Richard Hay had to wait awhile for his second "Richard III."
Hay, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's senior scenic and stage designer, created the set for the production of "Richard III" that kicks off OSF's 2014 outdoor season tonight. The last time he designed the play for OSF was 1956.
"It took a long time to come around again," Hay says. "I got skipped over five times. I thought I was never going to do it again."
With his second "Richard III," Hay has now designed a set for every play in the Shakespeare canon at least twice. He says he doesn't know of anybody else who can make a similar claim, or how anybody would go about researching such a thing. The feat has been submitted to Guinness World Records.
That's counting the 36 plays in the 1623 First Folio as canonical, plus "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," which was published in a quarto in 1609 and is often considered a collaboration between Shakespeare and an inferior writer (some authorities consider "The Two Noble Kinsmen" part of the canon, but OSF does not).
Hay says he prefers designing for OSF's three stages in reverse order of their age.
"I've worked for so many years on the Elizabethan stage that I would prefer not to do any more shows out there," Hay says. "I've also done a lot in the Bowmer, so for me, the Thomas is the new adventure."
Hay had been studying architecture and drama at Stanford University in 1950 when another student, Bill Patton, talked him into going north to Oregon for the summer to work in the little Shakespeare theater in Ashland founded by Angus Bowmer, who'd also been doing work on a doctorate at Stanford. The boys made ends meet that first summer (the pay was zero) by selling fireworks in Medford. Patton became the festival's general manager three years later, and Hay the festival's designer and technical director.
In his more than 60 years in the theater, Hay created the design or was the principal influence for all three of OSF's theaters. He's also designed such theaters as the new Old Globe in San Diego and The Source and Space theaters in Denver.
He has designed nearly 250 productions for the festival, as well as productions for the Denver Center Theatre Company, Portland Center Stage, the Mark Taper Forum, American Conservatory Theater, the Old Globe, Berkeley Rep, the Guthrie Theater, the Kennedy Center and others. He says he doesn't approach designing a Shakespeare play any differently than a contemporary work.
"They all require the same process," he says. "Understanding the story, the requirements of action. Finding a solution within the director's concept, which is all-important."
He says the actions of a modern play are typically more specific in their requirements, because Shakespeare did not often include the minutiae of everyday life in his plays.
When people ask him about designing a Shakespeare play over and over, he has a simple answer: "I say I'm working with a different director. He wants a different production."
Directors say there is no such thing as a distinctive Richard Hay style, that he accommodates his ideas to the director's overall concept of the play. Hay says that's a pretty good description.
He names Jerry Turner, OSF's first artistic director, as a director he particularly enjoyed working with.
"I won't say it was fun," he says. "But it was very enjoyable and interesting and worthwhile."
For many years the festival's productions were costumed in the period in which a play was set. That changed — a sign of the times — in a 1988 production of "Twelfth Night" with a 19th-century English music hall setting (James Bundy, who directed this year's "Richard III" played Feste in the production).
Hay says designing for Allen Elizabethan Theatre presents some unique challenges. That's because while the Bowmer is a fairly neutral performance space, the big outdoor stage with its massive Elizabethan/Jacobean personality is what Hay calls "very present."
"One has to decide how one is going to interact with it, or do your best to ignore it," he says. "It's hard to do. It's very much there all the time."
The more intimate Thomas, with its different sight lines and different relationships of the audience to the playing space, presents still other sets of challenges, he says.
One of the most difficult problems Hay remembers involving a set came up with the tomb scene in a "Romeo and Juliet" produced on the outdoor stage. The problem was to get the actors downstage enough to be accessible to the audience.
To solve that, Hay devised what he called the slip stage, a center section that went up and down and could thrust actors and props from beneath the stage into view. Used in many shows over the years, the thing is still around, but it's been rebuilt and had a motor added to replace the old hand crank.
Hay says if he were designing the Bowmer today, he'd want to put a fly loft over the stage to fly in sets, money permitting.
"It was built on a really tight budget," he says.
Among his favorite Shakespeare sets he's designed are a 2001 "Troilus and Cressida" on the Elizabethan Stage that included spiral staircases, and a 1989 "Pericles" for which the set was a ship with a great collection of sails painted in various patterns.
His least favorite was the "Macbeth" that inaugurated the Thomas, then called the New Theatre, at the start of the 2002 season. The set was dominated by a large pool of what was supposed to be blood.
He says the biggest change he's seen over the years is that sets and props have become more abstract and less realistic. He says audiences are more accepting now of designers using symbols of reality rather than complete representations.
Technology is also changing the face of theater. There have been amazing improvements in stage lighting over the past decade or two, Hay says. Another important change involves the increased use of projections, which have already evolved from 35-millimeter slides to sophisticated video.
No matter how many times he's worked on a play, Hay always rereads it from scratch. He often goes back to see a play he's designed, long after the opening. If he decides he's made a mistake, it's too late to do anything about it for that play. But there's always the next time.
"If you remember bad solutions," he says, "you won't do that again."
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The "Twelfth Night" production date has been corrected in this version.