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Shows what we know: Plays not for everyone

Who doesn't attend an OSF show in Oregon's mecca of theatergoing?
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Susan Kenney Newman walks past the Shakespeare Festival Welcome and Education Centers Wednesday on Main Street. Ashland’s reputation as a theatergoer’s paradise is lost on those who’ve never attended an Oregon Shakespeare Festival show.Julia Moore
 Posted: 2:00 AM December 06, 2012

When Nick Medinger travels and mentions that he works in Ashland, he is asked the same question: How often do you attend Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays?

His answer: "Oh, never."

The 35-year-old is among the locals who ride past the fluttering red Victorian flags, overhear amateur critics on the street and watch friends go off to see a comedy, drama or musical, year after year, and yet have no desire to buy a ticket.

They are not alone. Nationally, only 1 in 10 people attends a theatrical performance. But Ashland is different. People move here because of the Shakespeare festival.

Adding to the allure of the spotlights is that locals are offered special discounts. With performances spread across 11 months this past season, they had 780 opportunities to buy a seat for as little as $21.

Sometimes, outside pressure pushes reluctant theatergoers into the audience. Parents are asked to accompany their Ashland school student to required viewings, making it difficult to avoid the festival's pull.

One 65-year-old who has lived near Emigrant Lake for a decade says he saw "The Music Man" three years ago because his son had to see it as an Ashland High School underclassman.

The father and the son haven't been in front of a stage since then. But they were there once. Some locals can't make that claim.

Yes, despite almost-unavoidable enticements, there are still theater holdouts.

Bob Hackett is OSF's marketing manager who has tracked ticket trends here for 15 years.

He said he's not surprised that some people sidestep the crowds on the Bricks, the coffeehouse buzz and even the glittering costumes in the Festival Welcome Center's display windows on Main Street, and resist getting a ticket for a show.

Hackett doesn't expect 100 percent attendance. But his statistics show that a good many locals do show up.

Ashland, on a whole, overwhelmingly supports OSF. The city's population is about one-fourth the size of Medford's, yet Ashland residents bought five times as many tickets for the season that just ended: 50,000 compared to Medford's 10,000.

People who live in Jacksonville are "steady" patrons, says Hackett, who said that for its size, Talent is also supportive, with its residents buying 3,000 tickets.

Ashland residents spent $1 million on OSF tickets this last season, an average of about $50 for every man, woman and child.

Hackett shrugs when asked why some locals don't visit their neighborhood stages. He thinks that theater, simply, is just "not their thing." Maybe they want to stay home and read a book, he says, or attend a movie or watch sports.

"That's just human behavior," he says, adding, "I have never been to the Speedway."

Medinger, who has lived in Talent since 1986 and has worked at Funagain Games in Ashland since 2003, admits he doesn't have a solid excuse for never having seen an OSF performance.

"It's ridiculous, but honestly the reason I've never been is that I have it in my head that it's something for tourists," he says. "It's like Crater Lake, in that you go once when you move here but you don't go back unless someone is visiting you and they want to go."

He wasn't required to attend a play — so he remembers — while attending Phoenix and Talent schools from the third grade through high school.

And yet the festival follows him wherever he goes.

"The only thing I hear is how good it is," he says. "I'm aware how nationally renown it is. When I travel to Europe and around the country, and if I mention I'm from Ashland, Oregon, people ask me about Shakespeare quite often."

He says he has never heard about the special pricing. "Not that I'm looking for information about it," he admits.

Susan Kenney Newman, 40, has lived in Ashland for six years but she says she's too busy to see a play. The landscaper puts in long hours in clients' gardens and, during the summer, sometimes extends her workday past curtain time.

"It's not as if I don't want to go," she says Monday afternoon while working outside. "If I go once, I would probably want to go again."

Newman, too, says she didn't know that locals can take advantage of ticket deals.

"I don't want to whine about the expense," says Newman, "but I didn't know I could buy a ticket for less."

Michael Hodgin, 38, lived in Ashland for 18 years before he buckled to the Bard last year. "Not sure what I was waiting for," he says.

OSF's Hackett says the festival tried to make it inviting for locals to attend performances this past season by offering $10 community rush tickets, Family Day matinees ($15), Flex Passes (about $24 a ticket), discounts for young adults who qualify for the age 19 to 35 Club ($25) and weekly web specials at 40 percent off full-priced tickets, which top out at about $90.

Still, he doesn't expect everyone to occupy a seat, even though special prices will only inch up a bit for the 2013 season.

He points a finger elsewhere. "There are skiers who don't ski Mount Ashland," he says. "Maybe you could do a whole series on this?"

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.


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