Ashland onstage

The West's most famous theater town will still surprise you

Mt. Ashland Inn

Mt. Ashland Inn

David Zaitz

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It's a late-summer night's dream: Dancers whirl to music that's part Renaissance and part rock and roll, while an audience gathers, delighted with the show before them, anticipating the more formal theater to come. This is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Green Show, which runs each night before the festival's evening performances. It's one of the spectacles that make experiencing theater here better than just about anyplace else in the country.

"Here" is Ashland―the West's Stratford-upon-Avon moved to the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon. Even if you've attended theater in Ashland often, even if you think you know the town well, visit this year and you will probably be surprised. Increasingly diverse and sophisticated, Ashland in 2005 has a lot of secrets up its ruffled Elizabethan sleeves.

The Green Show has its charms, but it was Shakespeare―specifically, Two Gentlemen of Verona―that clinched it for Kimberley Barry. She was a 19-year-old English major when she first visited Ashland 31 years ago to see some plays. "I know this sounds corny," she says from her sun-colored nook of an office overlooking Lithia Park, "but it changed my life. To see and hear the language―it was just transforming."

Today Barry is production stage manager of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the most famous of Ashland's growing roster of theater companies.

Ashland does seem to have the power to change people's lives. But the town, too, has changed. Not so long ago, it was a quaint-hip college town.

Today it's less quaint and more glamorous. Some 120,000 people come here every year specifically to attend plays. Downtown holds 30 art galleries. And Ashland restaurants like Amuse pique the attention of food critics nationwide.

"Ashland used to have this rustic feel to it," Barry reminisces. "I don't think anyone would call it rustic anymore."



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