the theater don't see the importance of training for an actor. It's a craft of extreme discipline. Our volunteers are stable, but actors and directors come and go."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Peter Alzado is artistic director of Oregon Stage Works in Ashland. His offerings of edgy, literate works are slowly drawing an audience, but the house is often still only half-full. - Jamie Lusch