Cabaret in church
It's the Oregon Shakespeare Festival―which celebrates its 70th birthday this year with productions of Shakespeare and August Wilson, among others―that put Ashland on the map. But one sign of the new Ashland is that theater options now extend beyond OSF. Drawn by the town's rep, other actors and crews perform in small venues around town. OSF alumni start new projects on their own. As a result, upstart theater companies have brought in an even greater richness―and year-round performance opportunities. Oregon Cabaret Theatre stages musicals, revues, and comedies in a nightclub-style theater crafted from a former Baptist church. Founded in 2002, Oregon Stage Works has its home in the reviving Railroad District; it focuses on works by American playwrights.
Still, for all the newfound sophistication, it's not hard to find places where the earlier character shines through. Ashland's lithium-infused springwaters were prized by Native Americans and, later, white vacationers for their purported medicinal qualities: The sulphuric water still bubbles out of a fountain in the town's central square, Lithia Plaza. Nearby, the Lithia Artisans Market, open weekends through October, preserves Ashland's counterculture spirit with vendors selling art, clothing, jewelry, and items for the home.
It's the mix of old and new, homespun and sophisticated, that makes the place work―for residents and visitors too. "I love living here," says Jim Giancarlo, who first came to Ashland to dance at the Shakespeare festival, then left the festival to help launch Oregon Cabaret Theatre. "I feel safe, unhassled. It has all the charm and ease of a small town, but it's much more sophisticated than other small towns."
Meanwhile, back at the OSF courtyard, the Terra Nova Consort and Dance Kaleidoscope are wrapping up the night's Green Show. It's time for Twelfth Night or Room Service, or maybe time to head over to see cabaret and, later, mingle with actors offstage at Martino's Lounge. There are almost too many ways to have a great night. But that's Ashland.